The man who would be Carson

From Jimmy Kimmel to Colin Quinn to Ellen DeGeneres, there are too many untested talents joining the talk-show fray. J. Keith van Straaten may be the most experienced host of them all. So why isn't he on the air yet?

By Heather Havrilesky

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

Chevy Chase, Whoopi Goldberg, Pat Sajak, Keenan Ivory Wayans, Martin Short, Howie Mandel, Alan Thicke, Magic Johnson, Rick Dees, Jenny McCarthy. When you consider the sheer volume of celebrities who dove with reckless abandon into the talk-show pool, only to smash head-first into bad reviews and weak ratings, it's amazing that there are always more talk-show wannabes right behind them, ready and willing to do the same flattened-coyote routine.

J. Keith van Straaten, on the other hand, may be the most experienced talk-show host who's never had a show on TV. Since 1998, van Straaten has written, performed and produced a talk show for a live audience in Los Angeles, attracting an eclectic mix of guests, musicians and talented comedians. Along with former Trekkie and high-profile blogger Wil Wheaton, who serves as his amiable yet skillful sidekick, and one-man house band Adam Chester, van Straaten has performed his show, often to sold-out audiences, for several seasons, garnering rave reviews and a devoted local following.

Attending one of van Straaten's shows for the first time is sort of like that episode of "Seinfeld" where Kramer puts up a Merv Griffin set in his living room -- it's tough not to look around for the cameras, or to conclude that van Straaten is under the influence of a dangerous cocktail of medications. But once the stress of the unfamiliar subsides, one thing becomes clear: This guy is extremely good at what he does. What starts as hipster rubbernecking, the kind of appreciative gawking we do in the face of all things novel, dorky and strange, ends with wonder and awe at the fact that he actually pulls it off week after week without a big staff, lots of cash or high-potency pharmaceuticals.

Who better, then, to assess the state of the talk show today? I met van Straaten at Canter's Deli in West Hollywood to eat matzo ball soup and chat about the best and worst new shows, the unbearable lightness of being ironic and the art of surprise.

There are so many different kinds of talents jumping into the talk-show game, despite their utter lack of experience. What do you think makes a good host?

Well, the meat of most talk shows is the interview. That's the heart of the show -- or that's what it's been traditionally. And that seems to be what is least effectively produced nowadays. It's one thing to ask questions that you've planned on before, but there are very few hosts who really seem to be listening and reacting to their guests. It's tough to do an interview that's informative but also entertaining. Either it's just informative or by rote, or it's truly entertaining but it's more about the host than about the guests.

A lot of talk shows, like Jimmy Kimmel's, seem to have more guests with shorter segments. I'm not sure what that's about. I like the way Kimmel starts the show -- he doesn't have to have a traditional monologue. Once in a while they're able to take advantage of the fact that they are live, although they could do that more. I like that he really has a point of view as far as musical guests. But as far as the interviews themselves go ...

A lot of hosts lack the interview skills to pull it off.

Yeah, I guess so. I don't like to sound cocky because I'm not on TV, but you know, it's harder than it looks.

It looks pretty damn hard, actually.

It's hard to make guests look good when they're not naturally funny. If you're lucky, you have someone who's really well-prepared and you can let them do their own thing. But then, I tend to think that's not very interesting, because it's just like you're watching a guest perform stand-up, except they're sitting on a couch. What's fun to me is the spontaneity and the banter and the back and forth and, you know, being able to have a quick wit.

Who are your favorite talk-show hosts on the air now?

I love Bob Costas. I love his HBO show, "On the Record." He's always been one of my heroes in terms of pure interviewing; he does a really well-researched interview. He's able to really go off of the questions so you have a real give-and-take conversation and something to say. I like Bill Maher's show. I don't always agree with him, but I really respect that he really lets his personality come through throughout the show, I respect that he's doing a show with a real point of view, and he's not afraid to be passionate about it. And I think his opening jokes tend to be stronger -- of course he has a whole week to work on them, compared to other guys. Letterman has his good nights, certainly. That's about all I watch, really. Oh, and I like some of Conan's bits. He can get on a roll with a guest every now and then.

I saw Craig Kilborn the other day, and I was surprised at how good he was.

I haven't seen him lately. I just don't think the jokes themselves are that good. And the skits don't seem to go anywhere. But I respect that he's trying to create a kind of vibe, sort of like an after-hours cocktail party kind of a thing. One thing that doesn't happen as much on talk shows anymore, is that sense of willing to be surprised. Whereas, if you look at one of my idols, Steve Allen -- he was actually a guest on my show once. It was one of the highlights of my life. Anyway, on his show, he was so spontaneous and so easygoing with the banter that, no matter who the guest was, or even if the guest didn't show up at all, he could handle it.

