?When The Oprah Winfrey Show left the airwaves a few months ago, it left a void in the lives of viewers desperate for the program’s trademark mix of celebrity interviews, human interest stories, examination of contemporary issues and lavish giveaways. There’s no denying the incredible impact that the series had on pop culture, but the fact remains that the talk show genre will clearly survive Winfrey’s departure… if not thrive. The reason for this is simple, talk shows are popular because they serve as a window into better lives (i.e. chats with the rich and famous) or work as shots of self-esteem for the ordinary man (i.e. the relief that comes from knowing that as crappy as your life may be it’s still better than those of the sad fuckers on Maury and The Jerry Springer Show). As these words are being typed, an array of new shows from Anderson Cooper, Ricki Lake and others are prepping for their debuts later this year. How good, bad or meh these will be remain to be seen. What is certain however is that regardless of quality there’s no way they can be as entertaining as the comedy staple known as the fake talk show. Enter this list that offers up the ten greatest phony talk shows from TV shows and movies. Whether offering up insight into celebrity narcissism or just showcasing the humor inherent in bear attacks, each of these skewers familiar aspects of talk show culture. The only problem? Most of these are better than their real-life counterparts. Sigh. Read on to see if your favorite made the cut. And no flipping!
10) The Barry Gibb Talk Show
Truth be told, I really wanted this slot to feature Phil Hartman’s legendary turn as the Chairman of the Board in Saturday Night Live‘s “The Sinatra Group” sketch. Unfortunately, that would mean expanding this list to include panel show spoofs, which I chose to take a pass on due largely to laziness/lack of suitable entries. The good news is that Jimmy Fallon’s recurring Barry Gibb Talk Show bit is a more than worthy substitute. Portraying the laid-back Bee Gees crooner as a short-tempered psychopath with a penchant for kung fu kicks, Fallon walks a fine line between charm and sleaze. Contrasting his gonzo insanity is Justin Timberlake as a level-headed Barry Gibb. Timberlake often seems on the verge of pulling a Horatio Sanz and breaking character with a laughing fit, yet he always manages to pull it together in time for the sketch-ending rendition of “Nights on Broadway.” Had this debuted in an early period of SNL’s history, it would be easy to envision a Barry and Robin Gibb cinematic spin-off. Whether or not such a concept is a good thing is debatable, so for now it’s best to focus on the esoteric laughs these sketches offer up each time they appear.
9) Man to Man with Dean Learner
After successfully spoofing low budget 1980s horror TV in Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, Richard Ayoade (best known to nerds as Moss in The It Crowd) and Matthew Holness reunited to create and star in this equally bizarre spin-off that was a satire of celebrity chat shows. The “celebrity” interviews featured here — including an appearance by the always self-involved Marenghi and the most depressing folk singer this side of Nick Drake – mainly serve as a loose framework for Ayoade and Holness to hang their surreal brand of Mighty Boosh-esque humor upon. Although the series remains officially unavailable in the United States, a quick visit to YouTube or your favorite DVD importer will allow you to get acquainted with Dean Leaner and his revolving lineup of not so special guests.
8) The Rex Reilly Show
Twitch City was a cult comedy series from Canada that starred Don McKellar as an agoraphobic slacker whose life revolved around watching television–primarily the sensationalistic The Rex Reilly Show. Initially portrayed by Bruce McCulloch (who was replaced in the second season by fellow Kid in the Hall Mark McKinney), Rex Reilly is a scenery-chewing fame whore who channels the worst qualities of everyone from Sally Jessy Raphael to Jerry Springer. So he’s awesome, really. The topic of each Rex Reilly Show was usually echoed by the main plot, resulting in many of the post-modern and meta flourishes that were Twitch City‘s hallmark. These days, viewing the show is an experience that is akin to listening to a mix-tape from the 1990s. It seems very much a product of the Nevermind era, packed with the same kind of era-specific attitude and style that made MTV’s Austin Stories equally beloved and short-lived. Yet the Reilly character still feels timeless. Part of this can be attributed to the smarminess that McCulloch and McKinney both tapped into in their portrayals of Rex. But the main reason that Rex Reilly endures is that the daytime airwaves are still filled with the joyful trash his show celebrated. Even in a time where there are more viewing options than ever, audiences still have a basic need to see well-dressed talk show hosts exploit the pain of others. Thankfully, some things are eternal.
Of all the TV spoofs The Simpsons‘ has featured during its 22 seasons, none are greater than Ben. Argue this all you want in the comments, but the fact remains that cartoon bear attacks equal funny. Thus much like Tempestt Bledsoe, Gentle Ben decided to branch out and become a talk show host after his TV series ended. However, to my knowledge the erstwhile Vanessa Huxtable never mauled her guests. Advantage: Ben.
