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Sunday, September 5, 2010

Tom Snyder Recalled . . . and Parodied

From Mark Evanier's blog:

Here's an intriguing clip...intriguing at least for Yours Truly, a huge fan of The Tonight Show in all its incarnations.

In 1977, back when Tom Snyder followed that program with his, Rob Reiner guest-hosted for Johnny Carson. His guests were basically his buddies — Harry Shearer, Billy Crystal and Albert Brooks. Since I like all four of those folks, I wanted to see it but I had to be somewhere else that evening. Fortunately, I'd just gotten my first VCR...and this was before VHS, before Betamax. Such machines were making their way into the marketplace but I didn't have one. I had this clunky Panasonic U-Matic machine that took huge 3/4" video cassettes. Usually, you used one of those with tapes that held one hour or less. There were 90 minute cassettes but the tape in them was so thin that it often jammed. I don't think I ever had a 90 minute cassette that lasted very long. The second or third time you recorded on one, it would snarl and you'd have to toss it out.

Since The Tonight Show was then 90 minutes, I inserted one in my VCR, set the timer and went out. I got home just as Mr. Snyder's Tomorrow Show was commencing and as I watched his opening, I heard something like the following. This is a paraphrase from memory but I do distinctly recall that Snyder was obviously pissed and practically had steam coming out of his ears...

You know, when you do a show like this, you're always at the mercy of the ratings...and sometimes, when they're down, that's your fault and sometimes, you pay the price for the sins of others. For years, Johnny Carson has delivered a strong lead-in, for which all of us here are grateful. People watch Johnny 'til the end and a lot of them stay tuned for us, and it's helped make this show a success. But some nights, Johnny's off and you get a lead-in like we got tonight from this person named Rob Reiner. We all watched his show, which was taped earlier, before we sat down to do this and...well, most of you probably saw it and it was embarrassing. Mr. Reiner is wonderfully entertaining on All in the Family but he's just not cut out to host a show like that and I'm sure he knows it now because of all the flop sweat we all saw coming off our screens. He had on Albert Brooks, who usually makes me laugh, and he did this bit I don't understand about throwing his clothes in the air and...well, you saw it. Not a snicker. There was a lot of that show that wasn't very funny and that isn't a crime. It happens in television. What got me was that for some reason, Rob Reiner started taking cheap shots at me. Hey, I had nothing to do with that show but here he is on the screen, joking about how poorly it was going and telling America, "Well, at least you can go to bed now and not have to watch that idiot Tom Snyder after this." And I think, "You know, we work hard here to do our little show without much money and without much promotion. It doesn't help us to have a bad show on before us and for that bad show to be telling people to turn off their sets and go to bed. I wonder how long All in the Family would have been on if the show before it did that. Mr. Reiner, I'm not the reason you had a bad night on television. Don't take your failings out on me."

As I said, that's from memory and it's by no means verbatim, but I think I got the attitude right. Snyder looked like he wanted to run over and deck Reiner. Naturally, once I heard that, I couldn't wait to see what had happened on The Tonight Show preceding it...but I never did. The 90-minute cassette jammed during rewind and the tape was trashed. I even attempted reconstructive surgery, opening the cassette and trying to smooth things out but no luck.

There must have been something to what Snyder said. The next night, he opened his show by reading a note he'd received — a pretty humble, sincere apology from Rob Reiner. Tom accepted the mea culpa, called Reiner a true gentleman and the matter was never raised again. I did, of course, wonder about what had happened on The Tonight Show but it didn't seem like anything I would ever see. They didn't rerun shows with guest hosts.

Recently, someone put about eight minutes of that Tonight Show up on YouTube. It's not the Albert Brooks bit and it's not the end of the show, which is when (I understood) Reiner said whatever he said that ticked Snyder off. It's Harry Shearer and Billy Crystal performing a rather funny parody of...Tom Snyder. I never knew they'd done such a thing on the program. Watching it now, I don't think it alone is what upset Snyder. It's not cruel but the intro is kinda close to what Snyder complained I'm wondering now if some or all of my previous assumptions were correct. Particularly in light of that sincere apology, I assumed Snyder had accurately characterized what Reiner had done.

What makes me wonder is that around 1980 or so, I got to have lunch with Tom Snyder. That sentence sounds like it was a closer relationship than it actually was. I was dining at Hamptons, a restaurant in Burbank, with a couple of TV producers and Bruce McKay, an NBC exec who had worked for Snyder. Because of Bruce, our group was invited (more like commanded) to join a nearby table where Snyder was lunching with an entourage and we all sat there for at least an hour enjoying The Tom Snyder Show as he held court. He was a loud, overpowering presence but very, very interesting and witty as he told stories, ventured opinions, etc. One topic I recall was that someone asked him about the by-now-defunct parodies of him on Saturday Night Live by Dan Aykroyd. Snyder made it clear that while he respected Aykroyd's talents and would have been flattered by the occasional spoof, he thought the sketches came out of some deep, inexplicable (he used the word, "pathological") hatred of him by the show's producers and writers.

One thing I especially recall is that he said it was frustrating to him because none of the NBC executives ever watched his show — a statement that Bruce McKay said was only a slight exaggeration. Snyder continued, "Apparently, not one of them knows how to put a video cassette into a tape machine and watch last night's Tomorrow Show. What they do watch is Saturday Night Live and they get confused and they think that's me. They think my show is like that." He told an anecdote about how an NBC vice-president had said something to him about a remark he [Snyder] had made on his show a week or two earlier. Tom hadn't recalled making the remark and later, when he mentioned it to one of his associates, they said, "Oh, that's something Dan Aykroyd said a few weeks ago when he was doing you."

Anyway, I don't know exactly what it was in that Reiner-hosted Tonight Show that upset Tom Snyder but I don't think it was this spoof of him by Shearer and Crystal. Matter of fact, I think I remember Snyder in some interview praising Harry Shearer's impression of him and the way he said it made it sound like he was saying it to indicate that he didn't much like the Aykroyd imitation. And I've gone on way too long about this so I suggest you just watch the clip...

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