It's talk-show gridlock!

Watch as bastions of alterna-Jays and wannabe-Daves try to out-snark each other! Thrill as Tom Green battles the late-night TV glut, armed only with a pair of googly eyes and a mile-wide sociopathic streak!

By Heather Havrilesky

Published July 19, 2003 8:00PM (EDT)

When did talk-show host become the most coveted job around? Most of us can remember a simpler time, when kids used to daydream about being rock stars, or pro basketball players, or White House press secretaries. Now everyone from Jimmy Kimmel to Wayne Brady has his very own talk show, and new hopefuls are joining the fray every day.

With so many gunning for title of alternative talk god, you have to wonder: Is there something in our tap water that mutates normal children into smooth-talking, glad-handing gab monkeys, or are we witnessing the insidious long-term effects of the really bad toys of the '70s? You can almost see little Colin/Carson/Conan on that fateful day when his goldfish died/parents got divorced/best friend called him a "red-headed stepchild," and, after crying his eyes out for 20 minutes on the Sit 'n' Spin, Daddy consoled him by driving to K-mart, where, lo and behold, there was a blue-light special on the Mister Microphone.

With roots like these, it isn't hard to see where the current crop of alterna-Jays developed their own unique style of jaded interviewing and snide joke delivery -- you know, the one that sets them apart from all the rest? Tom Green is the latest to throw his hat into the alternative talk-show ring, revamping his format and trotting out his telltale brand of googly-eyed weirdness for a late night crowd on "The New Tom Green Show" (weeknights at 12 midnight on MTV). Years with a Mister Microphone aside, though, have Green or any of the other alternative talking heads ever stopped to ask themselves, "Am I actually any good at this?"

After all, talk-show hosts are sort of like cult leaders: Just because one or two hypnotically charismatic individuals can pull it off, that doesn't mean that anybody's gonna drink your Kool-Aid. If most of us can barely stand watching late-night greats "Johnny Carson and David Letterman chitchat with movie stars night after night, why would we want to suffer through a mere mortal's attempt at the same song and dance? It's downright odd that so many are embracing a format that not only feels antiquated compared to most TV shows, but also requires a rare gift to pull off.

Tom Green does have a rare gift for harassing people on camera. Whether he's teasing Monica Lewinsky, dropping a bloody cow's head into his parents' bed at 3 a.m. or encouraging his grandmother to beat eggs with a vibrator, Green pushes the limits of what will make others -- and his viewers -- uncomfortable. He's that new variety of celebrity who's defined not by his particular skills or talents, but by what he lacks: He has no ethical boundaries, no concern for stepping on toes, no qualms about embarrassing anyone, from strangers to close relatives, and, above all, no shame.

Either Green had his superego removed at birth or he's some strange new flavor of sociopath. But regardless of its origins, his lack of concern for social codes affords him a lot of freedom, the kind of freedom that makes for really good television. Why, then, after years on a cable-access channel in Canada and a healthy show on MTV, has Green suddenly decided to move into a traditional, nightly talk-show format, one that fits his talents about as well as a pair of bicycle pants fits a goat?

True, Green isn't exactly green when it comes to entertaining an audience, particularly when it involves shocking complete strangers into stunned silence, as he did on his old show when he purchased condoms at a local drugstore.

Green (to the cashier): "I'm just gonna buy these condoms, because I'm planning on making love to a woman tonight, and I'm really excited about that."

Cashier: "OK."

Green: "You must be saying to yourself, 'Boy, who's the lucky lady who's gonna get to spend the evening with this man of steel?' Anyway, I'll just pay for those."

Cashier: "OK. Is that everything?"

Green: "It must be kind of weird for you, holding those condoms, considering we both know where they're gonna end up."

Cashier: "Yeah, I guess so."

Green: "Yeah. It's kind of a weird situation for me too, you know, Carrie. Your name's Carrie, right?"

Cashier: "Yeah."

Tom: "I figure I should know your name since you're touching my condoms."

Female bystander: "Do you really think that's funny?"

Green: "I think it's really important to buy condoms because it's the '90s, and sexually transmitted diseases ... "

Female bystander: "How about trying abstinence?"

Green: "Abstinence? Do you wear that? Is that like a jockey strap?"

Like the pranksters on "Crank Yankers" or "Jackass," Green is a shameless provocateur and an unflinching weirdo. But as good as he is at milking every drop of humor out of ridiculous or dead-end situations, he doesn't interact with strangers so much as disturb and upset them. It's not surprising, then, that he's not exactly skilled at establishing a solid rapport with his guests.

While it's tough to imagine Green tolerating the self-involved prattle of celebrities, he barely seems able to listen to them at all, moving on to his next question without pausing to react to their anecdotes or laugh at their bad jokes. This makes even showy guests like Chris Kattan nervous, while antagonists like Andy Dick grab the wheel and drive off the nearest cliff.

On a recent show, as Dick and Marilyn Manson discussed "The Real World," Green tried to segue awkwardly into bringing out the next guest. "You know who's from 'The Real World,' is Trishelle is from 'The Real World' ..." he stuttered, to which Dick snapped, "Don't bring her out yet." Such a strange interaction might seem irreverent and unpredictable and truly alternative, if it weren't so creepy and uncomfortable.

Creepy and uncomfortable have always been the primary selling points of Green's brand, but they simply aren't that palatable in the context of a talk show. Like an overwhelmed substitute teacher, he has trouble getting his guests' attention, let alone their respect. Even Letterman, for all his goofiness, has an intense manner and a slightly intimidating air, which comes in handy when he wants people to answer his questions or follow his lead. In the face of challenges, though, Green seems unsettled or dumbfounded. You almost wish he'd use some of the resources that got him here -- try shoving his face very close to the guests, maybe, or yelling something at them until they shut up.

Then again, how many guests prefer harassment to flattery and fawning? The truth is, even obsequiousness can look edgy, in the right hands. Witness Jon Stewart interviewing Harrison Ford on a recent episode of "The Daily Show."

Stewart: "I am not an agent, I am not a publicist, but I can tell you this: This show is beneath you."

Ford: "I kept telling 'em that."

Stewart: "They have to start listening to you!"

Ford: "Yeah, they gotta start paying some attention."

Stewart: "Damn it!"

Ford: "Well, I'm here. We might as well go ahead with it."

Stewart: "Well, we appreciate it. I almost have a hard time believing this. I feel like I'm being 'Punk'd.' I feel like this is all gonna be a little ruse, a little razzmatazz and all of a sudden you're gonna go ... [mimes pulling off a mask] 'Look! It's the guy who was on 'Felicity' for a year!'"

The rapport that Stewart establishes with Ford in the first few seconds of the interview stems from self-deprecation, but still serves its purpose, allowing Stewart to appear edgier than your run-of-the-mill host. Green, on the other hand, rejects those talk-show conventions that feel too mainstream and earnest for his liking, yet they're exactly the ones he needs to keep his ship afloat.

Similarly, hosts like Craig Kilborn, Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Kimmel do the traditional talk-show song and dance, but their mannerisms and verbal tics are meant to signal that they're above it all. Unlike the old talk-show style, which required brimming over with enthusiasm for everything that walked, crawled or oozed across your stage, the new gaggle of alterna-Jays wants to have their cake and eat it, too, claiming to be all jazzed up about guest Roma Downey while rolling their eyes over how bad "The Matrix" sequel was.

Letterman has walked the line between effective host and sharp, scathing wit better than anyone, but playing both sides has cost him more than a little credibility over the years. The fact that the latest round of hosts think they can pull off the high-wire act it's taken Letterman 23 years to master (and which many of them attempt simply by imitating him) is a testament to the willful obliviousness and the bloated egos involved.

But why indulge such an outdated format in the first place? Flipping between Leno, Letterman, O'Brien, Kilborn, Miller, Maher, Brady and Daly, no matter how much extra flair any one host pumps into his routine, the similarities stand out much more than the differences. Here's the jazzy band and the curtain, the host emerging with a wide grin, the little dance he does with the band reacting to his every move, the announcement that this show is going to be incredibly good and that he's in a great mood, the reference to something that happened on the show the night before, the banter with the band leader. Aren't audiences tired of this hambone routine yet? With the same five celebrities doing the rounds on the same eight or nine talk shows at the same time, the whole thing feels about as fresh and spontaneous as a two-year-old press release. If talk shows are just the distribution system for celebrity promotional tours, why would anyone in their right mind want to host one?

Unfortunately, slight departures from the standard fare often don't work that well, either. While Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" focused on creating an upbeat sense of fun and drawing out guests enough that some spontaneous bit of humor or connection could occur, shows like Green's, or Colin Quinn's "Tough Crowd," seem to want to cut straight to the good parts, the cleverest of clever banter, the part when things get crrraaaazy.

Quinn's approach is to invite a team of comedians to discuss a wide range of topics, forgetting, apparently, that hanging out with a gaggle of wisecracking, snarky comedians is about as fun as happy hour at a life-insurance salesman's convention. And that's not to mention the egotism, the self-involvement, and the sheer humorlessness of it all. Quinn appeared in the film "Comedian" -- didn't he bother to watch it? Hasn't he ever seen "Last Comic Standing"? And just how many channels can broadcast Sarah Silverman doing her "Oh, pleeease!" thing at one time?

The best talk shows are the ones that combine innovation and original skits with old-school basics, weaving in only those elements that work for the particular host involved instead of simply signing on for the whole opener-bits-guests-music kit and kaboodle. "The Daily Show," for one, manages to be consistently funny and strange without falling prey to the faux glamour of curtains, swooning fans and house bands.

For alternatives to the alternative talk show, look no further than Tracey Ullman, or, more recently, Ali G or Dave Chappelle, all of whom have mined their distinctive talents while refusing to fall back on a format that isn't appropriate for their strengths. Even Martin Short's "Primetime Glick," as much as it demands an almost superhuman ability to suspend your disbelief, is far more entertaining than watching Carson Daly pretend to care about what "That '70s Show's" Mila Kunis has to say.

Despite their popularity, talk shows are nothing like pizza: When they're amazing, they're pretty good, and when they're just pretty good, they sort of make you want to retch. You'd think the networks would have learned their lesson, since the last time they oversaturated the talk-show market people got so sick of talk they almost quit watching it altogether. Heedless of the glut, the list of new shows grows longer and longer, with talk newbie Ellen DeGeneres jumping into the mix this fall.

High hopes aside, though, many of these shows will wither up and die by first snowfall, sending their disillusioned hosts back to the Sit 'n' Spin for another mournful ride. Tom Green, for one, seems to know that he's chosen a tough path for himself -- the strain shows in his furrowed brow and in the dark circles under his eyes. Still, there's no telling how well he'll do over the long haul based on his first few weeks on the air. He does seem to have a responsive audience and a huge fan base. Maybe with some time to make adjustments, he'll master the basics or find a more original format to showcase his style. Green's outrageousness and lack of boundaries brought him this far, but he's going to need a lot more than that to stay here.

Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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Conan O'brien Jay Leno Jon Stewart Mtv Television The Daily Show