Tom Snyder by Jim Smeal/WireImage.com
I've been thinking a lot about Tom Snyder since his death from leukemia was made public, in part because my mind already had been preoccupied with the '70s, when this unforgettable talk-show icon was in his late-night NBC heyday.
My own late-'70s time warp was prompted by a 30-year high-school reunion over the weekend in which I referenced
That '70s Show
more than once. (Did we really look like that? Dress like that? Have hair like that? Only our senior class pictures know the truth, and I'm not sharing.) During my high school and college years, Snyder was a blazing, sometimes hair-raisingly pioneering presence in what had been a late-night wasteland following Johnny Carson's legendary
Snyder's show, which aired from 1973 to 1982, was called
, and to me, the title always underscored the fact that everything about it was a bit ahead of its time. The show's level of discourse, its idiosyncratic host with his brash intensity and eclectic range (historic interviews with everyone from John Lennon to Charlie Manson): nothing about Snyder or
was ordinary. David Letterman, whose
NBC show supplanted Snyder in 1982 and who resurrected Snyder's network career in the late '90s by giving him the post-
slot on CBS for several years, describes him thusly: "Tom was the very thing that all broadcasters long to be: compelling."
Can't argue with that. His style was so distinctive and arresting that he became even more famous after Dan Aykroyd's indelible
Saturday Night Live
parody, complete with that explosively braying laugh, an ever-present halo of cigarette smoke and a fidgety restlessness that spoke volumes about Snyder's boundless intellectual curiosity.
He never spoke down to his audience even as his outsized personality often threatened to upstage his guests. Unlike today's late-night kings, from Letterman and Leno and Conan O'Brien to the Comedy Central combo of Stewart and Colbert and (way down the evolutionary scale) the frat-boy antics of Kimmel, Snyder had little regard or patience for irony. He was the real deal. Maybe too much so (especially for his bosses at NBC, who eventually grew weary of his pugnacious temperament).
Anyone seeking this level of conversation today is probably tuning in to
over on PBS - which at its best can be bracing and stimulating (when Charlie lets his guests get a word in edgewise, that is), but is almost never as much fun as when Tom Snyder let it rip on