Where Flannery O’Connor meets Julia Roberts on Late Night Talk Shows

We watched some late night TV last night, after class and before getting back to work on a suspended sestina, flipping back and forth between the two format giants, Letterman and Leno. Polished Letterman is the APA stylist of the late night television talk show. His “Top 10” list, for example, is always delivered according to strict formatting rules. He doesn’t wait for the laugh, but interrupts himself after each number, announcing the next number, tossing each card away – it’s a throwaway joke. He could be reading from a menu announcing the evening specials at a swank restaurant. If Letterman is APA, Leno is MLA, and The Tonight Show proceeds with ethos borrowed from Johnny Carson, the original stylist. For both Letterman and Leno, strict formatting rules govern the fit of suits, the colors and knots of ties (the tie remains the essential costume piece, signifying a governing body) the buttoning and unbuttoning of jackets. They both must sit stage left, slightly elevated above their guest, protected by a faux desk, a prop, but note their desks are at opposite ends of the stage, a stylistic difference that conforms to the meaningless but self-sustaining differences between APA and MLA. Form and content merge into one smooth, purposeful style. Last night, both Letterman and Leno sported purple in their ties, surely an oblique reference to Flannery O’Connor’s use of color as an ecclesiastical prelude to sanctifying grace.

Letterman’s grace last night appeared in the form of Julia Roberts, introduced by Letterman with such gravity one expected the appearance of an angel, and in this the audience was not disappointed.

According to the Inland Register, in a review of Brad Gooch’s biography, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, Flannery appeared on The Tonight Show with Steve Allen, the original host, which would have put the appearance sometime in the mid-1950’s. We’ve not read the Gooch biography, but any reference to a TV sighting of Flannery on The Tonight Show should be rigorously pursued, cited, and referenced. We’ll see, but a few Google Books searches of other Flannery biographies found no references to Steve Allen or The Tonight Show. Who knows, maybe Flannery had her own TV talk show in a broadcast limited locally around Andalusia, live peacocks walking around the set instead of fake New York City night-lit backgrounds.

Meantime, it appears to be common knowledge that Conan O’Brien, briefly usurping Leno last year as MLA-Tonight Show host, wrote his Harvard thesis on Flannery O’Connor. According to the New York Times (para. 28), O’Brien’s thesis was on Flannery and Faulkner. We’re not sure if Flannery’s appearance on The Tonight Show with Steve Allen is an arcane piece of trivia or if it too, like O’Brien’s Harvard thesis, is common knowledge. In any case, it seems an irony that Flannery would appreciate, her admirer O’Brien hosting the same show on which she appeared, only to be yanked. O’Brien failed to secure the revision of The Tonight Show manual of style because of the cumulative effect of wearing the wrong tie each night.

Last night we took a look at “Good Country People,” later, watching TV, imagining Flannery chatting and laughing about her characters with Letterman (no idea at the time she actually had been on a talk show back in the 50’s), as Julia Roberts was doing, laughing for the audience, maintaining the stylistically approved appropriate authorial distance. Yet Julia commented, referring to the audience, “they want to be part of the experience,” and illustrated by gracefully acknowledging one like-minded woman in the audience who had commented on her running routine. But who wants to be part of a Flannery O’Connor experience? Maybe that’s why O’Brien failed. We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: Ah, Flannery; ah, humanity!

4 thoughts on “Where Flannery O’Connor meets Julia Roberts on Late Night Talk Shows

  1. I’m nearly positive O’Connor didn’t appear on Steve Allen. That’s a misreading of Gooch’s biography.

    Instead she appeared on the May 31, 1955, premiere of Harvey Breit’s “Galley Proof,” a short-lived, midafternoon NBC program.

    Later in the chapter, Gooch writes of “the new genre of talk shows pioneered at NBC, such as The Today Show (1952) and The Tonight Show (1954) with Steve Allen, of which Galley Proof was a short-lived example.” The Inland Register reviewer undoubtedly skimmed this section and conflated the two programs.

    You can find the transcript of the Harvey Breit program in the book, “Conversations with Flannery O’Connor”

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  2. Wow, thanks for the clarification and amplification. I will get the “Conversations with Flannery” book. Thanks for reading and commenting. Flannery would have made a great guest on any Steve Allen show, say “What’s My Line?”

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  3. Even so: the gist of your post (which is satirical, after all) is still valid. Gooch’s point is that O’Connor understood the power and influence of celebrity-driven television (and it’s potential effect on the future of authorship).

    O’Connor was ultimately much more relaxed when she was accommodating journalists at her farm rather than in New York, about which she complained, “I had interviews with this one and that one, ate with this one and that one, drank with this one and that one, and generally managed to conduct myself as if this were all very well but I had business at home.”

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