TV

Remembering Tom Snyder vs. Howard Stern, The Most Contentious Interview In Late-Night TV History

This Saturday marks the 10th anniversary of the death of Tom Snyder, one of the most idiosyncratic hosts in the history of late-night television. On NBC’s The Tomorrow Show in the ’70s and early ’80s, and then CBS’s original Late Late Show in the ’90s, Snyder was known for long-form celebrity interviews that influenced the podcast format, going beyond the normal “promotional plug and silly anecdote” format of most late-night talk shows for something realer, deeper, and often stranger.

But the thing I remember about Snyder has nothing to do with Tomorrow or The Late Late Show. Instead, the Snyder interview I’ve never stopped thinking about occurred when he guest-hosted Later With Bob Costas in 1991. The guest was Howard Stern, a man Snyder clearly despised. And Stern hated Snyder with equal passion.

What subsequently transpired between these two men is the most contentious interview in late-night TV history.

At least that’s how I remembered it. I caught a rerun of the Later episode when I was in middle school, and it blew my mind. And then I never saw it again for many years. But apparently it made an impression on other viewers, as the interview now lives forever on YouTube and even earned a lengthy mention on the Wikipedia page for Later.

Perhaps the power of this interview has been dulled a bit, given that this country is currently run by lunatics who hate each other and talk about it openly on television all day long. But in 1991, it was rare to see adults have a conversation and not try to hide their mutual loathing. I’d argue that it’s still a rarity in modern late-night TV, in which the interview segments are almost always the least interesting part of any show.

So, in honor of Tom Snyder, let’s revisit one of the best worst interviews of his career.

:25: In the YouTube clip, the interview is prefaced by a commercial for something called Ceasars Bay Bazaar, which apparently was a shopping center located in Brooklyn. It has nothing to do with Tom Snyder or Howard Stern, but it’s worth noting that in 1991 the whole world looked like a Tim and Eric sketch.

Things only get more bizarre from here.

1:38: There is no build-up to the hostility between Snyder and Stern — it’s there from the beginning, for reasons that aren’t immediately clear.

“Are we gonna work out this thing between us” Howard asks, cryptically.

“There’s nothing between us, pal,” Tom retorts. “We do this half-hour and we never see each other again.”

Well, okay then.

2:39: For the first time, Howard has told Tom to “calm down,” which in an altercation is code for “I want you to do the opposite of calming down.” Tom is angry-laughing at Howard, a man he does not think is funny and in fact represents everything he hates about contemporary broadcasting.

This is the relatively nice part of the interview.

5:17: The crux of the conflict between Snyder and Stern is that Snyder is an old-school professional for whom matters of decorum are still significant, whereas Stern lives to deconstruct broadcasting decorum in the name of authenticity. In this interview, Stern directly addresses the camera in order to strike a conspiratorial relationship with the viewer against Snyder, breaking the fourth wall in a way that should be anathema to a traditional talk-show host.

“This is like two mental patients arguing!” Stern says to the camera. “I don’t believe it!”

But Snyder is sharper than Stern gives him credit for. He quickly turns Stern’s tactic against him, and addresses the camera directly himself. Now both of these crazy men are trying to curry our favor.

Snyder makes fun of the box set that Stern has come on to promote. When Stern tries to announce the phone number for ordering the set, he is bleeped.

8:13: In order to deflect Tom’s accusation that he’s a hypocrite, Howard mocks Tom for his self-serving story about walking to the TV studio from his hotel.

8:19: Tom does not appreciate this.

13:18: “You made one day of my life especially miserable,” Snyder says. Apparently, Howard once accused Tom on his radio show of being racist against “Oriental” people, and Tom holds a grudge about it. Remember: This was years before the social media era. There was no avenue for swiftly responding to being called a racist by Howard Stern. Snyder has been forced to stew on this for god knows how long. Clearly, whoever was in charge of Later knew about this ahead of time and put these two guys together anyway. That person was a genius.

Howard goes back to addressing the viewer at home, again suggesting that Tom is insane.

13:24: Tom says “bullsh*t” twice in quick succession. “I’m getting to you,” Howard says, cackling.

For the record, Howard doesn’t swear once during the interview.

15:44: For most of the interview, Howard has been the one needling Tom. But Tom scores a hit when he brings up actress Rebecca Schaeffer, a star of the ’80s sitcom My Sister Sam who was murdered by a deranged fan in 1989. When Tom makes an analogy between Schaeffer’s killer and Stern’s listeners, Howard is understandably miffed.

“How dare you say that!” Howard bellows, to Tom’s delight.

This is not the tensest part of the interview.

17:20: Here’s where things get weird. Coming out of the commercial break, Tom playfully lunges for Howard, except it seems like he wants to actually lunge at him. Then Howard does the same thing.

Are these guys fighting or flirting? The sexual-tension angle is an entirely new twist on what is already an intense psychological battle.

20:01: Tom is angry-laughing again, after Howard suggests that Tom wants to date his young daughters. This whole interview feels like that scene in The Wolf of Wall Street where Leonardo DiCaprio and Kyle Chandler laugh scornfully at each other on Leo’s yacht. (Tom is Kyle Chandler, and Howard is Leo.)

22:51: As awkward as this interview is to watch, can you imagine how unbearable it was off-camera? Tom apparently can’t take it anymore, because he swiftly storms off as the credits roll. Hey Tom, wherever you are, you were always authentic to me.

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