for over two decades, Charles Grodin was the quintessential talk show tease. Through his stints on Carson, Letterman and other shows, his schtick became well known: Thin-skinned, passively pugnacious, he constantly threatened to blow seriously up, but ended up confining his carnage to a few acerbic sound bites.
Then he got his own show on CNBC. At first, his ambitions were fairly innocuous -- "We were going to be dessert after Geraldo and all the serious stuff that he was doing" -- but after six or seven months he abandoned all restraint. The O.J. Simpson saga, the biggest ratings tit to ever hit TV, presented itself in all its racially charged, conspiracy-laced, tabloid glory, and Grodin suckled it along with every other talk show host. On an almost nightly basis he began achieving the sort of deadpandemonium he had always hinted at, barking in the gruff, staccato voice of a demented drill sergeant, demanding justice with the carotid-popping fervor of Geraldo himself. Most memorable were his remarkably bitter exchanges with Alan Dershowitz, whose own nyah-nyah-nyah self-righteousness could no doubt send even the most placid soul into livid, face-smashing rage.
But Grodin didn't confine his ire-and-brimstone proselytizing to the Simpson case. Soon, he was taking on other issues too. In fact, it sometimes seemed as if he were taking on every issue: Cigarettes, air bags, unleashed dogs, double-parkers, whatever. If a plane exploded, Grodin wanted answers. Staring into the camera, he would take ill-defined villains to task: "We need people to look at everything. We need people. We need scanners. Before anybody gets on the plane and luggage gets loaded on a plane."
And this was just the start. His jaw tightening, his head rocking back and forth, he began an inexorable acceleration toward a state of deliriously overblown incoherence: "We need everything! We need every protection. Come on! These are innocent people. Children are blown out of the sky because we don't have the proper attitude -- which is, 'Come on! You've got to be there! You've got to look at it! You've got to -- it's a war!'"
And then, with pure, murderous rage on his face, he'd glance quickly away from the camera at -- what exactly? Cue cards? Could such seemingly spontaneous outbursts be scripted? Or was it something else? Maybe that skunk Dershowitz had slunk into the studio to taunt him from the back of the set.
Such glassy-eyed respites were generally split-second affairs, however. In a moment, Grodin would be glowering at the camera again, picking up right where he'd left off, even more vehemently: "THAT'S WHAT WE DESERVE! THAT'S WHAT WE'RE ENTITLED TO. IF IT COSTS MORE MONEY, TELL US! IF IT'S NOT SAFE RIGHT NOW, TELL US! WE HAVE A RIGHT TO KNOW WHAT'S HAPPENING!"
Were these spectacular, almost Andy Kaufmanesque performances real? Or were they a send-up of TV as moral force, a cynical commentary on the medium's ability to easily digest the most exaggerated sound and fury? It wasn't clear that Grodin even knew himself.
Alas, such displays, once a nightly occurrence, are now rarer and shorter. Grodin has once again changed the format of his show. This time, instead of dessert, he wants to create a cocktail party atmosphere, with three or four guests talking to each other in spontaneous, informal fashion about topics that arrive in the form of videotaped questions from the show's viewers. This flexible set-up lets celebrities act like politicians and politicians act like celebrities -- but most of all it lets Grodin, the quintessential talk show guest, act like a guest on his own show. Instead of determining the show's focus and delivering sermon-on-the-mount diatribes against all the world's evils, he simply quips with the others.
The results, so far, have been as uneven as a real cocktail party, and without even the consolation of free booze. A big bottle of bourbon would certainly make it easier to watch comedian Rita Rudner hijack screen time by dumping out the contents of her purse in a leaden attempt to elicit laughs.
With the guests pulling stunts like that, things can get ragged pretty quickly. Everyone wants to get their plugs in for whatever current project's got them working the talk show circuit, and the free-form nature of the proceedings has them awkwardly trying to jam set bits into contexts where they don't fit. In response to a viewer's question about how to deal with impolite people, Bob Beckel, a political analyst with a kind of John Goodmanish, straight-talking fat-guy charisma, responds with a joke about Newt Gingrich. Huh?
And while the show's format generates a definite giddy openness, the revelations it produces are incidental. Arianna Huffington makes jokes about orgasm pills, Beckell delivers bluff remarks about shooting aggressive drivers. Compared to Howard Stern's show, say, where Stern's intuitive wheedling and relentless persistence, punctuated with his own embarrassingly explicit disclosures, gets guests revealing their most private quirks and obsessions, the candor displayed on Grodin's show is mostly silly and impersonal, cocktail party small talk. It's TV as ambient media, occasionally entertaining, but mostly there just to fend off late-night silence and boredom.
Had one never seen the sublime excesses of Grodin in his "issues" phase, this newest incarnation of his show might seem a pleasant enough diversion. As it is, though, one can't help but hope, evil as it is to admit this, that somewhere out there, there's another sociopathic celebrity or serpent-like CEO plotting deeds so dark Grodin will feel compelled to return to his greatest role: TV's Grandstanding Inquisitor.