There is a reason Waterworld was more successful as a stunt show than as a film: Emotions, when poorly conveyed, are boring. People jumping off of Jet Skis, on the other hand, are always entertaining. Late-night TV has been much maligned as of late for relying too much on gimmicks. Helen Mirren goes on Fallon and dons a giant sumo-wrestler outfit, and somewhere, a child weeps.
“Won’t somebody please think of Mandy Patinkin?!” scream the Helen Lovejoys of the cognoscenti as he is forced to sing one of Shawn Mendes’s songs in Yiddish. These gags are taking the talk-show art form down from its Letterman-y heights, claims critics like TVLine’s Matt Webb Mitovich. “Let me acknowledge up front, yes, David Letterman engaged in stunts. Velcro suits. Dropping watermelons from roofs,” he writes. “Though almost always by himself, and never (best I can recall) at the cost of a guest’s dignity.”
First of all, Letterman was never concerned with anyone’s dignity. Just ask Meg from across the street. And going back even further, Carson was not above a stunt or two. When Ed Ames came on The Tonight Show to talk about his role as Mingo on Daniel Boone, he attempted to teach Johnny how to throw a tomahawk. Ames took the first throw and hit the human-shaped target in the dick. “I didn’t even know you were Jewish!” quipped Carson, turning what was already an offensive segment into a twofer.
More importantly, why should a talk-show guest be entitled to dignity? Everybody’s engaging in capitalism on a talk show. Jodie Foster is not doing the circuit this week because she’s made a personal quest to meet every man named James. She’s promoting Hotel Artemis.
Another complaint is that these stunts get in the way of stars sharing themselves with their audience. But don’t they already share enough? Why am I entitled to more of a person’s inner truth in order for them to get me to watch their latest project? Also, people are sometimes boring, and learning more about them erodes their mystique. On Monday, Ashton Kutcher gave Conan O’Brien a cow.
This was to promote his Netflix show, The Ranch. Get it? Cows are what are on the titular ranch. Conan is going to give the cow away, somehow, at a later date. I am fine with this. Before he brought out the cow, Kutcher was talking about s’mores and his decision to stop taking a hair-loss drug. I’m sure there are pockets of the American public who would find such revelations riveting, but I’d rather look at a cute cow.
Late-night TV can distinguish itself from podcasts, talk radio, and other interview-based formats by throwing cows onstage. Stunts hearken back to the format’s vaudeville roots. Conan is the perfect place for such antics, since O’Brien has often remarked on his love for the camels-and-showgirls-backstage aesthetic of entertainment. Other shows are less inclined to stunt on us — the closest Stephen Colbert got to genuine shenanigans this week was when he had Bill Clinton on his show the day after his disastrous Today appearance. If Paul Dinello comes on The Late Show, people might do cartwheels, but otherwise Colbert is more suited to the “taking America’s temperature” part of late-night than the dancing with sparklers, throwing knives part.
Late-night has to be a balance between those three sides: cultural commentary, intimate portraits of celebs, and wet ‘n’ wild stunts. This week, Shawn Mendes had a “residency” on The Late Late Show: He did a Carpool Karaoke, interrupted the monologue, and sang every night.
We’ve come a long way from when John Lennon and Yoko Ono co-hosted The Mike Douglas Show for a week in 1972. When they hosted, they introduced the mainstream world to macrobiotics, yippies, and biofeedback therapy. Shawn Mendes introduced us to … his love of Harry Potter, I guess. It’s a delicate balancing act, the celebrity stunt. When they fail, they fail hard and might even usher in a demagogue as president. But just because something can be done badly doesn’t mean the thing isn’t worth attempting. We need stunts, and I will win that cow or die trying.