Buffalo News: Letterman’s formula gets stale

By Jeff Simon

We need Tracey Ullman back. Desperately. That was obvious to me after seeing the YouTube video of Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro run through the sarcastic grinder of “Late Night With David Letterman” on Friday night.

It’s not Ullman’s last premium cable show, “State of the Union,” we desperately need back— although that wouldn’t be all that bad either, especially if it put her back on the talk show circuit to slap some sense into some hosts who have locked themselves into tedious formulas.

Ullman isn’t merely fondly remembered, she’s cherished by some of us for the memory of her on Letterman’s old 12:30 a. m. NBC show—the one with the infamous Green Room—as she sat down smirking and sneering at the host “DAV-id LETTer- man. DAV-ID LETT-ER-MAN.”

Right after her initial swipe at his self-importance (adapted later by Don King), she would then spend the rest of the “interview” slapping the host around as if he were some nasty little younger brother caught rooting through her underwear drawer. The spectacle of Letterman taking verbal abuse from Tracey Ullman was one of the triumphs of that show.

It reminded you that Letterman, in fact, grew up in a house full of sisters. And was involved at the time with Merrill Markoe, one of his show’s formative writers and the instigator of a lot of its conceptual comic tone.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m nothing if not loyal to the evolved CBS Letterman. But there’s so much rust on the wheels these days, it sometimes barely moves at all. We need Tracey Ullman back to give HIM a taste of what it’s like to endure a couple of segments of stooge work while another brilliant comic mind gets all the big laughs at his expense.

Everyone knows the post-Carson system of guest-hyping on talk shows: celebrity X, Y or Z has a new movie or disc coming out and needs some publicity. So they go on Letterman or Leno or Kimmel or Conan or George Lopez or whatever.

If it’s Cher, who needs to put fannies back in seats for the unexciting release of “Burlesque,” she’ll go on Letterman after a very long absence and let the host do a bedcheck list on her sexual history (Tom Cruise? Yup. Eric Clapton? Yup. Elvis. Almost. But she should have, she now says).

If Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro have a “Fockers” movie to infect the American megaplex Wednesday (see the review in Thursday’s paper), they’ll go on Letterman together even though it is near-universally known that Robert De Niro, by himself, is, among other things, the Bermuda Triangle of publicity interviews—a man so contemptuous of the severely formalized rituals of jocularity and dumb-jerk questions of most hype-talk that he comes on like a not-so-secretly exasperated Vito Corleone forced to endure a lunch meeting with David Spade.

On the other hand, if you’re in the “Focker” film business, that is the business you’re in, so you can forget any pretense at all of selling Genco Olive Oil.

Much better, of course, for a slumming publicity tour by De Niro is hosting “Saturday Night Live,” where he can trash all seriousness in skits.

On Letterman, he needed the wildly cheery and entertaining Hoffman — who’s as open and masterful at publicity interviews as De Niro is solemn, obdurate and impossible — but even so, the whole entertaining segment turned into Letterman taking his chances to tee off on De Niro, just as he had on Joaquin Phoenix during his alienated, bearded rapper act for the movie “I’m Still Here.” (The act revealed more about Phoenix’s true nature than any fatuous talk show jibber-jabber ever could.)

And that, I submit, is why it would be a Christmas present to us all if Tracey Ullman would take her vitamins and get back into shape and come back on the talk show circuit to start abusing some hosts who are getting fat and happy and content with easy interviews that sometimes skirt the heights of banality.

But then, according to the Internet, journalists in Ullman’s native England have reported that Ullman and her husband have a fortune somewhere between eight and nine figures between them.

So maybe she’s perfectly happy to be doing her sneering, smirking, snorting and chortling in the privacy of her own home. I’d sure like to hear it sometime, though.



Anonymous said…
The late night talk show idea is really wasted and long gone. Letterman has Amy Sedaris on all the time.... gee wiz.