When Charles Grodin died earlier this week at the age of 86, he left behind decades of wonderfully deadpan comic performances in film and TV, as well as eight books published between 1989 and 2013. He’s also rightfully remembered as perhaps the best talk show guest of all time, thanks to a long series of hilarious interviews with Johnny Carson and David Letterman. Grodin’s interviews were a curmudgeonly send-up of talk show convention, mocking the fatuousness of canned stories, predictable jokes, and that weird thing where the guest and host act like old friends even when they clearly have never met before. If you didn’t know better you’d think Grodin was simply being an asshole, but given he made dozens of appearances with both Carson and Letterman, it was clear they were all on the same page, no matter how ugly the interview might’ve looked. Here are some of our favorite examples of Grodin’s deconstruction of the talk show interview—including one genuinely confrontational interview from late in his career on one of Sean Hannity’s Fox shows.
In 1989 Grodin published his first book, the comic memoir It Would Be So Nice If You Weren’t Here: My Journey Through Show Business. One of his 36 guest appearances on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show came during the book tour, where the two immediately started bickering over which one of them is mean to the other. This interview is full of the jokingly passive aggressive digs the two always took at each other, with Grodin playing it all so bone dry that you could be excused for thinking there was real animus between the two. Grodin accusing Carson of not actually caring about his guests or what they have to say was a recurring motif of his talk show appearances, and really, the main driving idea behind them.
The following year Grodin returned to Carson’s show to promote the paperback release of his biography his then-new film Takin’ Care of Business. It immediately turns into another contentious discussion, with Grodin once again confronting Johnny Carson about whether he actually cares about what his guests have to say. Grodin never breaks his stone-faced routine, and repeatedly mocks Carson for a weak joke from that night’s monologue. This strikes to the heart of Grodin’s talk show guest persona: terminally bored and unhappy, and defiantly disrespectful without being crude, he’s the ideal example of a man who’d rather be doing literally anything else than what he’s currently doing. It’s also the rare example of a talk show guest having continuity between interviews; this conversation doesn’t hinge on his previous appearance, but it references it, and picks up on some of the specific comments made the year before.
Grodin’s schtick was a perfect fit for David Letterman, whose entire talk show career was built on ironically parodying the artifice and pointlessness of the talk show and celebrity culture. With a later time slot and a edgier approach to humor than Carson, Late Night let Grodin really lean into the abrasive side of his talk show persona, as seen in his very first appearance on a Letterman show. Being standoffish and rude to a celebrity talk show host is one thing; here Grodin lets himself look like an egomaniac as he lights into the show’s makeup artist and then berates a gaggle of employees, including writer Merrill Markoe.
Grodin appeared on Letterman’s shows 40 times over the years, four more interviews than he did with Carson. In this clip from late in Letterman’s NBC tenure, Grodin comes on to Late Night not to plug anything, but to threaten Letterman with a libel suit for comments made about Grodin during interviews with Carol Burnett and Dabney Coleman. He even brings a lawyer out with him to emphasize the legal threat. I gotta agree with Dave, though: Grodin and Coleman would’ve been a fantastic comic duo, with Coleman’s expressive hound dog frustration making a nice foil for Grodin’s stone-cold deadpan.
Sean Hannity has spent three decades in radio and TV studiously avoiding guests who can effectively puncture his right-wing blather, only booking diverging viewpoints if it’s somebody he can comfortably steamroll in debate. Well, Grodin doesn’t fit that bill. In this 2007 appearance on Hannity’s first Fox show, Hannity & Colmes, Grodin effortlessly does what Hannity’s late liberal co-host Colmes never once came close to achieving: calling Hannity out on the far-right fascism that drives his ideology. Grodin played the curmudgeon for Carson and Letterman, but here he uses that persona to get his foot in the show’s door and then goes straight for Hannity’s throat, at one point even joking that Hannity used to cohost a show with Goebbels. It’s something special.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.