Why does the talk show host always sit on the right?

108

10

With some possible exceptions, why do most talk show hosts always seem to be seated on the right with the guest on the left? Is there a particular reason for this or is it just how it is?

Max Astall

Posted 2018-01-03T14:01:00.703

Reputation: 982

3I have no sources, but I always heard it was because hosts were usually right-handed. Sitting on that side allowed them to gesture while speaking or interact with the guest without resorting to using the non-dominant hand or turning their back to the audience. – bta – 2018-01-04T00:17:43.537

8

Apropos to this concept, I present to you Andy Kaufman interviewing Elaine Boosler. I think he’s making a point!

– JakeGould – 2018-01-04T00:35:24.480

1Whose right? The presenter's or the viewer's? – terdon – 2018-01-04T09:52:18.537

1TV & Film [& stage] is always measured from the camera [audience], so "camera right" is on the right-hand side of the picture [or stage], which actually means the host is sitting on the left of the guest, from their own perspective. For stage, that is unchanging, for camera it means that left & right can be anywhere, but always where the camera is right now. Honestly, it's less confusing that way when you're making shows than trying to explain it when you're just watching. – Tetsujin – 2018-01-04T15:13:01.003

4"...why do talk show hosts always seem to be sat on the right" - and even more oddly, why does the host typically sit behind a desk? As if the host works at his desk (on a stage) all day, and then entertains celebrity guests in the evening. :-) – RobertF – 2018-01-04T16:07:15.657

18Your question is "why does X happen in all cases where we exclude all non-X scenarios?" Logically, X must happen in all cases where we exclude non-X, by definition. Why are all manhole covers round? Not all manhole covers are round. OK, why are all not-non-round manhole covers round? Because we just excluded all of the non-round ones, leaving only the round ones. – Eric Lippert – 2018-01-04T19:27:46.863

2@EricLippert To be fair, that doesn't really address the fact that there are specific reasons for making manhole covers round instead of some other shape. I imagine that is the same spirit of this question. – Darren Ringer – 2018-01-05T21:12:23.723

2@DarrenRinger: Correct, that's my point. The question should be "what factors influence the shape of manhole covers?" and then we can talk about actual realistic factors like cost-to-strength ratio. Round covers go on round holes; the holes are round because pipes are both the cheapest and strongest shape to make an entry into the earth. Rather than asking a question in a form which encourages the tautological answer, ask the question in a form which elicits the desired information: what factors influence the design of talk show stages and the blocking choices of the participants? – Eric Lippert – 2018-01-05T21:22:09.190

3@EricLippert You're being overly literal. The question is "Why does X happen most of the time?" If you're disputing the premise that most talk show hosts sit on the right, then go ahead and give some evidence of that. If you're not disputing that premise, then you're just criticizing the asker for something they never said. – David Richerby – 2018-01-08T02:10:03.833

2I'm not sure they're always on the right, I have seen quite a few hosts on the left - Graham Norton, Ryan Tubridy, Brendan O'Connor, Jonathan Ross (maybe it's a US thing), but @RobertF I am more interested in the desk thing! Perhaps they have notes about the guests on the desk? – colmde – 2018-01-08T10:21:24.050

@colmde Ryan Tubridy is someone whose positioning we can come up with a clear answer for, since he said he was deliberately trying to bring things closer to how they were in Gay Byrne's day and consciously modelling his approach on Byrne's he'd have a strong reason to sit on the left. Of course, that tells us nothing about why Gay Byrne sat on the left in the first place. – Jon Hanna – 2018-01-08T12:50:46.937

Answers

74

According to Slate:

Because it makes them seem powerful. In Western culture, we read from left to right, and we watch theater and television that way, too. Our eyes end up on the right side of the screen—where the host sits (also known as stage left). In the theory of stagecraft, it's understood that a rightward placement telegraphs royalty. So no matter how famous the guest may be, sitting to the left makes him or her seem subservient. Late-night hosts also sit slightly upstage (farther back and slightly elevated) from their guests, which likewise reinforces the notion of a power imbalance.

Stage designers hold that guests make a stronger impression if they enter from stage left, crossing in front of the host and shifting the audience's focus ever so briefly. Perhaps that's why David Letterman—famous for the occasional cutting takedown—makes his guests march in from the weaker stage right. Colbert [when he was host of Comedy Central's The Colbert Report] plays with this dynamic most self-consciously. Guests wait in the interview area while Colbert makes his entrance. He keeps the focus on himself at all times.

However, these days there are exceptions:

British comedian James Corden made his debut as host of CBS' Late Late Show on Monday, promising at least one big change to the familiar U.S. late-night talk show format before he even started.

"We’re gonna bring all our guests out at the same time, so all of our guests will sit together for all of the chat segments of the show," Corden told KPCC last week.

[...]

During interviews, Corden sits in an office chair to the left of his guests [...], who all share a couch. This literally puts him on the same level as the celebrities, theoretically allowing for more casual, more intimate conversation.

[...]

Interviewing without a desk, as well as inviting multiple celebrities on stage at once, is an intentional homage to iconic U.K. chat show host Graham Norton. On The Graham Norton Show, there is no desk. Norton sits to the left of his guests, who share a single long couch.

[...]

Bravo's raucous Watch What Happens: Live has perhaps the most unique set of any American late-night show. Not only does host Andy Cohen lack a desk, but he sits to the left of his guests. (And this is to say nothing of the on-stage bar.)

BCdotWEB

Posted 2018-01-03T14:01:00.703

Reputation: 21 204

18Interesting how that report thinks Norton was the influence for that - he was beaten by 30 years or more, Frost, Parkinson, Wogan all used a similar setup, though they usually used an ever-expanding row of chairs sneaked on stage as the camera cut to the next guest's entrance. – Tetsujin – 2018-01-03T16:24:54.113

12I"m not sure I'd take Slate as rock-solid reliable. – Carl Witthoft – 2018-01-03T16:46:50.207

1@Tetsujin Maybe it was where Corden first saw it (although he's old enough to remember Wogan, he's about the same age as I am and I couldn't tell you which side Wogan sat until I saw this question). – Grim... – 2018-01-03T17:05:12.660

He's probably old enough to remember Parky too - who would have started before he was born, but had a resurgence later... but it was more the 'everyone's level' seating [guest/host have the same chair, same staging, no desk] rather than the left/right arrangement that was shared by all those 'old greats' from the UK, so Corden will have grown up with that as his inner mental image rather than the Letterman/Carson image. I guess the sofa came from Norton, but the rest of that staging was already in his mind. – Tetsujin – 2018-01-03T17:21:58.990

16Worth noting that the Colbert reference could be a bit confusing now. Colbert hosts The Late Show (I think that's the one) and now has his guests come on and approach him. It was only his satirical "The Colbert Report" where he purposefully changed the norm. – JMac – 2018-01-03T17:27:59.223

1I just binged "I Love America with Sarah Silverman", she also sits on the left on the couch with her guest. – Barmar – 2018-01-04T00:22:14.063

Thanks mate! Certainly is an interesting concept, you'd have to wonder if there was a Hebrew talk show that it would be the other way around (if you're going off the reading right-to-left idea). – Max Astall – 2018-01-04T08:35:41.870

2I had to downvote this answer. The link and copy-paste trips my notice anyway, but the explanations are very reminiscent of evolutionary psychology, the science version of Kipling's Just So stories. Other answers show that this isn't a universal aspect of talk shows, and the divisions are quite close to being along regional lines, if there is even a "dominant side" at all, as other answers show. – Nij – 2018-01-05T07:04:32.097

@Tetsujin: James Corden has been a guest on Graham Norton's show multiple times. I don't think it's unreasonable to say that he used it because he likes how Graham Norton does it, even if Norton wasn't the first to use the all-guests-at-once setup. That's not what's being claimed. – Peter Cordes – 2018-01-05T12:08:14.503

Norton added the sofa, which itself is borrowed from a million daytime TV shows. All I'm saying is that the 'intentional homage' is actually built on a whole series of advancements, over many years. To a US audience seeing this for the first time, it may seem like a single leap; a UK audience would barely notice it. – Tetsujin – 2018-01-05T12:19:22.460

But "bringing on all the guests at once" is a fairly recent development, right? Sure, other shows (Wogan, Ross,...) did end up with all the guests, but IIRC that was still a process of adding one guest at the time. – BCdotWEB – 2018-01-05T12:28:16.047

@Nij I'm not saying Slate is correct, I merely offered it as a possible theory. It is IMHO more likely that there was one US talk show that started this format and when that was a success, other US talk shows copied it. – BCdotWEB – 2018-01-05T12:31:59.733

"iconic U.K. chat show host Graham Norton" is an iconic host of a UK chat show, but he is not a UK host; he's Irish. Growing up in Cork the chat show he would have been most familiar with would be "The Late Late Show" (especially since there was only one TV channel in Ireland until Norton was about 15) with Gay Byrne always sitting on the left. – Jon Hanna – 2018-01-05T18:19:16.677

Oh, no, not the "We read from left to right so some thing that has nothing to do with reading also goes from left to right" explanation again. Tell me, Slate, do talk show hosts sit on the opposite site in cultures whose language is read from right to left? – David Richerby – 2018-01-08T02:13:38.347

85

I presume you're talking about the US.
In the UK they tend to be camera left, though not always.

So, I'd say it's a false premise, but it might be for similar reasons to why you guys drive on the other side... because someone did it first & it was simpler to go the same way than fight it.

Comments/research would indicate this was Johnny Carson - that others tried different approaches but they weren't as well-received in the early days.

He pioneered the powerful 'boss behind the desk' style, which others have since copied.
Whether this was a previously-studied psychological influence, putting the host in the most favourable position, or not, seems moot. Such inference is easy to make after the fact, but it may have simply been some set designer's idea of how to make the studio look "interesting". We may never know.

enter image description here enter image description here

I have, incidentally, only realised whilst doing this research that what I have always thought of as "Letterman-style" is actually "Carson-style"... but I'm a Brit & have never seen Carson.

Presumably, as no-one in the UK would ever have seen Johnny Carson at the time - international broadcasts being extremely rare in those days - this couldn't influence their perceptions, & a much less power-hungry chat show style developed, by independent thought process.
The idea of 'host as demigod' presiding over people who were, in reality far bigger figures in the public perception seems somewhat alien to the British culture. (Conversely, you could say we were more fawning, but I guess that is all dependant on which side of the pond you originated;)

I googled some mainstream UK examples of the 'more equal-power' appearance of UK chat shows across the years, with the host on no particular side, but the staging & seating far more egalitarian, with host & guest in identical chairs as the norm [though there are exceptions] ...

Wogan - left & right

enter image description here enter image description here

Ross - left & right
who seems to have actually occasionally embraced the Carson/Letterman-style, though swapped sides

enter image description here enter image description here

Parkinson - left

enter image description here

Norton - left ... + famous sofa

enter image description here

Last Leg - right [though technically this is a 3-man presenter team, one on the desk & 2 on the sofa, with guests joining on the sofa at camera right of the 2 presenters.]

enter image description here

Frost - left

enter image description here

It's not definitive, but it shows even over here it's not set in stone.

After comments, some more political-style shows...

Paxman - left & right

enter image description here enter image description here

Marr - left & right

enter image description here enter image description here

Reading some of the other answers, it would seem, perhaps, that the UK has eschewed the US-style "behind the desk, position of power" almost entirely & gone for a more "equal-power" approach; the only similarity being Jonathan Ross, in what is a fairly obvious mock-up of the Carson/Letterman-style, though interestingly swapped right for left.

Tetsujin

Posted 2018-01-03T14:01:00.703

Reputation: 11 361

Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.

– Ankit Sharma – 2018-01-05T13:30:55.413

7

Slate has an article from 2010 discussing this. Their initial argument is that the right side of the screen is perceived to be more powerful by audiences in the western world. Later in the article they say that when Steve Allen initially hosted the Tonight Show, the dynamics of the stage that was used favored a screen right desk. After that, people generally didn't want to mess with success, and that subsequent shows that tried alternate approaches were not so successful (although even they give some examples which were at least somewhat successful).

Color me unconvinced by the powerful position argument, although admittedly I'm no expert in this field. Personally, I'm more convinced by the idea that the precedent of having the desk on the right side of the screen was established in the early days of talk shows, it has come to be the expected standard (in the U.S. anyway), and most folks won't want to do otherwise now unless they have a reason to do so. This is backed up (in my mind, at least) by something I read a while back about Johnny Carson - that article stated that everyone wanted to copy him, once he experienced the success he had on the Tonight Show. Unfortunately, I couldn't dig up that article.

GreenMatt

Posted 2018-01-03T14:01:00.703

Reputation: 251

Slate's argument is that we read from left to right so this, that and the other. This argument might be convincing if cultures that read right-to-left adopted the opposite convention, but people who use the reading-direction argument never, ever make that follow-up. So, yeah, I'm completely unconvinced by that one. – David Richerby – 2018-01-08T02:17:38.903

0

Because nothing succeeds like success.

The two longest-running chat shows are The Tonight Show in the US, and The Late Late Show in Ireland.

The Tonight Show had Johnny Carson, and then later hosts, sitting to the right behind a desk and guests to the left.

The Late Late Show had Gay Byrne sitting to the left, with guests either on a sofa or a bank of chairs to the right, as they went through a few different set designs in this regard.

It wouldn't be surprising if either contemporary competitors or people who had grown up watching television were more likely to favour the right if they were American and more likely to favour the left if they were Irish, since America and Ireland both had long-standing successful models to emulate.

But the very fact that the two oldest such shows take the opposite approach shows that neither is the approach always taken. And in places without such long-standing models that are (or were) at the high point of the Zipf distribution that ratings tend to have, it's not surprising to find that the neither side predominates.

It's also worth observing that while game shows often have a format in which it makes sense to have the host to one side and the contestants to another, there's even more variety. In terms of staging the pressures on the choice of side are pretty much the same as with chat shows, so if one was objectively the one to go for (or even consistently subjectively the one to go for) we'd see one side predominate. But game shows don't have the same impulse to try to copy Johnny Carson.

Jon Hanna

Posted 2018-01-03T14:01:00.703

Reputation: 313