From the E-Mailbag…

David Carroll wrote me last week to say…

Mark, I enjoy your observations on the late-night wars. On a side note, I love your writing style. I can tell that you appreciate good language, and have a love for words. I'm afraid it's a dying art.

But back to the subject at hand: I watched Friday's episodes of Leno/Letterman. It left me a little sad at the state of the late night situation.

Leno's main guest was Craig Ferguson. I find Craig's show hit-and-miss. He's naturally funny, but he needs to be reined in now and then. On this night, he was a terrific guest. Jay's questions, as always were scripted, and he makes no attempts to hide that. Craig generally followed the segment producer's plan, telling the appropriate stories and hitting the right punch lines. The awkward part was when Craig would blurt out a spontaneous line; something he had just thought of, equally funny in the course of the conversation. Jay of course would react awkwardly as if someone had dropped something in his lap. It seems like he used to be able to roll with the punches. Now if it's off script, he seems almost annoyed. A once-mediocre conversationalist has become a a weak one.

Letterman's main guest was Seth Meyers. Again, very scripted and planned, with pre-approved stories, most of which scored. But midway through the segment, after Seth finished a bit, Letterman just looked down at the table, and muttered, "Pope? Anything there?" Just out of nowhere…in no way connected to the conversation. And then Seth launched into his handful of Pope jokes, and so on. As much as I've loved Letterman, I don't think I've seen the worst talk show hosts appear so uninterested.

"So…got anything on the Pope?" Any audience member could have read that card. It's sad to see how disengaged he has become.

As I've mentioned here many times, I lament the loss of spontaneity on talk shows. This is also becoming true of game shows, by the way. I suspect one of these days, there's going to be some big exposé published somewhere about how much control is exerted over allegedly unscripted goings-on…including editing, retakes, and the enlistment of actors — identified as having other professions — as contestants. There's a lot more of it than most people think.

However, a few folks who work on current talk shows have explained to me why there's so little that's unplanned. To some extent, it is the reluctance of the hosts to be in free-fall but there's another big reason…

Trial and error by all the talk shows has yielded a number of basic truths. Audiences, for instance, no longer like old reruns. When Mr. Carson aired old shows, he usually picked from a year-or-so back. Mssrs. Letterman, Leno, Fallon, etc. have all enjoyed higher ratings with reruns from just a few weeks before. On Fridays, Kimmel reruns bits from the preceding four days.

Audiences are no longer as wild about stand-up comedians performing and all the shows have found they need to be sparing about those. And the kind of stars the shows book — especially as the first guest — have become more important to the numbers. There are exceptions to this but for the most part, what keeps viewers tuning in and staying tuned-in is folks who are either super-megastars (there aren't enough of those) or folks who have a hot new movie or TV show (there are always plenty of those).

Just being an interesting conversationalist may make the show fun but the ratings breakdowns have convinced most of the producers that it's not enough. One of the gripes NBC execs had about Conan O'Brien on his Tonight Show was that he was booking folks like Norm MacDonald and Kevin Nealon as lead-off guests because he thought a funny segment would result…to the exclusion of someone hotter and probably younger who had a huge movie opening in two days. There were also NBC execs who thought the segments with MacDonald and Nealon weren't all that funny but the real objection was that the show could have had just about anybody and was bypassing guests who might have brought in higher numbers. I'm told that CBS thinks Letterman does a little too much of that as well.

So what does this have to do with a diminution of spontaneity and an increase in almost-scripted exchanges on talk shows? This: Most of your hot guests want it that way…or maybe it would be more accurate to say their managers and publicists want it that way. They view the guest's appearance as a vital tool in the promotion of the new movie, the new CD, the new TV show, the new whatever. They want planned questions and answers to ensure the guest comes off well and gets to say the proper things to plug the current project. It isn't always all planned out to the nth degree and like I said, there are exceptions. Craig Ferguson doesn't do much of that…which is, I suspect, why he makes a show of tearing up the notes on a guest before he starts chatting with them. He also doesn't get or maybe want many of the kind of guests that Leno and Letterman want…and he loses in the ratings to Jimmy Fallon.

One of my first jobs in show business, back in the early seventies, was writing press releases for a big-time Hollywood public relations firm. Mostly, it involved smoothing out the language of press handout bios of the clients there. Once in a while, it involved making up anecdotes for clients to tell on talk shows — sometimes, Johnny's; more often, Merv Griffin's. Actually, the performer first had to tell it to a producer or talent coordinator as part of a pre-interview. Sometimes, it was also an audition to get on the show. Sometimes, the performer was already booked and advertised. In any case, they needed a funny story to tell so I made one up or, if possible, took some true anecdote they had and polished it up a bit. There's a lot more of that now than there was then and I don't mean bogus stories. I mean an agreement before the taping as to just what the host will ask and what the guest will say (approximately) in response.

Almost all talk shows have always had pre-interviews. When Johnny said to a guest, "Someone told me you've been having some trouble with your plumbing," that meant the notes from the talent coordinator told Mr. Carson that the guest was expecting to tell an anecdote from the pre-interview about plumbing. Often, the notes included a summary of the story. Johnny might depart somewhat from the "script" and he had guests with whom almost nothing was planned (Buddy Hackett, Don Rickles, others) but most guest spots were planned out. And now, it isn't so much that the show demands it but that the guests and their managers do. And since these are for the most part, the guests the shows have learned will bring in viewers, that's the reason there isn't a lot of unplanned talk on talk shows today.