The post-Lettermen

Now it's Channel 5's turn to try to crack the chat-show format. Ben Thompson reports

Why Was David Letterman put on this earth? Scientists and philosophers have suggested many answers to this question, and the most persuasive is, "To make people who claim Americans don't understand irony look really stupid". The cigar-smoking Indiana weatherman turned chat-show host seems to have evolved to a point where not just what he says - the cycle of nonsensical semi-catchphrases ("Looking good, looking around" is a current favourite, horribly familiar to those lucky enough to have access to Letterman nightly on Sky 2) - but his whole body is perfectly attuned to the expression of irony.

It is significant that such an unrepentantly quick-witted man should be at work anywhere in American TV. That he should have been (until recently) the top-rated chat-show host and remains a key figure in the war between the networks is little short of miraculous. Watching Letterman film his show in New York last year, what came through most strongly was the extent to which he is not only popular but revered. In the middle of the most severe snowstorms in living memory, people had driven halfway across the country to see him throw snowballs at his iconically annoying stooge and bandleader, Paul Shaffer. You might have said his audience looked up to him like royalty, but their attitude was just too respectful.

The strange truth is that for all the supposed dumbness of American TV, in the USA - in sharp contrast to Britain - intelligence is not inversely proportional to ratings. Why else should Letterman and Seinfeld top the US light-entertainment tree, while we have Noel's House Party and 2.4 Children?

Small wonder then that a succession of brave pilgrims should have found this sufficiently embarrassing to want to attempt to import the Letterman style to Britain. Jonathan Ross was the first to try, and in doing so changed the language of British TV. Danny Baker failed so badly that the whole idea of the chat show became discredited. It became so humiliating to us that we could only tolerate it through a protective screen of satire.

While it would be premature to declare the Mrs Merton/Alan Partridge/Edna Everage era at an end, the tide does seem to have changed in recent weeks. With the pain of the Gaby Roslin experience still fresh in their memory, Channel 4 has courageously (albeit quietly) shuffled on to the screen two new contenders for the vacant British Letterman crown. Both acknowledge transatlantic inspiration - Johnny Vaughan's nattily roguish Here's Johnny in its titular nod to Johnny Carson's old introduction; and Bob Mills's bizarre The Show, in its crazed determination to be a real-life Larry Sanders. Both shows exbihit hopeful signs of finding their feet.

But these two mercifully improving programmes are, it turns out, merely appetisers for the imminent main course. Behind closed doors in the media- whore-strewn streets of Soho, a group of dedicated people are striving to build a British alternative to the five-nights-a-week Letterman experience. Four weeks before it takes to the airwaves on Easter Sunday, Channel 5's flagship late-night chat show, The Jack Docherty Show, is slowly being taken out of its mental packing cases. The eponymous host - a tall Scottish man, vaguely but not offensively familiar from previous TV appearances on the BBC2 comedy show Absolutely and occasional stints on Edinburgh Nights - makes a good case for his show's right to exist.

"I think it's something we've always missed in this country," Docherty claims. "I like the idea that you tune in every night to this guy who's sort of your mate." Why does he think it's never been done here before? "I think because the only way it can be done is with a new channel - otherwise there's no way to free up the schedules for it."

There are plenty of reasons why it might fail. The cult of celebrity is not so far advanced in Britain as it is on the other side of the Atlantic. "A big guest causes real excitement there," Docherty observes enviously. "Here it'll be [adopts non-committal tone], 'It's David Jason ... oh good'." People are likely to be more resistant to the host's authority as well, especially as Docherty admits to having no experience as a stand-up comedian, and jovially claims to be approaching the crucial opening monologue as "a massively public Comedy Store open-mike spot".

On the surface then, the omens are not good. But watching a shoestring pilot show (the traditional band replaced by an endearingly forlorn man with a drum), there is an intriguing sense that Docherty just might have what it takes to pull this off. He has much of Letterman's comical physicality, with none of his occasionally annoying tendency to chase his own tail at guests' expense. He is cheeky without being rude, confident without seeming arrogant, and while the set is entirely on the standard American model, the show seems to derive strength from that rather than being held back by it.

But won't the success of recent chat parodies make it difficult to take The Jack Docherty Show seriously? "These things co-exist," Docherty insists."I don't think Larry Sanders emasculates David Letterman at all - they feed off each other." What people enjoy about the "real" thing is the artifice, while the spoof makes fun of the emotional reality that underpins that artifice. You can't have those two pleasures at the same time - that's why the Bob Mills show doesn't quite come off and nobody buys Tony Ferrino records: it's the buffer at the end of the tracks of post-modern TV entertainment.

Ironically, The Jack Docherty Show's biggest asset might just be that most oft-derided of all showbiz staples - sincerity. "I'm going to assume that whoever I'm talking to, someone watching is a fan of theirs," Docherty says. Is taking the bit of himself that is a chat-show host and losing the rest something he's always wanted to do? "It was never a great ambition of mine," Docherty laughs, "and if somewhere down the line I can recreate that feeling - that I don't give a shit - the show has a chance of being a success".

'The Jack Docherty Show' starts on Channel 5 on Easter Sunday at 11pm.

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee