Talk-show host Tom Snyder, who would have turned 80 today (he died in 2007), was always an oddity in late-night television. He wasn’t a comedian and didn’t possess a glib, facile wit. He wasn’t even particularly slick or polished on air, despite his many years in TV and radio. What he did possess was a boundless enthusiasm for conversation. The man just loved to talk to people. From 1973 to 1981, he did so on NBC’s Tomorrow, the after-hours gabfest eventually superseded by Late Night With David Letterman. With no comedy bits to take up airtime, Snyder spent more time with his guests on Tomorrow. In that respect, he was reminiscent of Dick Cavett, though his show was less cerebral. Snyder’s anti-pretentious, freewheeling approach occasionally led to some fascinating on-air moments. Perhaps the show’s greatest and most infamous moment arrived in 1980 when Snyder faced off against Keith Levene and John Lydon of Public Image Ltd. Lydon had only recently exited The Sex Pistols then and was in a foul, combative mood. Lifelong broadcaster that he was, Snyder gamely charged ahead with the interview, trying anything he thought might get Lydon to talk. It’s great, uncomfortable television.
If any of this seems weirdly familiar, it might be because the Lydon interview was one of the influences on the Oasis-parodying “Smoosh” sketch from Mr. Show With Bob And David. Apart from its historical and musical significance, the Tomorrow clip is also fascinating as a glimpse into a lost era when guests and hosts alike could smoke their way through talk-show interviews. Despite himself, Lydon actually does reveal some information about what PIL is, what it does, and what it hopes to do. Lydon and Levene really do seem to be gunning for that film-scoring gig. And Snyder, true to his nature, never breaks.
Sixteen years after this infamous standoff, Snyder and Lydon spoke once again, this time on CBS’ The Late Late Show With Tom Snyder. Things are much more cordial this time.