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Wednesday, October 15, 2003


The Ghosts of Late Shows Past

Trio, a strange, obscure cable station, is re-airing ancient episodes of Late Night with David Letterman. Last night's, was an episode from waaaaaay back in 1986. The opening credits were very dated and oddly melancholy. Fuzzy images of New York landmarks like Radio City closing for the night and turning off their marquees. Shots of vacant streets (at 12:30 AM. In Manhattan? Isn't this the city that never sleeps?)

The monologue featured jabs at Eric Estrada and the Yankees. How little things have changed in late night television over the years. Maybe Dave only has 100 monologues that he's been using over the course of his two decade career. No one would be the wiser.

Billy Joel sat in with the band and Paul Schafer still had hair. Miss America, that year one Johnny Cash's nieces, was the headliner. The interview was awkward and at one point Dave commented, "You're a person of few words, just like your uncle." At the end, she fired back with a "I was looking forward to coming on this show until I finally met you."

This was back in the days when the show invited strange guests, like Harvey Pekar, to round out the hour. Last night's episode featured an elderly Russian physic that shouted at the audience when they laughed nervously at his theories about the future of medicine. Dave looked genuinely frightened. Very neat.

After, the Late Show, the station cut to even older late night program called the Ernie Kovacs Show. A bizarre meld of Conan O'Brien and Saturday Night Live reimagined by Salvador Dail, the program debuted in December 1952 and was shortly cancelled thereafter. At the time, for what's it worth, Playboy called Kovak "the first comic genius of the new medium."

To call the show weird would be an understatement. During the title sequence, a perpetually cigar chomping Kovak, argued with a pair of tiny violinist's blocking the title. Real knives were launched at the host's head during the opening monologue from off-screen. No explination for this is ever given.

Unlike modern talk shows, Kovak didn't bother with boring celebrity interviews and stuck entirely with comedy and musical numbers. Every few seconds, the show incorporated ancient blue screen techniques that look ancient by today's standards. A photographer is frightened and then delighted by a group of dancing ghosts in one segment. A bodybuilder dressed like Tarzan takes a cannonball to the gut in another.

Kovak's humor is incredibly dated. A "saucy" weather girl flirted with the audience in front of a map, dressed in a bathing suit that looks like a tent. In another segment, Kovaks, dressed in a flamboyant robe, reads a poem about jumping off the Empire State Building with a cliched lisp.

After a brief closing monologue, the credits appeared in smoke off a still image of Kovak's cigar. The sort of thing could never be broadcasted on NBC these days. Despite a yearly salary that earns him tens of millions, Jay Leno would never allow someone to throw deadly weapons at his skull. Later reviews of the show say that it set the format for late night programming, paving the way for the likes of the Tonight Show.

Kovak's died in a tragic traffic accident in the early '60s, allegedly because he lost control of the wheel while lighting a cigar. He left behind him a several hundred thousand dollars worth of IRS debt. Kovak didn't believe in the tax system and simply refused to pay. His wife was forced to make up the loss by performing in commercials.

Written on his tombstone: "Nothing in moderation." What a mofo.

Come on, isn't this more interesting than modern late night tv? OK, maybe not "Will It Float?" and Grinder Girl but...

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