Subject Material

Talking Heads: Funny-Guys and TV Hosts

Published: 20.12.2012, Updated: 04.03.2017
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In spite of what the title may indicate, this is not about the American 1980s rock group. It is about two trends that have been dominating TV entertainment over the last couple of decades: the stand-up act and the talk-show. Like so many TV shows, these concepts originate from the USA, where the talking heads have been staple TV entertainment for nearly half a century.

Stand and Deliver

Jerry Seinfeld on StageJerry Seinfeld on Stage
Fotograf: Jason Sheldon
The funny man or woman who can just stand up and make people laugh simply by talking has become an immensely popular stage act. It is straight-forward and simple, and it can be done without any technical fuss or theatrical arrangements; the only prop needed is a microphone. There seems to be an endless line of more or less talented stand-up wannabes out there, who eagerly want to climb the stage to entertain. And people flock to the theatres to listen and laugh. The list of celebrated and acclaimed talking funny-guys is long, from the classic American stand-up icon Jerry Seinfeld to the popular present-day British stand-up Lee Evans, and the funny-girls Dawn French and Jo Brand.

We Laugh at Ourselves

So what is the trick? The comedian addresses the audience in a chatty, relaxed and seemingly improvised style, relating his observations of, and reflections on, everyday incidents that anyone can identify with. A common introduction is when the stand-up guy says to the audience: “Have you noticed how…” and goes on with a familiar scene about e.g. sex roles in a relationship, charter holiday making, a talkative taxi driver, a check-out at the supermarket or any familiar everyday situation. And the people in the audience gladly follow, impressed by how these guys find comic potential in the simplest and most ordinary things, for example like carrying out the bin bags or switching TV channels. The simple trick is to pin-point some everyday practice that people can recognise, and make them see the folly of it. And while the audience are laughing at the guy on the stage - they are, in fact, laughing at themselves; and how liberating it is to laugh at oneself once in a while. Another point is that this is not supposed to be manipulative in any way; no hidden messages or underlying agenda to win people for a certain cause. The point is simply to make us see the trivial details of our everyday lives in a comic perspective; and most people would probably think of that as a praiseworthy project.

Have a Seat on my Sofa…

British Talk Show Host Michael ParkinsonBritish Talk Show Host Michael Parkinson
Fotograf: Rune Hellestad
The classic American talk-show dates back to the 1950s, when Joe Franklin hosted what is claimed to be the first and original talk-show series in TV history. The concept is the same sixty years on – a host invites interesting people in the studio for a chat which is broadcasted live or recorded in front of an audience. The guest will usually be a celebrity of some sort who talks about himself and his career, and reflects on whatever issue is brought up by the host. People seem to love the celebrities, and many of the half-famous are actually dying to be invited on the most popular talk-shows, because in show business being seen is what counts.  Many of the hosts become celebrities themselves, and the line-up of famous American talk-show hosts is extensive, from Oprah Winfrey, to John Stewart and David Letterman. One of the most celebrated British talk-show hosts is Michael Parkinson who retired in 2007 after a career of more than thirty years, during which he had seen nearly all the world top celebrities on his sofa. Currently running (2012) in Britain are the Graham Norton Show and Alan Carr – “The Chatty Man” - both attracting millions of viewers. The sofa-concept seems to be an all-time winner for the TV companies.

… and Talk to Me

Is there more to this than making room for a celebrity to put himself on display? For this to become good TV entertainment, it all comes down to the way the host is able to create an intimate atmosphere, ask the right questions and create an interesting dialogue with the guests. British Michael Parkinson had a way with this, and his shows were extremely popular, also with people who were not typical talk-show fans; he had a humble approach, and was well aware who was the star of the show.
In tradition with American TV entertainment in general, American talk-shows are a bit louder and more tabloid than what is usual in Europe. The “Oprah” show used to bring on regular people with conflicts and problems that were to be confronted live in the studio; yelling, tears and harsh accusations were common ingredients, and the audience seemed to love this rather intimate and emotional hurly-burly. David Letterman and John Stewart have a more serious approach, as they often raise political issues and invite guests that have an influence on the lives of ordinary people. Commentators have claimed that John Stewart, in fact, contributes to setting the political agenda of the country.

 

Tasks and Activities

1 Comprehension / Vocabulary

  1. According to the article, why is the stand-up act so popular?
  2. What is needed to make a talk-show good TV entertainment?
  3. What does it mean that a show is “tabloid”?
  4. What do you do when you “carry out the bin bags”?
  5. What is a “stand-up wannabe”?
  6. What is meant by “staple entertainment”?
  7. Explain the expression “manipulative”.
  8.  “A prop” is an abbreviation used in the theatre and entertainment business. What do you think it stands for?

2 Research

  • On YouTube you will find a lot of stand-up clips. Watch some of the performances, and check what everyday situations you can recognise.
  • Find some scenes from different talk-shows and compare style and approach. Present your findings for the class.
  • See if you can find a site from a local venue that invites you to come and stand up.

3 Grammar

Explain the ing- form in “he contributes to setting the political agenda”.

Key

"To" is a preposition, and not the "to" you find in front of an infintive, hence we need a gerund (-ing) to follow because the rule is always a gerund after preposition (without knowing). Besides, by Norwegian standards we would in fact need a double to (to to contribute) since the Norwegian "til" and "å" are both translated with "to", in English the last "to" (the infinitive) becomes a gerund. Similar examples are "We look forward to seeing you there" and "I'm not used to living alone".

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4 Pronunciation

Match the rhyming words in the two columns:

Raise        Tomb
Laughed    Same   
Chat          Horse
Shoe         Pays
Claim        Right
Aware       Craft
Grow         Flat
Fume        Grew
Course       Bear
Site            Foe

 

Key

Raise - Pays
Laughed - Craft
Chat - Flat
Shoe - Grew
Claim - Same
Aware - Bear
Grow - Foe
Fume - Tomb
Course - Horse
Site - Right

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