6) The Jerry Langford Show
Martin Scorsese’s underrated The King of Comedy is that rare film in which none of the characters are entirely likable yet they are all relatable. Jerry Lewis is especially good as Jerry Langford, a man who entertains millions nightly on his eponymous late night show yet is reduced to eating alone in his spacious apartment. The closest things he has to friends are his sycophantic co-workers and a pair of stalkers – portrayed by Robert De Niro and Sandra Bernhard. Playing wannabe comic Rupert Pupkin as a TV-obsessed variation of Travis Bickle, De Niro is genuinely unnerving in the film. As the above clip illustrates, his obsession with getting his big break on Langford’s show is all-consuming. The concept of a home-based talk show was later utilized for laughs in a Seinfeld episode, but here it plays only as a desperate pantomime of human interaction. It is a fake talk show to be sure, but Pupkin views it as the only real thing in his life. Also worth mentioning is how the film’s insights on celebrity culture seem even more relevant today than when it debuted in 1983.
5) Fernwood 2 Night/America 2 Night
You know how comedy geeks are currently talking about Louie with hushed reverence? In the late-1970s/early ’80s the same kind of respect was thrust upon these shows. Originally created by Norman Lear as a syndicated companion show/spin-off of his Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, Fernwood 2 Night featured some lovable dicks — namely Martin Mull and Fred Willard — hosting their own talk show in Middle America (for the second season, the show was renamed America 2-Night and “relocated” to California in order to logistically explain the influx of celebrities that were now regularly appearing as guests). Both variations of the show were never hits, but they eventually found a cult following through rebroadcasts and videotape trading. Their inspiration can be found in other entries throughout this list as well as more obscure (yet still awesome) programs like My Talk Show and The Steven Banks Show.
4) World of the Psychic with Dr. Peter Venkman
There’s no way that Ghostbusters III is going to live up to expectations so instead I say Bill Murray should make a one-off World of the Psychic TV special. His fellow Ghostbusters could cameo, and this way we could have all of the laughs with none of the heartbreak (reminder: “hairless pets…weird” is funny. All the Statue of Liberty nonsense in Ghostbusters II, not so much).
3) Knowing Me Knowing You with Alan Partridge
Here’s the Cliff Notes on Steve Coogan’s sublime Alan Partridge character: he’s a racist and homophobic misogynist whose unwavering rudeness once directly resulted in the death of a guest (see above). Yet he remains lovable… well, as lovable as a nightmare can be anyway. Spun off from the British news parody The Day Today, Partridge’s Abba-obsessed Knowing Me, Knowing You had his quest for chat show greatness repeatedly blow up in his face as he committed one misdeed after another on the air (everything from complaining about having to build a wheelchair ramp for a paraplegic guest to knocking out a BBC executive who could save or kill his show). The humor here is much more on par with the UK version of The Office than the broad laughs elicited by the BBC’s other famed fake talk show, The Kumars at No. 42, so steer clear if discomfort-based comedy puts you off. As for the character, he went on to the uneven follow-up series I’m Alan Partridge and some webisodes created for a Fosters Lager commercial campaign in the UK. As a long-promised Partridge film inches its way out of development hell, it seems that it’s only a matter of time before he is alienating people on the big screen in his quest for adoration. To that I have only one response, a joyous “A-ha!”
2) Space Ghost, Coast to Coast
In the 1990s there were two shows that any self-respecting geek never missed an episode of. One was Mystery Science Theater 3000 and the other was this exercise in insanity that inexplicably revived the Space Ghost character into a talk show host and singlehandedly inspired Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim lineup. By packing the show with cleverly edited celebrity interviews and non sequiturs galore, the producers were able to generate a buzz for the series that quickly caught on. Celebs who were initially confused by the whole thing suddenly got the joke and wanted to be involved. Sadly, Space Ghost is now (mostly) retired, but through the wonders of home video and YouTube his head-scratching exploits will live on forever.
1) The Larry Sanders Show
Hey now! Point to ponder: Has any comedy series ever produced three better characters than Larry, Hank and Artie? The performances by Garry Shandling, Jeffrey Tambor and Rip Torn made up the heart of the series, but at the series’ soul was a candid look at show business that continues to be imitated (with a lesser impact) by shows ranging from Entourage to Episodes. If you’ve seen the special features on the DVD set of the series, you’re aware of how much Shandling drew from his own life for Larry Sanders. The real Shandling doesn’t seem vain or terrified of losing his fame like Sanders, but there are clearly some personality overlaps. This honesty helped fuel The Larry Sanders Show for six remarkable seasons. As for the actual show-within-a-show, the portions in which Sanders and Kingsley tried to save dying bits and dealt with celebrities and each others egos felt so real because of Shandling’s background with The Tonight Show. The old clich? of “write what you know” has never seemed to ring so true. What Shandling knew was the on-and off-screen relationships and insecurities of people who work on a successful talk show. He shared his findings with viewers and as a result all of our lives were enriched. Hmm. I suppose that’s a pretty grandiose thing to write, so you are now free to flip.
Chris Cummins is a pop culture writer and Archie comics historian who has contributed to The Robot's Voice, Den of Geek US, Philebrity, Geekadelphia, Uproxx, and Unicorn Booty. He is the co-producer and co-host of Nerd Nite Philadelphia, and is regularly involved in producing and hosting New York Super Week events. In 2014, Chris began Sci-Fi Explosion, a mix of live performance, trivia and funny clips celebrating the weirdest in science fiction that regularly travels around the United States. He wrote the introductions to the compilations Archie's Favorite Comics From The Vault and (with Paul Castiglia) Archie's Favorite High School Stories. You can find Chris on Twitter at @bionicbigfoot and @scifiexplosion.