Monday, July 30, 2007

Former late night talker Tom Snyder dies

Many readers likely remember when David Letterman's 'Late Night' show followed Johnny Carson's in the 1980s. But likely, it's the older readers here who remember the guy who held the time slot before Letterman. He was the late night king of laid back cool, Tom Snyder. Sadly, Snyder passed away from leukemia yesterday at the age of 71.

Long before cable TV became a mainstay. Long before MTV. In the 1970s, Tomorrow was the place one went for a modern pop culture fix. Snyder was hip way before SNL and Letterman. While Carson programmed his show for older generations, with older guests and older styles of music, former news anchor Snyder embraced the cutting edge and the post-counterculture era. Typical guests included John Lennon, Johnny Rotten and Kiss. Yeah, I know. Sounds pretty quaint in 2007. But as a young kid of the 70s and 80s, this was a pretty big deal. Up-and-coming new wave artists such as Elvis Costello, The Clash, The Jam, Iggy Pop, Public Image Ltd. and many others played on his show, while the only times it seemed Carson had on rock musicians was to make fun of their hair. U2's first American television appearance was on the Tomorrow show. Wendy O. Williams once blew up a TV on the set!

Snyder wasn't an outrageous guy. Hell, he probably didn't even know who half these people were. He was so unhip that he actually was hip. One could obviously tell he didn't really get into the music made by many of his guests. He was a pretty square guy, ripe for parody. Dan Aykroyd did just that on Saturday Night Live. But Snyder was no fuddy-duddy. Though any casual viewer could obviously tell that he did not listen to PiL, he most certainly had no problem holding his own against John Lydon (a.k.a. Johnny Rotten) when the ex-Sex Pistols singer did his damnedest to try and embarass the host. Or when an equally confrontational Howard Cosell unsuccessfully tried to paint Snyder as merely a media whore.

The people Snyder had on the show were amazing. Non-musical personalities appearing with Snyder were also noteworthy. Ken Kesey, Timothy Leary, Charles Manson and Ayn Rand appeared on the show. Basically, the types of people not seen on Carson. He also interviewed the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and Frank Capra.

All the while, Snyder was a pro at keeping a very laid-back (yet confrontational), intimate vibe, perfect for the late night hours. Think Charlie Rose with more entertaining guests. Think Larry King with better questions and more personality. Or Dick Cavett without the boredom. Or Tavis Smiley without the arrogance. There was often no live studio audience. No house band. No joke-filled monologue. It was casual and intriguing late night conversation, in-depth interviews, casual joking and of course, great music.

Tomorrow ran from 1973 until 1982, when after some ill-advised tinkering, the higher-ups at NBC decided to cancel the show to make way for a younger talent they had been grooming, David Letterman. Letterman was a huge fan of Snyder's, and after moving to CBS in 1992, was given full power to create and produce a show to follow his. Letterman's obvious choice to host it was none other than Snyder, who went on to host The Late, Late Show from 1995 until 1999.

Like Carson, Snyder withdrew from the public eye following his retirement from television in 1999. His main contact with the public at large was via occasional blogging on his website, which he finally shut down in 2005, after announcing he had chronic lymphocytic leukemia. There were rumors as to the seriousness of his affliction, and he had sold his house in Southern California, retreating to the San Francisco Bay Area.

Snyder ended every show with his usual line:

"Fire up a colortini, sit back, relax, and watch the pictures, now, as they fly through the air."

Tom Snyder, you will be missed. Sadly, we'll never see another one like you.

See some highlights of Snyder's career at YouTube. This is basically a best-of clip, as featured on NBC a few years back. Other interviews with Manson, Lydon and Jerry Garcia can also be found there.


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