Uproxx‘s Late Night Week continues its look at late-night past, present, and future with some highlights from one the most unpredictable corners of late night’s recent past.
There are too few explosions on late night television. When a late night show is turned on, we know what we’re going to get. Genuine improvisation and surprises are few and far between. Generally, we hear a few anecdotes, we watch a few clips, maybe a game is played. Even with this winning formula, we have been let down. We expect the expected. Late night has a total lack of paranoid guests wondering if they’re even being recorded.
Gone are the forces of nature that leave the audience wondering what the hell they just saw and where do they get more of it. Where are the late night guests who howl, gutted, when they misplace their Dunhills on a firing range? The guests who know that making a beast of themselves gets rid of the pain of being a man?
Something is missing. Maybe it’s overt drug use and a healthy love of cigarettes and whiskey. Maybe not, but late night is in desperate need of a wild man like Hunter S. Thompson.
The Good Doctor wasn’t always a mythical late night demigod invading television studios and leaving a trail of cigarette ashes and question marks. Thompson’s early appearances on late night TV were to plug something, anything. But as a host, if you bought the ticket, you took the ride. Even in the early, more subdued first late night visits with gifts of minor explosives, Gonzo was in full effect. Hunter Thompson wouldn’t be visiting Late Night with David Letterman, it just so happened that Hunter Thompson would possibly be somewhere at a certain time and it happened to be a television studio. He was a black hole sucking everyone towards his controlled chaos.
In later visits to late night, Thompson would become more dramatic and more twisted. Far from the smiling cliche of a late night guest, you knew Thompson wasn’t being ushered to the stage by a producer like a “normal” guest, he was being pushed through the curtain by any number of handlers. Whatever led up to the moment Thompson stepped on stage was probably far more astonishing (or terrifying) than anything caught on camera. Why is his hand bandaged? Why is he so paranoid? What is happening? When have you slept last, Hunter?
Drugs probably help but aren’t entirely necessary. There are far too few visits to random hotel rooms trying to contain a Hunter Thompson as he squirms and wastes everyone’s time with an unnecessary moment of jacket removal. It’s the little things. Properly prepared guests who sip the water in their mug and smile are never-ending. Thompson, looking down at his feet while murmuring clever retorts with David Letterman, are few and far between.
We don’t need a Crispin Glover or an Andy Kaufman. There’s no more room for a Joaquin Phoenix doing an impersonation of both. There needs to be a jolt every so often from a late night guest who refuses to answer routine questions (that he’s answered before). Someone to keep everyone on their toes. Keep them sharp. Where the interview is unrehearsed and could push the assumed relationship of host and guest to the edge.
A late night guest that doesn’t need to be in front of a live studio audience, but demands Conan O’Brien visit him on a farm to shoot guns and drink hard liquor. That bastard FAO Schwarz bear must pay!
He may not have been a staple, but late night needs a wild man like a Hunter Thompson. A genuine personality who’s going to mumble wisdom to the masses, take it or leave it, then walk bow-legged offstage, disappearing into a puff of smoke and into the ether. And while late night may need this figure, it’s practically unattainable. Not just because unrelenting sameness has invaded these shows when it comes to interviews, but also because the sad truth is that there will never be another Hunter S. Thompson.