A lot of people ask questions on TV. Most of them do it badly.
David Letterman keeps up the long standing tradition established by Johnny Carson. He is unapologetically incapable of curiosity. A stream of people pass the portals of Late Night and we are none the wiser. No good questions are asked. Good answers tend to be accidental.
While in Saratoga this weekend, Pam and I stayed with friends and got to see Costello's new talk show called Spectacle in which Costello does extended interviews with a remarkable diversity of musicians (from Lou Reed to Rufus Wainwright). It runs on Sundance.
Costello is intelligent and well informed. His questions are thoughtful and well chosen. He exhibits the humility required of a great interviewer. (He shows none of the reluctance to shut up and give over that tortures most Charlie Rose interviews these days.)
Five or ten minutes into this sort of thing and I had to put my hands on my knees and take deep breaths. I mean, it was dizzying. So much data. So much complexity. I actually had to pay attention. But once I got the hang of it, it was a great, spectacular, pleasure to behold.
I couldn't help wondering whether this is precisely the process by which popular culture gives up the adjective and becomes culture plain and simple. (And interesting to note that Elton John and David Furnish play originating producers here.)
Let's add Costello to our list of people to whom the CCO (Chief Culture Officer) will sometimes want access. This will usually be a matter of asking an assistant to fetch the appropriate episode of Spectacle. But for the executive with really deep pockets, a personal audience is perhaps not out of the question. Costello appears to be a citizen of all musical worlds. An hour in his presence could be a fantastically efficient way of solving certain CCO problems. (And of course it would be a story to dine out on indefinitely.)
Ryzik, Melena. 2008. Is it a Talk Show if the Host Sings? New York Times. November 28. here.
Just a thought, perhaps the people we (you and I) feel are good interviewers are such precisely because that’s not what they do *professionally.* Costello, a musician of the world, has the natural curiosity of an artist. Letterman has the natural megalomania of a TV star. Letterman has too much at stake (ratings, competition, advertisers, CBS Head of Entertainment, etc.) and thus feels the need to make sure he is justifying his massive salary. Costello’s show on Sundance has virtually nothing at stake – for him or the network. If the show bombs he just makes another album and Sundance just runs some other cheap programming.
Personally, I’d prefer to watch, say, Annie Liebowitz, interview John Malkovich (and vice-versa) than watch Jay Leno interview Morgan Fox.
What makes Spectacle work is Costello’s encyclopedic knowledge of music and his deep respect for his guests. He certainly doesn’t act like there’s nothing at stake. He does his homework, coming to every show prepared with questions that he believes both his audience and his guests will enjoy.
Letterman is “unapologetically incapable of curiosity”
Superb, Grant 🙂
Mind you, if Letterman is incapable Britain’s Jonathan Ross is probably hyper-allergic to it. If a guest ever says anything off-script, or new in anyway, Ross blanches, visibly.