Tom Snyder was an extraordinary TV presence, as impossible to miss as an oak tree, even though his venue was late, late night. We mourn his July 30 death, at age 71, from leukemia.
We hadn’t heard much from him since he left his last TV gig, at CBS, in ’98 and then after he fell ill in 2005. But in his prime, Snyder was a television natural who never flinched when the ON AIR light was illuminated. He was made for TV: a talk-show host who filled the screen from coast to coast but somehow talked only to you.
His NBC Tomorrow show opening was often a stream of Snyder consciousness and cigarette smoke, a monologue filled with musings about the things that made him mad or made him laugh—very famously. It often included verbal brickbats at whatever network exec was irking him.
Television doesn’t have anyone like him around anymore. His interviews were very personal and flamboyant, and he was prone to going off on the odd tangent.
Sometimes, it was clear he was untethered, particularly when he talked to punk rockers Johnny Rotten, Wendy O. Williams and other music radicals who gravitated to his show. But Snyder could also probe news figures in a style so refreshing he created headlines.
He wasn’t a piece of cardboard, that’s for sure. He could be serious, and a joker. And thankfully, he didn’t mind being the butt of the joke: It’s Dan Aykroyd’s Saturday Night Live parody of Snyder’s laugh than many remember more vividly than Snyder’s doing it himself.
His unapologetically off-kilter style killed his chance to become a network news star, although he did NBC News primetime updates and hosted the Sunday newscast. And his style served him well as a local anchor in such places as Cleveland, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and New York.
His true calling, however, was late night, where the best hosts seemingly create the kind of inviting club preferred by the particular insomniacs who tune in. Given Snyder’s intimate style, the milieu suited him perfectly, and Tomorrow ran from 1973 to 1982.
David Letterman’s late-night show on NBC replaced Snyder’s, but Letterman had such respect that, after he switched to CBS, he brought Snyder along to host the Late, Late Show, from 1995 to ’98. They shared several traits. Snyder, born and reared in Milwaukee, frequently mentioned his Midwest roots, the way Indiana-born Letterman does. It made it seem that Snyder was not totally transformed by being a network star.
And like Letterman, Snyder had a reverence for television. Every night, he invoked the “magic” of the medium by inviting viewers to “fire up a colortini, sit back, relax and watch the pictures now as they fly through the air.” The “colortini” confused everybody: It was the imaginary martini-like drink Snyder felt we should all enjoy when watching his show. But that warm and engaging language about pictures flying through the air—Snyder expressing his love for TV—couldn’t have been any clearer.
Here’s something else pretty clear: He was an original.