Good actors, funny comedians, card-carrying intellectuals — when it comes to appearing on the nighttime talk shows, there’s no guarantee that any of these people will be able to deploy their talent or their smarts to qualify as a top-notch guest. For every big name who manages to crack up Jay Leno or David Letterman (Tom Hanks always arrives prepared to kill; Bill Murray has a weird stream-of-consciousness guest mode that’s always exciting to witness), there are a slew who come off as merely polite, dull, or insufferably full of themselves. The folks who book talk-show guests must lead a hellish life, since it’s impossible to tell whether someone who’s popular, articulate, and amusing on screen — or at an industry cocktail party — will be able to translate those qualities into entertaining chatter on a talk-show couch. For viewers, this unpredictability can yield nice surprises. Baywatch’s Yasmine Bleeth has become a regular visitor to Late Night With Conan O’Brien, where she’s proven to be quick and funnily self-deprecating about her bathing-suit fame (see box, right). Albert Brooks makes movies so innately funny that laughs seem almost irrelevant, but as a talk-show guest, the guy works a crowd like the finest Borscht Belt tummler. Right now, though, the hands-down best guest in America is Bonnie Hunt. Familiar as a supporting actress in movies like Jerry Maguire and Jumanji, less familiar from her low-rated, high-quality sitcom, Hunt has the ineluctable stuff that makes her a talk-show joy: She’s smart but not smug about it; she’s a really fast ad-libber but doesn’t hog the conversation; she’s flirty and racy without coming off desperate or smarmy. Letterman recognized that Hunt had the goods years ago, and she’s been solid gold for him every time she’s appeared. Their recent badinage (Hunt was making the rounds to promote Jerry Maguire) had such crackling energy — she and Dave spark off each other, finishing each other’s thoughts — it made me realize why we like talk shows, and how rare it is to see crisp exchanges anymore.
In an earlier era, Jack Paar used his show to develop a stable of silver-tongued semiregulars, quirky conversationalists like Robert Morley, Hermione Gingold, and the hypochondriacal pianist (and maybe the most brilliant talk-show guest in history) Oscar Levant. Johnny Carson cultivated guests as various as the deadpan New York writer Calvin Trillin and the wiggly, daffy Charo; the late McLean Stevenson kept his post-M*A*S*H career going for a while being genially clever with Johnny, as did Burt Reynolds during his Playgirl-posing phase. Jimmy Stewart used to arrive on The Tonight Show with some fresh rhymed verse the audience always loved. Tom Snyder has, over the years, turned his old buddy Harlan Ellison — the perennially whiny sci-fi writer who hates being called a ”sci-fi writer” — into a dependable guest-you-love-to-hate. Even the fictional talk-show host, Garry Shandling’s Larry Sanders, has an obvious favorite: The X-Files’ David Duchovny, who does a brilliantly brave job of playing himself as a sycophantic brat. But sometimes even the best talk-show guests get used up and discarded by the medium. When, for instance, was the last time you saw Teri Garr on Late Show? And hosts must always be on guard against the guest who tries too hard: Jennifer Tilly is almost always a cringe inducer, and the forced merriment Kenneth Branagh brought to Letterman recently made his segments seem longer than his Hamlet. It’s a tricky business, this being a guest: You never know when people will want you to get comfy and stay longer than you’d planned, or hand you your hat and show you the door.