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Have a Drink With That Plug

In a nod to talk-show history, 'The Tonight Show' tries backstage cocktails to loosen up a stagnant format.

April 29, 2001|PAUL BROWNFIELD | Paul Brownfield is a Times staff writer

Forget the watermelon triangles and the spring rolls and the Evian--what "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" is offering to its guests backstage these days is liquor. Not endless belts of booze, just something to take the edge off. Because what is a talk show appearance, after all, if not an awkward date in need of a social lubricant? Nothing kills spontaneity quite like cue cards and film clips and prearranged banter, fussed over by publicists and managers and talent bookers. Given all of this, "The Tonight Show" is hoping alcohol creates a few fireworks, like "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" without the bitter recriminations.

In these soy-milk latte times, "The Tonight Show" bar (it's actually a lone guy pushing a cart around, but still . . .) could be seen as a symbol of a bygone era, a time when social drinking backstage was woven into the fabric of television. This was nowhere more evident than on talk shows and variety shows of the 1960s and '70s, which seemed like social gatherings themselves, the party merely having drifted from behind the curtain to in front of the camera.

Such freewheeling series as "The Gong Show," 'The Dean Martin Show" and "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" seem to have existed on another planet--or at least at a time when celebrityhood looked like it might actually be fun. To watch Martin, Bob Hope and George Gobel on a vintage clip from "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson," laughing it up in a cigarette haze, holding cups filled with an unnamed brownish liquid, is to realize how carefully disseminated celebrity behavior has become. Today, it's still Hollywood, but Hollywood airbrushed of its vices and selling hard, then heading in Town Cars to the next talk-show couch.

"You get the feeling you're watching this market-tested automaton," says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University in New York. "The thing about getting people's guard down, which alcohol can help do, is that you break through the sophisticated inner workings of the public relations-industrial complex that has turned the American celebrity into a robot."

To be sure, Martin's drunk act was said to be largely that--an act. "The Tonight Show" under Carson thrived at a time when comics (Gobel, Martin, Foster Brooks) routinely mimicked such behavior for laughs, Mothers Against Drunk Driving didn't exist, and cigarette smoking had yet to be confronted as a health crisis. It is unimaginable today, for instance, that a talk show host would puff a cigarette, as Carson did before he bowed to social pressures and put the ashtray under his desk, smoking during commercial breaks. He later quit smoking altogether.

Today's Hollywood still drinks and smokes, of course, but increasingly against the backdrop of a corporation's PR caution. Thus, representatives of "The Tonight Show" danced around the issue--acknowledging that guests are offered drinks but also refusing to talk about it publicly. A spokeswoman said the show provides transportation for its guests. The liquor is housed in a stock room, while the "bar cart" only has wine, chocolates, gum, and toys for kids, she added.

Sources say Leno requested last November that "The Tonight Show" have alcohol on hand backstage, particularly for female guests who, the show felt, opened up a bit more when they'd had a drink. During an appearance in February, actress Charlize Theron complimented the show's margaritas, then was brought one onstage (although "The Tonight Show" refused to release a copy of her appearance).

As a practical matter, having alcohol backstage means that staffers don't have to leave the NBC lot to get a guest a drink. But some were still surprised, given "The Tonight Show's" reputation as a risk-averse home for celebrity chitchat and Leno's self-made image as an abstemious workhorse.

Others say "The Tonight Show" is trying to loosen the reins on guest interviews that critics have long complained are stiff and overly prepared, with Leno often walking his way awkwardly through vetted topics. Stars too are protected more than ever, with publicists and managers increasingly dictating the terms of celebrity appearances.

"Spontaneity is something we're always trying to achieve and never able to," says one "Tonight Show" source, speaking on condition of anonymity. "So maybe this does fuel a little spontaneity."

Taken in that context, an air of backstage cool could represent a subtle edge over the talk show competition, most of whom are booking the same celebrity guests plugging the same movies and TV shows in the same rehearsed way. As Thompson puts it, "With all that competition, I think there's a sense that you've got to make these people more interesting than they are."

Asked about alcohol backstage, other show representatives were cagey too, as if not quite sure how the publicity gods were gauging the acceptability of social drinking these days.

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