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The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

The Masturbating Bear Market:
Still More Cult TV on DVD

Adam Jahnke - Main Page

I've begun to think I should change the name of this column from The Bottom Shelf to something like The TV Tray. Seems like nary a month goes by without more television product popping up in the little "to-review" care packages Bits HQ sends from time to time. But to change the name of the column would be to admit defeat. Despite the large amount of TVD I've reviewed here, I am not the TV guy at The Bits. I'm still committed to the unsung, the obscure and the cultish. It's just that these days, you can't get much more obscure and cultish than some of the TV programming being released to disc.

So far in these virtual pages, we've covered TVD as a memorial to quality short-lived series (the "gone too soon" factor) and as digital scrapbook for hazy childhood memories (the "those were the days" factor). Now it looks as though it's time for the late night talk show (or chat show as our brothers and sisters across the pond chummily refer to them) to get into the act. Last time out, I made the comment that a lot of TV programs came stamped with a very early expiration date. They aren't meant to be watched time and again years after the fact. They're disposable placeholders designed to momentarily keep the viewer's attention between commercials for soap and beer. Well, it that's true for a lot of primetime and Saturday morning TV shows, it would seem to go double for the talk show. Unlike The Sopranos or (God help us) Friends, this is not must-see TV. These are shows for insomniacs and ardent fans of whatever guest happens to be on that night. It's something to have on while you're falling asleep, studying, paying bills, getting drunk, or pretending to enjoy sex with your husband. Releasing these shows on DVD makes about as much sense as releasing complete seasons of Good Morning America or The Simple Life (whoops... too late to dodge that bullet, I guess).

That's how it's supposed to be. But the reality is that the best of these shows, the ones that survive for more than a few weeks, often boast some of the smartest, sharpest comedy writing on television. David Letterman's Late Show, Conan O'Brien's Late Night and Jon Stewart's Daily Show are all shining beacons of wit in the often arid wasteland of television comedy (hey, I just realized I didn't mention Jay Leno's Tonight Show up there. Why is that again? Oh yeah, it sucks. That's right.).

Of course, it is neither practical nor necessarily desirable for studios to release sets of complete broadcasts of these programs. The sheer volume alone would necessitate boxed sets of a dozen discs or more with a whole lot more chaff than wheat. These guys do their best to do a quality show night after night but not every second on any of these programs is a keeper. Following in a similar format to the currently available discs devoted to Johnny Carson's stint on The Tonight Show, Lions Gate has found a fairly decent way to present the finest moments from Late Night with Conan O'Brien on two new DVDs.

First off, you should know that I was not an early supporter of Mr. O'Brien. I am a lifelong David Letterman fan; having followed him from his daytime series on NBC waaaay back when. When Letterman defected to CBS, I felt that NBC should retire Late Night. If they wanted a new series to follow Leno, that was fine but it should be called something else. Late Night was Letterman as far as I was concerned and I sat back and waited for this Conan guy, whoever the hell he was, to fall flat on his face. And at first, it didn't seem like I'd have long to wait.

But slowly, the newly Conanized Late Night began to win supporters. People whose opinion I knew and trusted told me I should check it out. They said it was often hysterical but in a completely different way from Letterman. So, reluctantly, I did and sure enough, Late Night with Conan O'Brien was pretty damn funny. One of the first episodes I watched, as I recall, featured the PimpBot 5000 (you know, combines the classic sensibilities of a 1950's robot with the dynamic flare of a 1970's street pimp). It made absolutely no sense and therefore, I loved it.

The Lions Gate discs, while not perfect, are fairly acceptable packagings of Conan's greatest hits. First up is...

Late Night with Conan O'Brien: 10th Anniversary Special

Late Night with Conan O'Brien:
10th Anniversary Special

Every five to ten years, the network suits will realize they forgot to cancel these shows when they had the chance and deign to give them an hour or two of valuable primetime real estate. The result is about 80% clip show and 20% new material. In the case of the 10th Anniversary Special, the clips are definitely stronger than the new stuff. It opens well with Conan running through the streets of New York, gathering fans for the special but after that, the new stuff wears pretty thin. Jack Black turns up with a sporadically funny but overlong musical tribute. Will Ferrell reprises one of his more memorable appearances on the show. Ben Stiller does the angry, bitter version of himself he always seems to do when called upon to play himself, whether it's on Curb Your Enthusiasm or on the red carpet at the Oscars. And former sidekick Andy Richter flies in dressed as Thor, God of Thunder. I'm not going to say that makes more sense in context but it's pretty amusing, nonetheless.

But the real reason for a show like this to exist is to highlight the show's best moments in a primetime context. On that level, the show works fairly well. Hardcore fans will complain that the clips are too brief but some of them are genuinely hilarious. Those left wanting more Conan need only click over to the extra features. There, you'll find plenty of longer clips, some presented in their entirety. In fact, this might be one of the few DVDs where there's actually more entertainment value in the extra material than in the feature itself. The Comedy Shorts section features such gems as Conan on the Jerry Lewis Telethon and Clive Clemons' Inappropriate Response Channel (one of my favorites). Conan on Location presents some four of Conan's most memorable trips out of the studio, some of which are excerpted in the special (including his hysterical excursion to Ireland) but are shown here uncut. Least satisfying is the Favorite Guest Moments section. These are truly "moments", cut down so much that no context remains whatsoever. Now I don't need to hear every movie or album plug every guest ever did but it seems that if these are going to be presented as extra features on a DVD, they ought to be allowed to play to something approximating their original length. My only other caveat, and it's relatively minor, is that it would have been nice to know when these clips originally aired. As for "extra" extras like behind-the-scenes material, there's nothing but a rather under whelming gallery of still photographs from rehearsals for the special.

Late Night with Conan O'Brien: The Best of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog

Late Night with Conan O'Brien:
The Best of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog

The second release, and the one that is likely to trump the special in terms of sales, is The Best of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. In some respects, this disc is a more satisfying experience than the 10th Anniversary Special. For the program itself, Triumph's best moments have been compiled and presented in their entirety. And indeed, the selection of clips lives up to the title. These are Triumph's finest moments and bits like his trip to a Bon Jovi concert or to the line for Star Wars Episode II or his infamous visits to the Westminster dog show stand the test of time very, very well.

Again, the bonuses (or "extra poop" as they're called here) are as good as or better than the program itself. There's more Triumph in the studio, including his first appearance and a montage of his best moments with celebrity guests. There's more Triumph as Correspondent, including his run-ins with Eminem and J. Lo at the MTV Video Music Awards. And there's Triumph Productions, like his Christmas special and the trailer for his autobiographical film 8 Nipples. The problem with all this is that as funny as Triumph is, this all starts to wear a little thin by the end of the disc. When I reviewed H.R. Pufnstuf, I suggested that you should pace your viewing of the episodes out over a series of weeks, months or years to avoid being numbed by the sheer repetitiveness of the show. That's fine for a series but when the longest clip is ten minutes long, the joke shouldn't wear out its welcome that quickly. I assume (and hope) this means that we will not be seeing compilations devoted to even more one-note characters such as The Best of the Masturbating Bear (although I would like to see Lions Gate try and get that title stocked in Wal-Mart).

The Best of Triumph does feature a few more "extra" extras than the 10th Anniversary Special, although not much. There are some outtakes from the Bon Jovi, Star Wars, Hawaii, and Quebec segments, all of which are pretty good. Other than that, there's some cross-promotional bits for Triumph's album Come Poop with Me, including a music video for the "song" (and I use the term loosely) I Keed.

Minor quibbles aside, I enjoyed both of these discs quite a bit and look forward to seeing more Late Night DVDs. Unfortunately, the one disc I'd most like to see, a compilation of Late Night's best musical guests, probably will never happen due to music rights. Conan O'Brien has some of the best musical guests on the late night circuit and a disc devoted to them could rank among the finest music DVDs yet produced. But while I sincerely doubt it will ever see the light of day, I never thought there'd be a set devoted to Saturday Night Live's musical guests either and they somehow managed to pull that one off. As for more likely Late Night discs, Lions Gate might be better off avoiding the theme route in the future and going year-by-year with Conan O'Brien's best bits. Late Night is, after all, a variety show and the familiarity inherent in themed compilations can often breed contempt. However they choose to do it, I hope we see more Conan O'Brien discs, as well as DVDs devoted to David Letterman, whether it's Late Night or the Late Show.

But please... studios everywhere. I beseech you. Don't get carried away. I can live the rest of my life very comfortably without ever seeing Jay Leno's The Best of the Dancing Itos on DVD.

Adam Jahnke

Adam Jahnke - Main Page
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