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Chemistry is Everything: How Charles Barkley and Conan O’Brien Make Camera-Ready Friendship Work

Chemistry is Everything: How Charles Barkley and Conan O'Brien Make Camera-Ready Friendship Work

Live television depends on a sense of chemistry between performers, on the feeling (whether real or feigned) that the people appearing on our screens enjoy spending time together.  An entire segment of the television spectrum — late-night shows, sketch-comedy programs, talk shows — all depend on the camaraderie between fellow participants. Personality-driven television lives and dies on the illusion of intimacy blossoming between its performers.  

We all are familiar with the clanging, fake version of on-screen friendship encouraged by local news programs and the like. A recent “Inside Amy Schumer” sketch had Schumer and Josh Charles as news anchors forcing out yuks and tossing back and forth bad puns.  The ex-football players trading painful banter most winter Sundays on Fox, CBS, and ESPN fit the same bill. (Do they practice their booming laughs before taping?) Meanwhile, the best sports show on television, ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption,” depends on the cranky middle-aged sportswriter vibe of its hosts, Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser.  

However, the average sports pre-game and post-game show is many things — loud, aggressively boisterous, devoted to a tiresome faux bonhomie — but rarely, if ever, is it actually amusing. The exception that proves the rule is currently appearing nightly, in tandem with the NBA playoffs: TNT’s “Inside the NBA,” which pairs designated straight man/self-aware token white guy Ernie Johnson with three charming, opinionated former players. Johnson banters playfully with Kenny Smith, Shaquille O’Neal, and designated firestarter Charles Barkley, the show’s breakout star, and easily the most personable and electric figure in sports media.  

“Inside the NBA” has the rare ability to react quickly on live television: shown a comely San Antonian wearing a T-shirt that read “Barkley don’t know,” a response to his earlier declaration that all the women of the city needed to familiarize themselves with Weight Watchers, he responded, “That woman ain’t from here.  They flew her in from Dallas.” 

Smith and Johnson know just how to egg Barkley on, tossing him softballs and chuckling as they wait for the man once known as the Round Mound of Rebound to slam it out of the park.  And O’Neal, long known as one of the most pleasurable interviews in the league as a player, is a Barkley in training, his natural wit stifled partially by a certain stiffness, but still gamely making himself part of the dance.  Only a good sport would agree to wrestle Barkley on the air: Two doughy ex-jocks hoping not to embarrass themselves mid-grapple.

Meanwhile, late-night TV thrives on the chemistry between its hosts and sidekicks.  Conan O’Brien and Andy Richter may or may not be best buddies off the air, but their easy rhythm on screen is one of “Conan’s” saving graces, as it has been for nearly two decades.  (O’Brien’s teary goodbye to Richter when he departed “Late Night” in 2000 is still one of my cherished television memories.) Richter knows when to barge in and when to hang back.

Jimmy Fallon, host of “The Tonight Show,” has a similar rapport with the Roots, who provide the musical soundtrack for his playful taffy-pull of a show.  But chemistry comes easiest between performers who do not take themselves overly seriously.  Witness Fallon and regular guest Justin Timberlake removing their matching shiny microphones from behind their chairs before launching into a “History of Rap” number, staring at the implements as if vaguely remembering their use before launching out of their seats for another high-velocity medley.


Sketch comedy also depends on performers who trust each other, and enjoy each other’s presence.  “Saturday Night Live’s” strongest runs have coincided with the emergence of performers who are comfortable on screen with each other.  Watching Mike Myers and Dana Carney as Wayne and Garth, or Tina Fey and Fallon at the “Weekend Update” desk, we know (or think we can know) that we are seeing humor born out of shared good cheer — of performers who are inspired by playing with, and against, their colleagues.  

Even shows like “Inside Amy Schumer” and “Kroll Show,” with only one above-the-line star, require the collaboration of favored accomplices, happy to dally inside the world they’ve created.  One of my favorite sketches on television this past season, “Too Much Tuna” from Comedy Central’s “Kroll Show,” unites Kroll with “SNL”‘s John Mulaney as two cranky middle-aged Jewish men with a penchant for pranking friends, acquaintances — and each other — with plates of overstuffed tuna sandwiches.  The idea is patently ridiculous, but works because Kroll and Mulaney are so clearly enjoying the gag.  

And without that aura of playfulness between its performers, shows suffer.  Everyone knows TV’s good cheer is fundamentally pretense, but when we can feel the fakeness, we cringe, and stop tuning in.  The “Today” show has never fully recovered from the ouster of Ann Curry, and the perception that strained on-air chemistry between Curry and Matt Lauer prompted her dismissal.

From the perspective of the audience, chemistry also depends on a variety of ignorance about our favorite performers.  Barkley can throw shade at the women of San Antonio, but he is only living up to his role within the show as designated provocateur and comic dispenser of outrage.  But when Jenny McCarthy took over one of the seats on “The View,” the long-running ABC series predicated on Everywomen bantering about matters large and small, her extremist anti-vaccine advocacy (justly) denied her the opportunity to meld with the scenery. 

In the end, chemistry requires the partial stifling of individuality in the name of collective harmony.  Without it, we are only left with dueling, incompatible personalities, unable to settle in for the business of entertainment. 

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