The other thing is, there's so much irony in comedy these days. Even though Letterman does it really well and has pioneered it, right now there seems to be a real resistance to just doing slam-bang entertainment. There's a detachment, a pulling away from "I'm here to entertain you, and I'm gonna be energetic and really present myself and fully show up." That's one thing I think is lacking from some of the top shows.

You're right, and it can be a train wreck. If a host is really distant and then it's not going well, he doesn't have any way to get his hands on the wheel again.

That's a good way to put it. It seems like it's not cool right now to do whatever you can to make people laugh without grossing them out or without relying on gimmicks. That's the thing that I really miss, because that's the bottom line, that's what we're here to do: We're here to entertain.

Even David Letterman, as snide as he is, has a huge amount of enthusiasm, and he always manages to fall back on pretending, at least, to be really interested in the person who's sitting there.

Exactly. One of the things that Johnny Carson said was that if the guest looks good, then he looks good. The next morning they're not gonna say, "Such and such celebrity was really funny last night." They're gonna say, "Johnny Carson's show was really funny last night." He's willing to do whatever he can to showcase the guests. A lot of the classic clips from "The Tonight Show" involve him looking foolish or silly, but ultimately he gets the last laugh. Whereas, especially around the time when he was popular, that wasn't one of the trends. You know, you look at Dick Cavett when he was doing his show, he would even say, "Why are you laughing at him and not at me?"

My favorite moments when I'm doing my show, or when I watch other talk shows, is when you ask a couple questions, and then all of a sudden someone will say something and it goes in a completely different direction. That's when the magic happens. So many of these shows are so produced and so prepared. While I think it's important to have researched the guest and to be prepared, you can tell when people are just reciting something, and that's just not very fun for me, as a viewer or as a host.

You're right. I recently saw Jon Stewart interview Harrison Ford on "The Daily Show," and the first thing he said was, "This show is beneath you." And Harrison Ford said, "Yeah, I know." And Stewart came back with such a great "yes, and" response, and suddenly the two of them had created this joke together.

Jon Stewart is really good at that. That phrase you used, "yes, and"? It's funny, because Wil Wheaton, my sidekick, that's something he's always saying. That's why he and I -- if I can say, with complete modesty -- that's why we do well together, because we come from improv backgrounds and we're always yes-anding each other. While it's fun to get in a good dig or a good line every now and then, it's all about elevating it to that level of surprise.

Wil is great because he's ready to take the fall if necessary.

It's a tough line, though, because while it's great to be self-deprecating, the audience looks to you, the host, to know how to feel about stuff. If you make it OK for them to laugh at you, that's great, but if you get to the point where you're berating yourself ... There are so many hosts who come out on their first night of having a show and the first thing they say is, "Do you believe they gave me a show?" That's when I'm thinking, "If you don't believe you're any good, why should we?" That's that irony thing. It would be so different if somebody came out on their first night, and just behaved as if they'd been doing this for years.

That's interesting, because the first few times I saw your show, I had this feeling of, "Is this irony? Is there a trick here?" You're in a bad position because if you say, "Oh Jesus, I'm just a loser!" people are gonna look around and go, "Yeah, there are no cameras here! You are a loser!" I remember feeling like, "Uh oh, this better go well." And then, when things really did go well, it was a higher high than you'd get if you weren't as invested.

It's a tough balance. One of the things I learned from improv is that you always have to state the obvious. A lot of the best humor comes from saying something that the audience is thinking. If something is tanking, you have to acknowledge it in some way, because everyone knows what's going on. If it gets to the point of "I wish I were dead, I wish I were dead!" -- that's bad. If you're uncomfortable, they're gonna be uncomfortable. So it's a thin line. There are times when I feel like the audience is kind of rooting for me, just because it is so silly.

Even though we do want the show to be on TV, right now we state the obvious, we do bits where we make fun of ourselves. So if we go via satellite to somebody, it's not going to be on TV via satellite, it's going to be through a window in the theater, but we pretend like we're talking to someone a million miles away.

That stuff is fun.

I think there are still ways to do that kind of thing on TV, but the point is, the audience is smart enough to recognize what's going on, so you have to say, "I know you're seeing what you're seeing, I'm seeing it as well. Here's how we're gonna make it OK."

To walk that line must take a lot of energy.

I can remember after one bit we did that just went on long or didn't go as well as I thought it would, I just said cheerfully, "Well, there's a bit we'll be seeing again and again and again! Coming up next ..." You've got to let them know that we know it didn't go well, but we're gonna have fun with it.

Did you ever go to a play in a theater and some prop had fallen on the floor from the scene before? You're gonna keep staring at it until it's gone. If somebody finds a way to justify picking up that prop and making it work in their scene, the audience goes crazy. It's so simple, but it's some acknowledgment that we're all having the same experience. Which, in a very primal way, is what theater is about, or what entertainment is about at its base level.

It's interesting, though, because the fun doesn't really start until you cover the bread-and-butter stuff. You can't cut straight to weird, random interactions and expect them to have any weight. Tom Green has that problem.

I agree. I mean, I'm not here to slam a fellow artist. I don't want to shoot spitballs from the sidelines. I mean, who the hell am I to say something?

Well, you're doing it, and doing it well, without the benefit of a big staff and a lot of financial resources. But like you, one thing Green has going for him is that audiences seem to like him a lot, and they want him to do well.

God knows I would not want to be judged by my first few shows. My observation is that Tom Green seems to ask questions well enough, but he doesn't have much reaction to the answers. I mean, you can get those answers from a magazine. What makes it entertaining is: What's your reaction gonna be? You've got to speak for the audience. That's my favorite part. That's where moments of -- knock on wood -- wit come out. That's what makes it entertaining. Because this isn't "Inside the Actor's Studio" or some kind of seminar, this is supposed to be an entertaining show. It's more than just: Here's some information that will answer your question.

It seems like Green is really preoccupied with the pace of the show, keeping things rolling.

I didn't get a sense of what he was bringing to the party, other than the sensibility of his skits. As far as the interview, as far as the meat of the talk show, I didn't get a sense of what he was bringing. He has that gross-out, vulgar stuff, which is fine. It's not my style, but the crowd reaction was good.

He does the man-on-the-street stuff.

That's one of the things I hated about his other show.

Really? I think some of the stuff works, particularly when he's messing with his parents.

I think that gets old. It's outrageous, but personally, it's not the kind of entertainment that I'm a big fan of. It's not a snobbery thing, it's just not my cup of tea.

I think it's strange to see him interviewing people. In some cases it seems like he's completely out of control of the interview. As a host, how do you stay in control of what's going on?

A lot of it is letting go of control. I've found that the times when things are the most uncomfortable are when a guest is going off on something and I get mad because I'm so proud of myself that I had a good question or because I had done research and found out some interesting facts. So a lot of times it's a matter of letting them take control. Once we had this band Save Ferris on, and it was getting so rowdy that I actually jumped off the stage and sat in the audience and watched them for a few minutes.

That's pretty bold.

It's different, just to see what happens. If somebody is going on and on with a long story, you've just got to use it. But it's bad when guests take control and they're not doing any better than they would if I were still involved. With my show, I don't have a producer off-camera showing me how many minutes are left or giving me a "wrap it up" sign or the band striking up. It's just a matter of knowing when to let go and when to rein it in.

You should probably get someone to pretend they're a producer.

We used to take pretend commercial breaks. The lights would go dim, and I'd pretend to talk to the guests and take a drink out of a flask, that kind of stuff. We've also done man-on-the-street stuff. Steve Allen is the guy who really invented that. It's fun to do those. But I don't do mean, really.

One of the things I do like that Tom Green does is that he has relationships with the house band and the sidekick and he gets some comedy out of that. He works off them to some degree. The best thing about having a sidekick, especially Wil, is that if things aren't going well for me, he often can save it. Having that rhythm is important. We had Kevin Nealon on once, and the pattern was: Kevin says something, and it gets a little bit of a laugh. I say something, it kind of goes a little flat. And then Wil says something and it gets a huge laugh. We just kind of adapted that weird pattern. Thank God Wil was there. For whatever reason, the rhythm that Kevin and I were into was a little off, so whenever Wil came in it made all of the stuff we did before funnier.

It must be kind of exciting not to know what's going to happen every night, like what kind of chemistry you're going to get.

Absolutely! The best part of the show is that people you never thought would be funny ... We had Robert Carradine last season. You know, "Kung Fu"?

Yeah, I was at that show. That was great.

Thanks. You know, he's no comedy legend. But I think it was entertaining because I was willing to be playful and let his playful side come out a little bit.

It helped that he was a nut. But he started out straight and got stranger and stranger, thanks to your encouragement.

Or with someone like Jeff Conaway from "Taxi" -- this is what makes my show different. This guy isn't gonna get booked on a network talk show, but we had him and we sold the place out and it was a blast. We were there to celebrate him, and there ended up being very funny segments even though he's not really a comedian. That's one of the things I'm proud of, and it's a tough thing: How do you make it entertaining when the people you have are entertainers, but they're not conversationally hilarious?

Another thing we do is interview the musical guests, and that's where a lot of the big surprises come up. You get these wacky musicians and sometimes that's where we get our best laughs.

Most talk shows don't do that.

Unless they're huge stars, and even then sometimes they don't do it.

I saw the one where you had a scat-singing contest ...

Oh, you were there for that? That was one of my favorite segments.

It was great! And Wil Wheaton won!

Can you believe it?

He was the best scatter in the universe!

That night he was. We came up with that skit that day, because some other thing wasn't working. I was sort of picturing it in my head, and I thought, "We'll get rid of Wil quickly."

It was such a weird thing, because it was impossible not to get invested in it. It was such a shock that Wil could do it at all, that you started to really want him to win.

That's what you want, for people to get caught up in the tension of it.

Why does everyone want their own talk show?

I think people think it looks fun.

It looks hellish to me. You'd have to be wildly dysfunctional to be that extroverted for that much of your life.

Thank you.

I'm just saying, it's almost like people with great social skills can't resist trying it.

That's funny, because my shrink came to one of my shows early on, and I asked her what she thought and she said that I'm an introvert who, using social skills, appears to be an extrovert. That sums it up well. Because I'm doing a persona. I'm not always on like that. But it is using social skills that I often wish I had away from performing.

Writing is the same way.

But it's still a natural part of you.

Right, but I don't walk around spewing my opinion to anyone who'll listen, unless there are strong margaritas involved. You're not going to walk into a party and act like a talk-show host. You wouldn't be comfortable with that.

Right. Unless there are hot chicks there and I thought it would work.

Yeah. I bet a lot of talk-show hosts fit the same description: introverts pretending to be extroverts. David Letterman doesn't strike me as an extroverted human being.

He's not at all, he's totally shy. But I get the feeling that people think being a talk-show host is easier than it is, and that it's a good way to get your personality out there. If you're a comedian, how many opportunities are there where you can make a lot of money and be on TV every night and be able to put your stamp on something? If you're lucky and you have a stamp, that is.

Why do people watch these shows?

A lot of it is the celebrity element. People want to see the stars and whatnot. And it doesn't require a lot of effort to watch, usually. Late at night, because it's so presentational, you don't have to get involved with the plot and the segments are kind of short. Personally, I watch them because they're funny and entertaining.

It's like hanging out with an old friend.

That's what they said about Johnny Carson. People said they felt like they knew him. But, you know, at least Tom Green has experience. Whether his show is successful or not, I'm glad someone's getting a talk show who has experience having done a talk show, because what's frustrating for me is when they give a celebrity a talk show and it doesn't go well and they cancel it. Then the rap I get when I say I want to be a talk-show host is, "Well, talk shows don't work. I mean, such-and-such a celebrity had a talk show and it didn't work. If their show didn't work, why do you think yours would? No one's even heard of you."

Do you think it'll happen for you eventually?

I'm confident in very few things in my life, but this is one of them. I know I can do it, and I think eventually I'll get the opportunity to. I don't know exactly when or exactly how or exactly where, but I really feel strongly that this is what I do. This is what I have to give to the world.

It's too bad that networks don't give their shows more time to get established now. David Letterman had years to hone his craft. He won an Emmy early on, but he built an audience over the course of many years.

And to be fair, Conan has had a long time, too. He got lambasted when his first show came out. Everybody hated it. Then a few years later, Entertainment Weekly, the same magazine that had pretty much taken his head, has him on the cover celebrating the "Return of the Talk Show," whatever it was. But yeah, definitely. And look at Wayne Brady's show. I don't know anyone who watches that, and that won an Emmy this year.

Who knows? CBS doesn't have a show after Kilborn right now, maybe they want one. I think it's gonna happen. Don't crush my dream quite yet.

Hey, I couldn't crush your dream if I wanted to. It's not exactly a cowardly thing, putting on a talk show in front of a live audience. If you haven't given up after five years of this, you never will. When I'm 83 I'll probably be taking my Geritol to the sound of your cackling laughter every night.

Geritol: Proud sponsor of the J. Keith van Straaten Show.

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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