During the punk era, Tom Snyder carved out a post-midnight corner of the TV landscape with his show, Tomorrow. After staggering in from the bar or the club, you could switch it on and unwind to the always unpredictable guest list. Though he never got his props at the time, Snyder in retrospect was a surprisingly perceptive host, giving the Ramones, the Clash, the Jam, Patti Smith as much airtime as he gave John Lennon, Jimmy Hoffa, Charles Manson and Reverend Ike. We offer this reconsideration of Snyder and Tomorrow in the spirit of a better ‘tomorrow’ for 2022.
In the mid to late 1970s, during the peak punk years, late-night TV entertainment was pretty much a (teenage) wasteland. The music shows were dismal things like Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, In Concert (another Kirshner snoozefest) and The Midnight Special (hosted by Helen Reddy…woo hoo, let’s rawk!). If you were lucky, maybe there’d be a decent guest on Carson or SNL but that was it. It was truly a rock ‘n’ roll dead zone.
The comedy landscape was better though still a bit threadbare by today’s standards. The old reliable, SCTV was as brilliant as anything that has ever roamed the airwaves; the sadly short-lived Fernwood 2 Night (1977) and America 2 Night (1978) introduced us to the timeless comedy of Fred Willard (as Martin Mull’s sidekick, Jerry Hubbard); reruns of Monty Python’s Flying Circus; and, depending on how wasted you were, Benny Hill might be good for a few (cheap) laughs. But if you wanted something smart, thought provoking or even unpredictable, the pickings were slim. Johnny Carson was on cruise control, Letterman didn’t start until 1980 and Dick Cavett, well, you had to be in the right mood for Cavett. His self-mocking patrician shtick could be hard to take sober (although he did provoke Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer into duking it out).
This leaves Tom Snyder. His show, Tomorrow (alternately known as The Tomorrow Show and Tomorrow Coast to Coast) aired four nights a week directly after The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. NBC tossed Snyder the crumbs of the TV schedule, but he used it to his advantage, staking out the territory as his alone. It would be more accurate to say that NBC tossed Snyder the ashes of the TV schedule, because the only reason NBC decided to broadcast The Tomorrow Show was to recoup the lost revenue from the banning of cigarette advertisements on TV in 1970. NBC believed that if they expanded their schedule by an hour each day, they could win back that cancer-stick cash.
Snyder was an earnest if somewhat nervous-looking fellow, then in his late 30s, who sometimes seemed to be trying too hard to push hot button issues or to provoke just for the hell of it. But at least he was TRYING, which was more than could be said for Carson, or his myriad guest hosts, at this point. Easily dismissed at the time as a parody of a “with it”, in-your-face, talking head—largely due to Dan Ackroyd’s brutal, if spot-on, spoof of him on Saturday Night Live—Snyder now seems, in retrospect, like a breath of fresh air. He should, in fact, get some kind of award for his surprisingly respectful interview of Iggy Pop, who came off stage missing one of his front teeth and bleeding from his nose after his performance.
Though each Tomorrow program was taped earlier in the broadcast day, late night viewers got the impression that Snyder never slept, that he really was up and about after midnight nervously pacing the stage with a lit cigarette in hand. His was a friendly face that seemed to welcome all of America’s insomniacs. “Here,” he seemed to say, “Pull up a chair, make yourself comfortable, we’re going to have a very interesting discussion about the Bermuda Triangle and nudist colonies.” (Actually, Snyder’s signature phrase was, “”Fire up a colortini, sit back, relax, and watch the pictures, now, as they fly through the air.”).
Talk about putting his network on the spot! Here was the lineup for Tom Snyder’s very first week of Tomorrow in October 1973.
Monday: A group discussion with groupies (Sable Starr, Queenie Glam and someone simply named Chuck) and a one-on-one with private eye Jay J. Armes;
Tuesday: Reverend Ike, Billy James Hargis;
Wednesday: Religious cult deprogrammer Ted Patrick;
Thursday: A “group” discussion of group marriage, his guests being two “triads.”
And this was just the start of his eight-year run! The available collections of his best shows really hold up well. They are eclectic, perceptive and forward thinking for their time and source (corporate network TV) and don’t have a whiff of sentimentality about them. Snyder was a keen judge of musical talent, too. Would it surprise you to learn that he had the following musical guests on his program, performing live and un-bleeped? (It sure surprised me): The Ramones, the Clash, the Jam, the Plasmatics, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, KISS, Alice Cooper, Elvis Costello, Joan Jett. And he interviewed most of his guests after they played their songs.
Arguably, his best-known episode was his broadcast-long interview with John Lennon in 1975, which turned out to be the last TV interview the Beatle would give.
The Clash performing “The Magnificent Seven” on Tomorrow, 1981:
Among Snyder’s other provocative guests were Ken Kesey, Tim Leary, Jimmy Hoffa, Spiro Agnew (after his resignation as Vice President), Harlan Ellison, Sterling Hayden (Gen. Jack D. Ripper from Dr. Strangelove), James Baldwin and Charles Manson. Like I said, Snyder had some real guts, took some real chances, and even forced the hand of his corporate puppet masters.
Snyder interviewing Jimmy Hoffa, 1975 (shortly before his disappearance)
Among my favorite Snyder segments are his two lengthy interviews with Tom Wolfe in 1979 and 1980, when Wolfe was in the midst of syndicating his Dickens-wannabe novel Bonfire of the Vanities in Rolling Stone. The whiff of snooty elitism in Wolfe that had begun with his patronizing portraits of hippies in Electric Kool-Acid Test (much of the interview transcripts that formed the core of that book were borrowed from Hunter S. Thompson) was on full, almost hilarious display. By 1979, Wolfe was whining to Snyder about the “feminizing” of men (this, from a man who was wearing tailored white suits with pink shirts and polka dot neckties).
Snyder interviews Ken Kesey and Jerry Garcia about the early Acid Tests:
Also great was Snyder’s takedown of Tim Leary, who must have thought he was going to charm the host with his tales of excess and misadventure. Instead, Snyder quickly wearied of Leary’s self-proclaimed ‘standup philosopher’ pose (for someone professing to be doing “standup comedy,” Leary was singularly unfunny). A peeved Snyder went on the attack (“Did you ever think of the kids you steered down the wrong path?”), then rips Leary’s non-answers apart (“If this is part of your nightclub act, Doctor, I’d go back to the LSD!” followed by that signature smoky laugh that Ackroyd used to such good effect in his parody). Leary was ultimately reduced to a toothy phony smile, his true signature.
So, let’s raise a toast to Tom Snyder, who made late night TV worth watching during the 1970s, and even beyond. Here’s to the man who got the last laugh on Timothy Leary, the last interviews with Jimmy Hoffa and John Lennon!
The full Tomorrow program with the Ramones as guests (music and interview), with guest host Kelly Lange: