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Look who's talking to De Niro

EDITOR'S NOTE: Beginning today, Jeff Simon's column about television previously found in Sunday's TV Topics will run in this space on Fridays.

Kudos to Jimmy Fallon.

And that's one of the last sentences I ever expected to write in my life, right down there with "Good news -- I'm getting married to Courtney Love," and "I'd like a second helping of Waldorf salad, especially the stuff with cherry jello and wax beans inside."

This is the week that Fallon gets ready to take over Conan O'Brien's 12:30 a.m. time slot. And for his first guest Monday, he has announced excitedly to the world that it would be, yes, Robert De Niro.

All over American journalism, there were veteran movie writers suddenly afflicted with runaway giggles. De Niro is internationally renowned as one of the worst interviews in all of Christendom, a man who, on some days, makes Joaquin Phoenix on "Letterman" look positively scintillating.

One way movie critics could be sure they've gone to hell when they die is if there's a sprightly movie publicist greeting them at the Pearly Gates with the announcement: "We've done it; we've got the greatest one-on-one in the world for you," and the first face you see as the hotel room door opens is Robert De Niro, grinning fiendishly like the cat that ate the parakeet.

It isn't that De Niro is particularly surly and unpleasant, mind you, it's just that there isn't a single journalistic question he's ever been all that interested in answering. Assuaging the curiosity of his fellow creatures is not his idea of a good time.

He would, no doubt, be a wonderful fellow to watch an NBA game with. He'd cheerfully pass you the pretzels and Doritos and even pop open a beer can for you; he'd no doubt give you a happy "look at that!" slam on the biceps when LeBron James managed to dunk the ball over Dwight Howard's head.

It's just that neither his movie career or his personal life are subjects that leap to his tongue with much alacrity.

Said Fallon to a few inquiring minds: "I thought it would be good to have my first guy be one of the toughest guys you could interview. Jump into the fire. It might be terrible."

I'll say.

Then again, it's possible that against all odds (the Vegas boys have it at 100 to 1, I understand), Fallon's sit-down schmooze with De Niro could turn out to be delightful.

De Niro, after all, has proven many times over in his late 50s and 60s how much he likes to be funny. His appearance at the Oscars last Sunday was distinguished by being the wittiest by far of the Best Actor presenters and previous Oscar winners. It was sharing a stage with De Niro on a "Saturday Night Live," he says, that gave Fallon the idea of bagging De Niro to show off his chops in the first place.

I give the boy credit. He isn't going for the easy score.

As for his general game plan, Fallon has been telling the world that his "Late Late Show" won't tank because "we're younger. We're into the tech stuff, gadgets, phones, video games. We'll treat a video game premiere like a movie premiere."

Which actually sounds so ridiculous that it's an extremely promising comedy idea except that I have the terribly chilling feeling he didn't mean it to be funny, that he actually thinks any day now some TV network -- or enterprising Web site -- will devote four hours of prime time on a Sunday to giving awards for the best video games.

Fallon is the latest overt network ploy to appeal to what is now routinely called in all writing about TV "the much-coveted young male demographic." You cannot imagine how bizarre all this seems to those of us males who not only never knew we were a "demographic" when we were young but who were, at the time, never coveted by anyone for any reason whatsoever. We were more likely to be exiled to some Polynesian island until we were 25, just on general principles. (It is a matter of near-universal agreement among fully grown males that they were idiots when they were younger.)

The previous appeal to the "young male demographic" who is now carrying his demographic ambitions to 11:30 p.m. is Conan O'Brien.

I watched a few of his final shows -- in particular his last one. And, in truth, I found a few replayed older segments howlingly funny -- in particular Robert Smigel, as Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog, working the nerd line at the premiere of a new "Star Wars" movie.

The premiere of a new video game?

Trust me, Jimmy, it just ain't the same thing. You're really going to need Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog to do his business all over it.


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