Before David Letterman, John Stewart, Conan O'Brien or Jimmy Kimmel, there was only one truly irreverent late night talk show, and equally cheeky host. Tom Snyder was a martini and Pall Mall response to the meat and potatoes broadcasting of most celeb-based chat fests. Coming on directly after the iconic Johnny Carson, the ironic Snyder always seemed to be winking at the audience, asking them to join him in an after midnight journey into the heart of obscure and unusual pop culture. Long a champion of such outsider cynics as author Harlan Ellison and The Amazing Randi, Snyder's show was almost always more about the subject rather than the shill. Now Shout! Factory is releasing some of the man's best counterculture moments - a series of Tomorrow programs from the late 70s/early 80s dealing with LSD, as well as the men and musicians who made it popular during the '60s psychedelic era. While occasionally missing the entire point of the package – i.e. a discussion of Ken Kesey's Merry Prankster's and the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests that he and the Grateful Dead indulged in - these are still sensational snapshots of a time when drugs defined an entire decade…and continued to corrupt it's spirit many years afterward.
Contained on this single disc DVD are three segments and one almost complete episode from Tomorrow's various incarnations. All feature Snyder (that was an issue in the previous punk rock collection released back in January of 2006) and all focus solely on the guest being presented. No ancillary oddballs pitching pain relief ideas. No weird forgotten media icons looking to spin their latest triumph or tragedy. As a result, we get less than 90 minutes of talk show substance, whereas previously, Shout! Factory gave us full blown, warts and all episodes. More specifically, author Thomas Wolfe receives two 20 minute segments – one to talk about his book The Right Stuff, the other to discuss a collection of his drawings. Acid advocate and counterculture quack Dr. Timothy Leary is onscreen a mere eight minutes during his 'blink and you'll miss it' appearance. Finally, Ken Kesey and the Grateful Dead (circa 1981) sit down to reminisce about the '60s, dropping LSD, and making music. Everyone's favorite hippy jam band then takes the stage for a quartet of acoustic numbers – "On the Road Again", "Cassidy", "Dire Wolf" and "Deep Elm Blues".
Substantially flawed as an actual presentation of Tom Snyder and the terrific Tomorrow show, yet somehow still intriguing in its own minor right, this half-cocked collection of tidbits from Shout! Factory's obviously limited vaults makes a case for certain subjects remaining left to legend. The lack of actual Acid Test material is disheartening (it gets mentioned a couple of times only), yet once we see the interviews being offered, our anger is mitigated, slightly. Tom Wolfe's segments are the best, at least from a purely entertaining and informational standpoint. When Kesey and Leary are on camera, they give off a discernible '60s burnout vibe, with the former actually inferring that he is tripping as Tom addresses him. Leary, on the other hand, basically snickers and throws out non-answers and roundabout avoidances of the whole drug issue (when Snyder asks for an apology to those he may have lead astray, he simply states a mea culpa for being misunderstood) but he's far more coherent than the One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest scribe. Kesey would clean up his image later on and become a wonderful spokesman for the real radicalism he fostered decades before. Still, it's only when Wolfe arrives that the discussion turns lively and literary. Again, he barely mentions his creative Kool-Aid past (it gets a single glancing mention before both men move on) and this actually argues against his inclusion here. Still, he is so erudite, so articulate and witty in his rejoinders about fashion, aging, test pilots and the cultural swing between the '70s and '80s that we'd listen to him talk all night.
