Tavis Smiley: Week in Review, Part I

HOWARD MEGDAL: I am consistently struck by a pair of truths when watching Tavis Smiley:
1. He consistently gets a caliber of guest unmatched anywhere with the exception of Charlie Rose.
2. He manages to waste that opportunity far more often than he makes use of it, with nonsense questions and long non-sequiturs about his own life.

In fact, on the few occasions the guest has been too good for me not to watch, there is this unfailing Tavis Smiley Guest Face, where the guest seems to wonder if he really has to answer such a ridiculous question.

So what follows is a Week in Review of Tavis, starting with Monday night.

Smiley had a pair of guests: Malcolm Gladwell, the author, and Professor Robin D.G. Kelley, who has written an exhaustively-researched biography of Thelonious Monk.

Smiley went 1-for-2.

With Gladwell, he was astonishingly poor. I tuned in just in time to hear him ask Gladwell, I guess in response to the title of his collection, “What the Dog Saw”, about why there are so many dog books. One wonders if he’d have asked John Steinbeck about America’s fascination with mice, or possibly angry grapes.

Two questions later, after throwing out the phrase, “So I’ll set the dogs aside for just a minute”, he asks Gladwell why it is important to see the world as others do. Because empathy is so controversial- this side of Spureme Court nominees, of course.

A Smileyesque long roundabout leads to his one word description of Gladwell: Curious.

He then takes what feels like ten minutes to point out his “‘hood” credentials, puts himself in the same intellectual category as Gladwell, and finally gets around to a question- is too much intellectual curiosity bad?

No, Tavis. You are an interviewer. Questions are good.

By contrast, Smiley was clearly prepared for the interview with Kelley. Unlike what he seems to normally do- for instance, tried to become part of routines when interviewing Spinal Tap some months back- he let a master storyteller explain Monk.

From contemporary accounts to Monk’s sense of style, Smiley was terrific here.

It only amplifies for me the shocking lack of preparation or at least, ability to translate that into coherent interviews that Smiley often displays, as he did with Gladwell.

And with Nick Kristof on deck, one can only imagine what we’re in for tomorrow.

AKIE BERMISS: I have to agree with Howard — Tavis Smiley’s interviews are almost always train-wrecks.  I’m not sure if he is just a) bat-shit crazy; b) incredibly stupid; or c) foolishly under the impression that his “zany” off-center questions betray some tragic, underscored congenial wit.  What is it about him?  He seems like a nice enough guy and when he’s on point he usually comes through with a terrific interview.  All too often, however, he just seems like a smiling dear in headlights.  Poor guy — sometimes I just want to pull him out through the television screen and just let him have a moment to think things over.

Last night’s interview with Malcolm Gladwell should have contained one of those moments.  Yes, I think its clear from the his body of work that Tavis Smiley is an intelligent man, but if that’s true then the only excuse for last night was plain old unpreparedness.  I too, ironically, couldn’t get the sound on my computer to function initially, so the first question I heard was also: “Why are there so many books on dogs?”  An immediate head-turner, I suppose.  And it might have worked as an initial joke — if it’d been presented as such.  But while Gladwell stammers good-naturedly waiting for Tavis to say something like: “Haha, just kidding!”

But it never comes.  And so Gladwell is forced to come up with some sort of answer for the question.  And you can see him sort of fighting back a confused look as he tries to explain why dogs make people smile.  Nary a blink or blush from Tavis — he just blithely continues interviewing (indeed continues to ponder the significance of dogs).  But, honestly, the interview is saved by Gladwell who manages to dominate the segment by just talking as much as he can.  It wasn’t a massacre, thankfully.  But only because Tavis didn’t say too much.  It was obvious he hadn’t read the book, or even glanced at it, really.  He seemed to just: wing it.

The second interview with Robin D. G. Kelley was much better.  But I wonder if it doesn’t actually also underscore the problem with Smiley (perhaps a week’s close scrutiny will bear me out), but its obvious from the top of the interview that Smiley is pretty familiar with the life and work of Thelonious Monk  — and given that, I didn’t find his interviewing very illuminating.  Here’s an opportunity to ask a man who has spent 14 years of his life researching the life of one of the most important composers in American history — an opportunity to uncover some serious truths about this somewhat mythical character — and most of the interview is devoted to mundane aspects of Monk’s life.  Sure, sure — we all know about him losing his cabaret license, about his spats with Miles Davis, about his dancing on stage.  But where is the discussion of the composition of Thelonious Monk.  A genius composer and piano-player who’s innovations took jazz from simply interpretations of popular song and dance music and turned it into a place where composition was worshiped — and we didn’t even talk about his creative process.  Never even mention his music?

Sigh.  It just a shame.  And for me, a piano player — it hits a bit close to home.  I expected more from Tavis here.  If only because I know that he’s familiar with the subject.  I was let down by the interview (but, make no mistake, I will purchase the book).

So — I guess, in the end, Smiley got the job done.  Wasn’t pretty.  Wasn’t even admirable.  But it worked.

HOWARD MEGDAL: On the car ride home tonight, I thought, “Akie is right. I’ve set such a low standard for Tavis Smiley that I was satisfied when he simply asked questions that actually related to the topic and failed to interrupt rudely and pointlessly. Talk about the soft bigotry…”

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