In 1962, NBC was nervously looking around for a replacement for Jack Paar on the successful Tonight Show. Programming chief Mort Werner went scouting and came upon a young comedian who worked with a pliant sidekick named Ed McMahon. Back in New York, he announced his discovery: “I’ve found an unknown.”
Ten years later, pressed by the need for more ad revenue, the network hit upon the idea of lengthening the broadcast day, perhaps with a wee-hours quiet-time talk show. Werner again went out scouting; he flew to LA to catch KNBC’s nightly news anchor in action. The anchor had a particularly mod look even by the standards of the time, with a shaggy haircut, ties and lapels of outlandish width, and an astonishing pair of sideburns. Werner went home and announced he’d found another unknown.
Tom Snyder and the Tomorrow Show greeted America on October 15, 1973. Late-night TV never recovered. There’ve been other smart talk-show hosts–Paar, most notably, though Dick Cavett also qualifies–and of course there have been funnier ones. But Snyder faced a single guest for an hour-long chat, and while walking a fine line between journalism and schlock, he often erred on the side of journalism.
The interviews were often of high quality; but what made the Tomorrow Show a quick success and a lasting cult favorite was the infinitely enjoyable Zen of Tom. Snyder had a passion, and it was for himself; but this, of course, is what television loves more than anything, and perhaps it was this that led Newsweek earlier this year to describe him as “one of the most compelling figures the medium has ever produced.” Hyperbole, true; but Tom Snyder does that to you.
Snyder was a midwestern boy–on his show he once listed some midwestern “greats,” and the litany included himself as well as Cavett, Johnny Carson, and Orson Welles. (Welles, the guest that night, took the compliment calmly.) He grew up in Milwaukee and attended Marquette University; stardom knocked when he’d been a TV vet of nearly two decades.
NBC recently gave Chicago’s Museum of Broadcast Communications a complete set of Tomorrow Show tapes. The museum accordingly has set up a five-day festival of Tom, “Tom Snyder: Today and Tomorrow.” Notable shows will be played in the museum’s Kraft Television Theater, and Snyder himself will make an appearance Wednesday night, January 25.
The best of the shows to be seen this week feature guests with egos as large as Snyder’s. (These are in fact the ones Snyder remembered and suggested for the series.) At times, the meetings take on a Clash of the Titans feeling. In one, Tom asks Howard Cosell why he went into TV when he could have been a great trial lawyer. “I was a great trial lawyer, Tom,” replies Cosell. After Snyder runs down his list of midwestern heroes, Welles asks him which midwestern town he grew up in. “Well, I will ask the questions and you will give the answers,” Tom shoots back, mercurial as ever. “Do you want to just tell me that?” pleads Welles. “Milwaukee,” says Tom, suddenly affable–and launches into a family reminiscence.
These days, of course, synthetic personalities like Morton Downey Jr. make such personality quirks seem tame. But for his time, Snyder broke ground; he arguably paved the way for the inspired, medium-busting presence of David Letterman–who in fact took over the time slot when Snyder left the air in 1981. In 1980 the Tomorrow Show, originally an hour-long talk with one guest taped live (“We never stopped the tape,” says Snyder, “never”) in an empty studio, had been ridiculously revamped. A band was added, and a studio audience. To give the show some class, Rona Barrett contributed her nightly report from Hollywood. A lot of people said “later” to Tomorrow; soon after, so did Tom and the network.
Snyder did late-night TV news in New York, then went back to LA and a radio show in 1985. Last year he started a new nationally broadcast talk fest. The Tom Snyder Show is on radio, not TV, but it’s Tom sitting around talking, which is what he does best. Now he tries to capture the ears of millions instead of their eyes. (He’s on every night in Chicago from 9 PM to 1 AM on WLS.) He concedes the narcissism and arrogance of the past: “When you’ve got all these people telling you you’re great,” he says, “you begin to believe them. I’ve wrestled that demon to the ground. I try to put things in perspective. It was only a TV show, not a personal crusade to save the world.”
Crusades and TV are both out now. “You can’t go back. Mary Tyler Moore tried to go back, and you just can’t,” he notes. Hardest for Snyder for a long time was even accepting the Tomorrow Show for what it was. “People talked to me about getting the tarnish off of Tom Snyder,” he says, referring to the publicity that accompanied his parting of the ways with NBC. “There was a feeling that everything having to do with NBC was flawed and not good, and had to be removed.” Back on the radio, Snyder found his old early-morning viewers coming out of the woodwork, and he was touched by their memories. “I came to realize,” he says, “that it was flawed and that it wasn’t perfect, but it was OK, and I could take some pride in it.”
The museum will show a variety of shows Wednesday through Sunday; notable broadcasts include Snyder’s conversations with Orson Welles, Howard Cosell, and Alfred Hitchcock. Music fans will note that Saturday includes sessions with John Lennon, who gives a lengthy and quite explicit dissertation on groupies, and Elton John, who gives a surprisingly candid commentary on the related issues of bisexuality and tolerance. Snyder speaks Wednesday at 6 PM, followed by the Lennon interview; call for a reservation. The museum is located in River City, 800 S. Wells; hours are noon to 5 Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Sunday, 10 to 5 Saturday. Suggested donations are $3 general, $2 students, and $1 seniors. For more information, call 987-1500.