Drew Barrymore’s new American talk show didn’t “break the internet” last week courtesy of a heavily-promoted Charlie’s Angels reunion. Instead, it was because of a python.
“CNN reports that a 62-year-old ball python has laid seven eggs,” a giddy Barrymore revealed, in a daily segment titled Drew’s News. “Even though she hasn’t been near a male snake in over two decades! Is she 62 or 16?” Barrymore’s boundless mugging, her choppy delivery and curious emphasis on random words – along with the neutered background tittering of her show’s crew – quickly cemented The Drew Barrymore Show as a must-watch for fans of cringe-making TV.
Barrymore is the latest in a long line of celebrities who have haphazardly tried to add “talk-show host” to their CVs. Like Davina McCall, Tyra Banks, Harry Connick Jr and Lily Allen before her, Barrymore is very good in a particular field, but not so good that she can slip into an entirely different venture with aplomb. In fairness to the 50 First Dates star, she has only been a TV host for a matter of days – but based on those days so far, it will be an uphill battle.
Barrymore’s show, which features celebrity guests impressively CGI-ed onto the set (thanks to the pandemic), is a loud amalgamation of human-interest stories, A-list chatter and endless fawning. “I think my favourite potent combination is strength and energy, and you embody both!” Barrymore told Charlize Theron. “You not only lift people up and shine a light on them, but you give them opportunities that are very rare!” she told Reese Witherspoon. When justifying why she loves her crew so much, Barrymore explained: “I am a total Pisces, and I feel and read people’s energy!”]
Much of the press surrounding Barrymore’s show has revolved around her go-for-broke cheeriness, and the important role it hopes to serve in this most beleaguered of years. But American daytime TV has always tended to be like that. There’s a lot of pseudo-spiritual LA psychobabble on these shows; a lot of back-slapping and performative philanthropy. They’re often politics-free zones, striving to exist outside of red states and blue states or the ever-fiery culture wars. That they’re often anchored by people entirely ill-suited to them only drives home how strange they are.
In America, stars get daytime talk shows based on their perceived likeability, and how inoffensive they are. The roll call of short-lived US talk shows in the last 20 years are full of names that you’d be hard-pressed to be aggrieved by: Harry Connick Jr, Queen Latifah, Donny Osmond, Will & Grace’s Megan Mullally. All wholesome in one way or another, but oddly tapered-down in practice – these stars aren’t particularly funny on their own, and lacking the improvisational prowess or the kind of charisma upon which such shows hinge.
Some have been open about why their shows didn’t work. Mullally, a woman who’s in reality far more melancholy than the outrageous characters she often portrays, once called her cancelled talk show “more corporate than creative”. Latifah, a great performer but a bit too impersonal and unknowable for a vehicle dependent on her personality, wrote an open letter (to herself, curiously) in which she alluded to problems behind the scenes of her show: “Your dedication and sacrifice was crucial to the entire team, and in the face of intense challenges, you displayed true grit!”
Tyra Banks’s talk show, meanwhile, survived for five years, but only because it seemed to embrace the surreal eccentricity of its host. The show rapidly became infamous for its outlandish stunts: “social experiments” in which Banks impersonated homeless women or the morbidly obese, an episode in which Banks frothed at the mouth and tricked her audience into thinking she had rabies, or the time Quentin Tarantino judged a “sexiest feet” contest.
Her interviews were also deranged. She would present Twilight-era Robert Pattinson with a G-string, grope the breasts of American Idol contestants and ask Beyoncé questions that rhymed with her name (“Brie-yoncé, what’s your favourite type of cheese?”). David Lynch could only dream of something so mad.
If America’s remit for daytime talk-show hosts seems to be “both famous and conveniently unemployed”, Britain’s has been “allegedly well-liked elsewhere”. The harrowing That Antony Cotton Show, a vehicle for the Coronation Street star, seemed to exist because ITV assumed all they needed to duplicate Graham Norton was their own gay man. Lily Allen and Friends was a notoriously wooden attempt by BBC Three to court young viewers, regardless of Allen’s obvious lack of confidence as a TV personality.
It soon became a publicly-funded hang-out for Allen and the very worst of mid-2000s Camden scenesters. An interview in which James Corden pounced on Allen’s obvious insecurity in a fruitless attempt to get her to go out with him remains a car crash.
The closest we ever came to the sheer weirdness of The Tyra Banks Show was The Charlotte Church Show, a wacky Channel 4 experiment in which the Welsh singer chatted with celebrities, took part in bizarre comedy sketches and played out each episode with a duet. Fifteen years after the show ended, little is more surreal than Church casually warbling alongside Amy Winehouse and Solange, two artists whose respective legend has long surpassed Church’s own. Like Banks, Church was a relentlessly enthusiastic host bearing a glint of utter madness, to the extent that watching through your fingers came to be advised. Unlike Banks, Church proved self-aware enough to walk away after three series, realising it wasn’t a great fit.
Then there was Davina McCall’s eponymous primetime talk show, which burned out after just eight weeks amid horrid reviews, sinking ratings and a woeful calibre of guests – its final episode featured Piers Morgan, Jade Goody, Little Mo from EastEnders and music from Katie Melua. In 2015, McCall called it the biggest regret of her career. “It was a kind of public revolt,” she said. “But I was pregnant, very emotional, and convinced it was the end of my career. People were sympathetically hugging me in Sainsbury’s.”
McCall’s failure was also a fascinating one. She was a well-liked TV figure, and reliably warm and engaging when interviewing evicted housemates on Big Brother. But something about interviewing her fellow celebrities felt off. She would stumble over words, seem to ask the same questions over and over again, and have no chemistry with any of her guests. McCall was reportedly uncomfortable with the format of the show, and its vast and garish pink set, which only made her appear tiny and out of her depth. She also implied, during one interview, that she had been somewhat coaxed into hosting a chat show altogether.
Davina’s programme became a public punching bag, one regarded as an unfortunate blueprint for many of the horrid chat shows that came after it. British viewers have a strange relationship to the chat show, potentially because the long-running expertise of Graham Norton and Michael Parkinson drummed into us the specifics of how such shows and their hosts ought to operate.
It’s why they so often become battlegrounds for collective rage, from the revolt over Lily Allen and Friends to the dismal press that trailed ITV’s experimental Nightly Show. There, revolving celebrity hosts were drafted in to present a week’s worth of episodes each, among them David Walliams and McCall, who bravely stepped back into the arena. You could hardly hear the canned laughter over the sound of viewers retching.
What British experiments in celebrity chat shows have taught us is that they’re often commissioned by TV executives who believe presenting to be an easy task. The running theme throughout bad-chat-show lore, from the dismal Sharon Osbourne Show (all baby-voice and insincerity) to Drew Barrymore’s latest effort, is: “Anyone can do this.”
But it isn’t true at all. Somebody like Graham Norton has remained at the top of the chat show game for so long because of the rare alchemy he possesses: a man of one with stardom, but removed enough from it to still be likable. His shows may have become increasingly predictable over the years, Norton cycling through the same “Remind me of that story…” conversation starter until Miriam Margoyles or somebody similarly outrageous steamrolls over such formality, but he remains untouchable in this arena.
The sickly sweetness of Drew Barrymore’s new show has also had an unexpected side effect: it makes you long for a bit of Ellen DeGeneres’s alleged supervillainy. While there was a guilty sense of fun to the outpouring of horror stories about DeGeneres this summer, if only in how it distracted us from much of the genuine badness plaguing our everyday lives in recent months, it also overlooked how good she was at her job at one point.
Like Norton, DeGeneres began phoning it all in a few years ago, resting on the same withering jokes and episode structure. In her heyday, though, she was brilliant. She could put guests at ease but not via mere ego-stroking, and understood the importance of keeping stars at a distance. Also like Norton, she was able to at least gesture towards the idea that she had more in common with those watching than those being watched.
That premise would eventually get her into trouble, DeGeneres accused of faking a “nice” persona at odds with how she treats ordinary people in reality, but it did sustain her for more than a decade. Barrymore could do with a little of DeGeneres’s sharp spikiness in amongst the softness.
There’s a car-crash genius to a bad celebrity talk show, from the awkward silences between mutually famous people to the unique thrill of a star trying screamingly hard to make their programme work. But as entries in a long-lasting and respected TV genre, they’re almost offensive. Chat shows require hosts that can source chemistry from the toughest of guests, ask insightful and entertaining questions, and make everyone on set and at home feel comfortable. Wooden presenting or rampant Tyra-like insanity is fun in increments, but poor overall. We’ve always deserved better.