The man was born to be a broadcaster, born to talk on TV, without a net, without a script, and without needing much help from other people to tell him what to think. Snyder, who died Sunday in San Francisco at the age of 71, was smart, sharp, fast on his feet and funny, sometimes too funny with jokes that were an acquired taste. At least he had the brains and .... confidence to speak freely on live TV.
Or as Peter Lassally, who was exec producer of CBS' "The Late Late Show with Tom Snyder" and now exec produces the successor show with Craig Ferguson, put it:
"Tom was a true broadcaster, a rare thing. When he was on the air, he made the camera disappear. It was just you and him, in a room together, having a talk."
Snyder had a reputation for being cantankerous, or "prickly," as the AP put it in its obit, but he was way-way nicer than he needed to be during a down phase of his career when a green reporter called his production office one day to ask if she could sit in on a taping of his show.
My husband and I were regular viewers of his CNBC talk show, "Tom Snyder," in the early 1990s. It was rinky-dink basic cable but it was a showcase for what Tom did best: Riff on the day's news and various topical issues, drag interesting interviews out of people, and generally be Tom Snyder, in his 'ahh hah hah' irreverent glory.
A running thing on the CNBC show was mentions of the famous Burbank watering hole the Smoke House, right around the corner from NBC, and its famous cheese bread -- 10,000 calories and a cardiac arrest on the side. One night Snyder mentioned that his show planned to shoot an episode at the Smoke House in the coming weeks. I cold-called the exec producer of the show, Joel Tator, and asked if I could sit in on the shoot and cover it for the local Burbank paper. To Tator's credit, and to Snyder's, they said sure. Actually, when Tator's assistant yelled out to him that "the Burbank paper wants to know if they can come watch the taping," I distinctly remember hearing him yell back, "Why?"
At the time I was in my final year at Occidental College in Eagle Rock, but I was spending most of my time off campus, working as a stringer for UPI, the Glendale News-Press and its twice-weekly offshoots, the Burbank Leader and Foothill Leader. The story idea was an easy sell to editors at the Burbank Leader, and UPI was even interested in a short item.
I spent the day as a fly on the wall as Tom interviewed Heloise, perky purveyor of helpful hints; the owner of the Smoke House, a short pugnacious guy who was shocked when he learned that the martinis Snyder always drank on the show were H-2-O ("you mean this guy's drinking water!?" he said loudly and incredulously after he'd signaled his bartender to bring "Mr. Snyder" a fresh one); and for reasons I can't quite remember, a Pope John Paul II impersonator walked through the episode at one point. And there was a segment with the restaurant's house jazz trio. I sat next to the wife of the pope impersonator at a table and had a few fleeting cameos in the episode, and was in the background of the shot that ran on the front page of the Burbank Leader a few days later. It was big for me, folks.
After a day of taping, when Snyder and producers regrouped back in their offices in the CNBC section of the NBC complex at Olive and Alameda, Snyder gave me about 40 minutes for an interview. He was gracious and funny, and I should've been more perceptive to how beat he must've been. Yes, he agreed with my observation that cable gabfests like his were an approximation of talk radio.
"TV has ripped off talk radio," he said in that booming voice. I didn't know enough about interviewing then to realize just how nice he was being by obliging me with a succinct quote that fit my preconceived angle. And I couldn't have telegraphed my nearly-amateur status much more clearly then I did when I closed the interview by asking for his autograph -- for my husband, a fellow Tom. He grabbed a nearby CNBC postcard with his mug on it: "To Tom: Isn't this a stupid picture?" Yes, we still have it somewhere.
After Snyder had been so good to me, I was really happy for him when he made the big leagues once again when David Letterman tapped him to fill the 12:35-1:35 slot following his move to CBS. As I recall, Snyder wasn't shy about commenting about cable's stepchild status on-air during his CNBC days, and I know he mentioned it during our interview. Letterman gave Snyder another three years of network respectability, which probably meant the world to him, having been in that slot before as host of NBC's "Tomorrow" show following Johnny Carson for most of the 1970s and into the early '80s.
Snyder was famous for not suffering fools, especially rock-star numb-nuts and pablum-plugging celebrity guests, but it was obvious to viewers he had a deep and abiding respect for television, especially the non-fiction variety. This instrument can teach, in the right hands. (Here's an example, courtesy of YouTube, of Tom at work with some non-numb-nut rock stars, the Clash. "Put down the bear, Joe...")
So in tribute to Tom, we should all find a worthy program to watch tonight (MSNBC's "Countdown with Keith Olbermann" would be good), and as Snyder advised a few thousand times during his on-air run: "Fire up a colortini, sit back, relax, and watch the pictures, now, as they fly through the air."