Whomever booked The Tomorrow Show between 1977 and 1981 had a tremendous sense of humor. It wasn’t just that they often paired host Tom Snyder — the gray-haired, straight-laced also-ran in the history of late-night television — with the freak representatives of the then-burgeoning punk movement, but that they’d force the poor guy to go from, say, interviewing a televangelist to introducing a half-naked Wendy O. Williams and the Plasmatics, who’d proceed to run through the studio, fall over a few elderly audience members and blow up a Chevy Nova. But as the recently released two-disc compilation The Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder: Punk & New Wave attests, the perpetually affable Snyder was game for anything. He’d allow the chaos to unfold around him, then pose the question rock journalists are usually too self-conscious to ask: Why?
Although this collection of eight full-length episodes is sold on the inherent comedy of a “blissfully ignorant” mainstream talk show host meeting uber-hipsters like Paul Weller and Elvis Costello, Snyder hardly seems thrown by any of them. If anything, it’s the musicians who look out of place. Before obliterating her car, Williams — a former porn star who made a second career out of breaking TV sets and sawing guitars in half — appears almost embarrassed when Snyder asks her what the point is of destroying objects that many people want but cannot afford. Others, however, relish the opportunity to explain themselves to the uninitiated: After a wild performance of “Dog Food,” Iggy Pop goes straight to the couch and describes his music in the context of Dionysian art, all while missing a tooth and bleeding from his nose.
Snyder’s complete lack of preoccupation with being cool removed a lot of these bands from their element and, in the process, earned him their respect. Well, except for John Lydon, of course, who came on the show in 1980 to dump more dirt on the grave of the Sex Pistols while still doing his grumpy, antagonistic Johnny Rotten shtick. Snyder, obviously unfamiliar with Lydon’s personality, reacts with annoyance, and the segment quickly devolves into a hilariously tense standoff. “It’s unfortunate we’re all out of step except for you,” Snyder concludes in a rare moment of aggravated sarcasm.
What was great about Tom Snyder, though, is that he never really judged his guests. In all these clips, he comes across like a good-natured guidance counselor, decidedly unhip but genuinely interested — and a bit concerned — about the motivations of the young people he encountered. Because of that, his conversations with the artists don’t illustrate a generational clash so much as a natural divide. To his credit, Snyder was willing to peer at the other side, squint his eyes and try to understand. It’s not clear whether he ever actually “got it,” but now that most of his subjects are as old today as he was back then, they probably appreciate the effort — even John Lydon.