Last month, Tom Snyder took viewers of his show, Tom Snyder, on a two-bit tour of NBC studios in Burbank. He led us into the NBC gift shop; he spoke with his always-thrilling bitterness about how shabbily NBC treated him when they dumped his Tomorrow show for Late Night With David Letterman in 1982; he barged in on Jay Leno shortly before a taping of The Tonight Show, and it really looked as if one of Leno's producers was going to sock poor Snyder in the jaw. In short, great television. Snyder eventually ended up on the rehearsal set of the new Later With Greg Kinnear, and when he and Kinnear met, you could just feel the...well, not exactly electricity. What's the word-loathing? Instant, mutual contempt? Here was Snyder, 57, silver-haired and jowly, braying about Kinnear's expensive-looking desk and chair, as if the guy should feel guilty about landing a job on a big network. And there was Kinnear, 30 '' the smirkmeister,'' as his predecessor, Bob Costas, kiddingly dubbed him edging away from the now-confined-to-cable Snyder, as if this aging loser was going to put a hoodoo curse on him.
Kinnear should show more respect for his elders, because Snyder is using the medium with an ease that's just about perfect. There are those among us who find great, giggly solace after a hard day when we tune in and hear Tom say ultra-Tom stuff like, ''Good evening, folks, T.S. here with the colorcast watch the pictures as they fly through the air.'' Snyder operates in a broadcast world of his own, some limbo combination of '70s earnestness and '90s weariness; it's a blessed relief to see a middle-aged man on television who isn't trying to pass for a 20-year-old hipster. Snyder does simple, corny, human things: He shows us snapshots of a train trip he took to visit his granddaughter; he gets steamed at a rude Tom Arnold (''Watch his new show or not, I don't care,'' says Snyder in closing); he shamelessly sings the praises of the Burbank eatery the Smoke House, ''the official restaurant of the colorcast.'' Tom Snyder is a private club that anyone with an itchy remote- control finger can join.
Most nights, Snyder has to settle for small-name celebrity guests and incoherent phone-in callers. When he's bored, he can begin aiming his chatter just off stage, talking to a stagehand or producer about the martini he's looking forward to after the show. But even Snyder's blather exerts a fascinating pull: He recently spent about five minutes at the top of a show telling us of a nightmare he'd had about hosting a morning talk show ''with a woman named Rachel. I'm hatin' it because all we do is makeovers. '' No talker on TV is as unbuttoned as Snyder; I'd give him an Emmy just for the way he'll go to a commercial lip-synching to Frank Sinatra's recording of ''Come Fly With Me.''
One big reason Snyder is enjoyable is that everything he does is free of the debilitating irony and self-consciousness that cripples so much pop culture these days. By contrast, Kinnear is constantly on the verge of allowing his raised-eyebrow knowingness to get the best of him. He came to prominence making clever fun of daytime gabfests on the E! channel's Talk Soup. Now in the soup himself, Kinnear knows just how goofy a talk show can be, and this awareness serves him well. Although his version of Later includes a hee-hawing studio audience, it has retained a certain efficient intimacy: brief opening remarks; some funny, Talk Soup-style clips called ''Media Bites''; one guest; a half hour and he's outta there.
It's a good formula that Kinnear uses to his advantage. His biggest liability is his ridiculously small desk, a surfboard-shaped wedge of wood that barely separates him from his guest. So far, Kinnear's conversational skills are hobbled by banal archness: ''Tell me,'' he said to Martin Short, ''how complicated a person is Ed Grimley?''
Still, Kinnear certainly deserves his shot at the big time. Snyder's CNBC exile, however, is troublesome. It's shameful that a broadcaster as consistently entertaining and professional as ol' Tom be relegated to the same low-rated network as the gravely self-absorbed Dick Cavett, the deeply tongue-tied Daisy Fuentes, and that Real Personal sexual-behavior-show guy, Bob Berkowitz, who basically does a Tom Snyder impersonation every night of his life. (Snyder has referred to him on the air as ''Robert 'How Do You Feel About Your Penis' Berkowitz.'') One can only hope that the rumors about Snyder taking over the post-Letterman slot on CBS are true, and that Tom, his martinis, and his colorcast will show these whippersnappers a thing or two. Tom Snyder: A