Monday, February 24, 2014

"A Longstanding Lorne Michaelsian Strategy"

A recent review of Jimmy Fallon’s premiere as the new host of the Tonight Show (which I did not watch because I do not stay up late, and do not DVR because I perceive DVR-ed material to be “old meat”, and besides, I am concerned about missing what is currently on TV while I am watching the shows I had previously DVR-ed), I was reminded of a conceptual strategy that Fallon’s show’s Executive Producer Lorne Michaels (also the Executive Producer of Saturday Night Live, Portlandia and I don’t know but quite possibly the new Seth Meyers talk show as well) has employed since the beginning of his now stratospheric show business career.

Call it “Little Guy” comedy.  (By the way, I am not talking about a strategy for success; it’s the audience that determines that.  Think of it rather as a “comedic philosophy.”)

“I’m Jimmy Fallon, and I’ll be your host…for now” was Fallon’s opening line for his debut Tonight Show takeover from Jay Leno.  Yes, this joke can be seen as a reference to the show’s erstwhile Jay-to-Conan-back-to-Jay hosting kerfuffle.  But there is also more than a touch of calculated humility.  (Which does not necessarily mean it’s insincere, though you can also be humble offstage and a powerhouse in front of the cameras.  This instead is a deliberate choice about how, on this momentous occasion, to introduce yourself to the public.)

Let me just candidly say that I have witnessed this strategy before. 

Back in Canada in the late sixties Lorne Michaels partnered with my brother Hart to star, co-write and produce a series of comedy specials for CBC television.  Hart and Lorne were promoted as the youthful alternative to the revered but aging Wayne and Shuster, an iconic comedy team who had kept Canadians laughing since World War II.  It being Canada, where you do not “back-talk” your elders, and Hart and Lorne being neophytes, they had no alternative but to present themselves as the respectful underdogs, as in

“What do you expect?  We’re not them.”  

Later, I recall Lorne producing a CBC variety pilot (it ultimately did not go), called the “Clesson E. Goodhue Show”, Clesson E. Goodhue being over sixties (I am not talking about decade, that was his age) nonentity who appeared to have wandered onto the stage by mistake, and was somehow pressed into hosting, and being Canadian and not wanting to make trouble, he did.

Moving on, as Lorne did to Hollywood (where he subsequently brought me down, jump-starting my American career) and later to New York, Lorne Michaels created and produced the now legendary Saturday Night Live. 

And there was that strategy again!

As those who are old enough will recall, before announcer Don Pardo rattled of the names of the regulars on the show, how were they originally introduced?

As the

“Not Ready For Prime Time Players.”

Yes, they were on national television, but relegated, because they were apparently “not ready”, to the late-night periphery.  An ensemble, producer Lorne Michaels chose to label them, of (albeit younger) Chesson E. Goodhews.

(When the show quickly became Time Magazine cover material, and the performers elevated to rock star status, their “humility veneer” was momentarily shattered when Chevy Chase, the first anchor of “Weekend Update”, introduced the segment by looking confidently into the camera and saying – spontaneously, it appeared –

“Good evening.  I’m Chevy Chase…and you’re not.”

It may not be coincidental that Chase bowed out of SNL after only one season.  His departure may have been due to pressing career opportunities.  But Chevy also appeared not ready to be a “Not Ready For Prime Time” player.  Or at least, out of sync with the strategy.)

And now, here’s Lorne masterminding Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show initiation and what (tried and true) methodology does he employ?

According to the review I read – and why would they lie about it? – Fallon’s premiere included a running gag wherein “a cavalcade of celebrities strolled onstage to hand the host a crisp $100 bill – each apparently having bet (and lost) that he’d never become the host of ‘Tonight’.” 

To cement the humiliation Fallon’s time-slot adversary Stephen Colbert appeared, paying off his lost wager “as he poured a bucket of pennies over his new competitor.”

Could a paralleling diminuzing technique not have been employed on Hart and Lorne, Clesson E. Goodhue, or the “Not Ready For Prime Time Players”?  I believe it could.  (Although in the case of “Clesson”, I believe the payoff of the bet would have included, not a hundred, but a five.)

The advantage of this strategy is obvious.  The man in charge – meaning Lorne – is demonstrably lowering expectations.  As a result, if the show bombs, the protective fallback position is, “We never promised it wouldn’t.”  And if it succeeds… you’re a genius!

The approach is unequivocally “win-win.”  (Plus, it keeps the on-air talent dutifully appreciative – at least for a month or two – and maybe, as an unintended consequence or maybe not, it makes the real star of the show the producer.) 

It is unlikely that I will ever see Jimmy Fallon doing his thing – unless a restaurant, at dinner, accidentally provides me with real coffee instead of decaf – but I sincerely wish him the best.  As for Lorne, I suggest it is time for him to find himself an alternative M.O. 

After forty-five years (albeit of virtually unlimited success), this “Little Guy”
 routine is beginning to wear thin.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

Yeah, I think the problem by now is that no one believes that someone becoming host of THE TONIGHT SHOW is likely to be actually at all humble. I believe the well-worn phrase here is "managing expectations", and if you're going to employ it as a strategy it needs to be a lot more subtle.

That said, I didn't see the show either, what with not being in the US at the time.


Canda said...

Remember that Jay Leno guy that just had to go? Turns out his ratings were up 7% in his final year, and he continued to win the time slot, and beat his competitors with the right demographic.

NBC, of course, wants much younger viewers, which they hoped for the first time around with Conan. But he turned out to be a bit too brittle for the Tonight Show audience.

Fallon, Mr. Nice Guy, won't have that problem. But, as Ken Levine pointed out, he also has no gravitas.
However, as a friend pointed out, the viewers NBC wants are more interested in levitas and grossitas