As for the Dead, they too acquit themselves admirably. Though we only hear from Jerry Garcia, Mickey Hart, Bob Weir and Bill Kruetzmann (for some odd reason, Phil Lesh and Brent Mydland are not present during the Q&A), the quartet make for quite capable interview subjects. Snyder obviously loves them, as does the audience, and every wisecrack uttered from their slightly hyperactive lips gets a regular regaling of laughter from the crowd. We learn very little of the group's past or present, and the subject of narcotics seems once again a major situational stumbling block. For a band that made their name via experimentation with acid, they seem poised somewhere between 'Just Say No' and shooting up live on camera. They never want to break their amiable approach, but still seem to be hiding something from Snyder. Thankfully, the musical segments save them from the Snyder firing line. All four songs are stellar unplugged workouts, with "Cassidy" turning into one of the band's patented improvisational jams. With a little more control in the panel portion of the program, this would have been a delightful and insightful look into one of modern music's most mysterious entertainment enigmas. As it stands, all we learn is why The Dead were such a sensational concert draw – their playing was powerful and aurally pristine.
Still, the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests were such an intriguing multimedia idea (something that Lesh himself likened to performance art in his 2005 book Searching for the Sound) that to simply round up the usual suspects and present them sans context or a clear connection to each other is tantamount to bait and switch trickery. When your DVD cover art has to fill in all the blanks that the programs and interview segments themselves cannot provide, it seems pretty pointless to proffer these historical artifacts as anything other than engaging novelties. It is always great to see Snyder – no one could balance personal bias, complete cluelessness and abject fanboy adoration better than Mr. Colortini himself – and when placed with a guest who could more than hold his own (Garcia for a while, Wolfe for far longer) we get the reason why Tomorrow remains such a strong memory in the minds of many late night TV buffs. Long before programmers discovered the profitability of infomercials, fluffy publicity love fests and endless b-movie reruns, the gabfest proved that the vast entertainment wasteland could actually deliver something intelligent and insightful. Snyder wasn't always perfect, but he always gave his audience food for thought. This disappointing DVD has a lot in common with the broadcasting legend's approach.
Since this is broadcast TV direct from the 70s and 80s, don't expect digital miracles. This is old fashioned video with all its defective variables in full view. Feedback, ghosting, muddiness and bleeding are among the analog artifacts you will experience as part of the otherwise decent looking 1.33:1 full screen image. The transfers appear taken directly from tape, and occasionally can look very clean. But for the most part, this is like watching old found footage from the boob tubes past. It is presentable, but not very pristine. Frankly, it's impossible to imagine how it could have been improved.
Here's the real downer - TV did not go into full-fledged legit stereo mode until 1984. This means the DVD presentation we have here is nothing but good old conventional single channel Dolby Digital Mono (spread out over two speakers, of course). It has not been remixed. So we get a completely flat and bottomless reproduction of the Dead playing live and the sound is smooth and tinny. The subwoofer suffers the most as there is no bass to speak of here whatsoever. Thankfully, the conversations are all clear as a bell.
Aside from various menu configurations - you can play all the segments, select a single one to view, or select just the songs - there is no other added content as part of this package. No historical information. No context as to when, where and why these shows aired, save for a date and a minimal write-up in an enclosed insert. And, sadly, no information on Snyder. An archival presentation like this needs complimentary material to flesh out its importance in the grand scheme of talk show history. Why this DVD set chooses to ignore these necessary elements is rather disquieting.
It goes without saying that Tom Snyder and Tomorrow deserve better than an uninspired collection of conversations which barely scratch the surface of the subject matter to supposedly be highlighted and discussed. And while Tom Wolfe and the Dead keep this presentation from being pointless, Shout! Factory could have removed the music entirely, easily adding sequences featuring Harlan Ellison and other authors Snyder spoke to over the years, and gone with the far more reasonable literary angle. Granted, it may not be as intriguing as a discussion of hallucinogenic drugs and the decadent, radicalized chic of the '60s (to cop a concept from Mr. Bonfire of the Vanities) but at least it would be honest. As a result, something that would have easily earned a Highly Recommended rating ends up barely deserving a score of Recommended. In truth, Rent It or lower would just be too harsh. So a great big fat caveat emptor goes out to all the psychedelic and/or Snyder fans out there in digital TV land. This DVD will definitely not satisfy your meaningful Merry Pranksters munchies.