Johnny on the spot


My chum Rich from Wide Screen World left me a link on my Facebook page two days ago, pointing me to this article at Mediaite that asks the musical question: “Remember When Late Night Talk Shows Were… Entertaining?”

What in the heck has happened to late night comedy?  As a kid I remember Johnny Carson… He seemed to approach his show each night with one goal in mind: To entertain his audience. Look how far we’ve come!

The author, who answers to “Larry O’Connor” when he’s not running the cigar stand, complains about the “politicization” of the programs headlined by the likes of Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel, considering recent telecasts featuring failed Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton promoting her book of excuses, What Happened, and Kimmel’s calling out of GOP Senator Bill Cassidy’s (R-LA) draconian amendment to the kill Affordable Care Act in its crib.  O’Connor whines:

Regardless of your position on Obamacare or on the 2016 election, the bigger picture here is how ponderous and self-reverential and sanctimonious our late night shows (and their hosts) have become. Can we get back to entertainment please?  If I want political debates on candidates and issues, I’ve got plenty of cable channels to choose from.

Stephen Colbert interviews Hillary Clinton

Now—at the risk of stepping onto a soapbox myself, I don’t disagree with O’Connor’s premise that our formerly frivolous chat shows have ceased to be “Must-See TV” viewing…though I would take issue with his reasoning that it’s because Messrs. Colbert and Kimmel have started in with the proselytizing.  (For what it’s worth, I don’t budget any time to sit down with either gentleman…because I gave up late night talkfests when David Letterman announced his retirement.) The reason for my dissent is that Larry attempts to bolster his argument with a National Review piece written by conservative Dennis Prager, the sole purpose of that article seems to be to just wag a finger at “the Left.”

Along with virtually every other American, I never knew Johnny Carson’s politics. I would not have been surprised if he was a liberal or surprised if he was a conservative, a Democrat, or a Republican. In his 30 years as host of The Tonight Show on NBC, he never so much as hinted as to how he identified politically. He poked fun at whoever was in power, Republican or Democrat.

The reason he didn’t let on where he stood politically is that he believed that he had a much greater responsibility—to offer Americans of all political persuasions an island of good-natured fun, a place where everyone could laugh together, every night.

Jimmy Kimmel

Prager goes on to scold Colbert for some inelegant language Stephen’s used on past shows (calling President Trump a “prick-tator,” for example), and in a Claude-Rains-is-shocked-at-gambling-in-Casablanca tone, declares “it is inconceivable that he would have used the language Colbert used. Kids could watch The Tonight Show, because he—and we—lived in a pre-Left age, when grown-ups thought that they had a responsibility to be good models to young people, in other words, to be adults. But the Left has never been comfortable with growing up.”  (Your kids could watch The Tonight Show? Was there not a curfew in the Prager household?)

As fond as I am of movies, TV, and radio past…I acknowledge that with each passing generation, standards in the broadcast industry get loosened, and there are now a few words from the classic George Carlin routine that you can say on television that no one (well, those folks without a stick wedged up their keister) will bat an eyelash about.  Pundits like Praeger fall back on one reliable bit of shtick: the American discourse is coarsening, and it’s all the fault of “the Left,” godless Commie bastards that they are.  (I’m ashamed to have linked to Dennis’ article, because in its online state you can’t even use it to scrape off whatever’s on the bottom of your shoe.)

vaultdvdThis is kind of a long-winded way to introduce this post, and I profusely apologize…it’s just that as I was being pointed to O’Connor’s pearl-clutching about how late night shows are becoming more vapid and tawdry with each passing season (and really—have you looked at the stuff they’re vomiting up in daytime lately?), I was serendipitously finishing a 6-DVD new-to-retail collection entitled The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson: The Vault Series.  It’s due to be released tomorrow (September 26), on the heels of another hefty new-to-retail set of Carson reruns that came out last week (Sept. 19), Johnny and Friends: The Complete Collection.  My good friend Michael Krause at Foundry Communications saw to it that I received copies of both these DVD compendiums, and I’ll have a review of Johnny and Friends ready for the TDOY faithful next week in this space (I’m still wading through the riches in that 10-DVD set).

Johnny Carson fans will naturally be curious to check out (and own, pending approval) each Time Life Tonight Show set that rolls off the assembly line…but in a hypothetical situation where you’re forced to divert your disposable income toward little luxuries like food, clothing, and shelter, The Vault Series is the one to get.  The reason is simple (and this is purely a matter of my personal preference—your mileage, as always, may vary): excepting an October 23, 1984 telecast (guests Paul McCartney and Mary Gross help Johnny celebrate his birthday) and a lengthy clip from 1987 featuring Letterman and Joe Piscopo on the Tonight Show couch, the remaining content is culled from classic Carson shows from the 1970s.  You even have the option of watching the original commercials for a real nostalgia wallow.

*file photos*
Ed McMahon and Johnny Carson on the cusp of talk show immortality.

From January 1967 to September 13, 1980, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson was telecast in a 90-minute format…and I think the hour-and-a-half shows spotlight The Official King of Late Night at his finest; my fellow Facebook friend Brent McKee (of I Am a Child of Television blog fame), in participating in the Facebook discussion that the Mediaite article generated, observed:

The big thing for me is that most shows—James Corden is the obvious exception—don’t do the “couch thing” anymore. A guest comes on, promotes his or her movie or book, and leaves. Then the next guest comes on, rinse and repeat. There’s no interaction between guests the way there was with Carson and Cavett and Griffin, and the way there is on British “chat shows”. Another thing is the shift from 90 to 60 minutes. That meant that either sketch material or guests for cut and depending on the host it is usually guests.

I think Br’er Brent makes a solid, salient point about the ninety-minute-to-sixty-minute shift, and the telecasts on The Vault Series from 1972-76 generously allot ample time to allow for lively, fascinating byplay between Johnny and the scheduled guests.  (I need to point out in the interest of fairness that a few of the shows on this set feature the likes of Bob Hope and Dean Martin, who do come on and then beat a hasty retreat.  Some things never change.)  But nothing ever feels rushed, and there’s abundant time for Carson to squeeze in a “Tea Time Movie” sketch (as Art Fern) or Aunt Blabby (one of the shows on Vault features a “Blabby” skit, and it is falling-down hysterical).

Johnny breaks Ed up during an “Aunt Blabby” sketch from March 23, 1976.

My interest in the 1970s Tonight Show era has a lot to do with my firm belief that Carson had a better class of guest back then. Brent and I don’t see eye-to-eye regarding a statement I made: “Outside of watching one of their movies, I care very little about either George Clooney or Angelina Jolie…and they probably feel the same about me.”  Brent responded: “But will you accept that there are those who care about George Clooney and Angelina Jolie?  And that the pool of guests available for these shows is going to be made up of people that have something to promote?”  It’s not for me to either accept or reject—if I don’t want to watch that nonsense, I have the option of switching it off.  (Unless I’m trapped in the waiting room of a doctor’s office, that is.)

Dean Martin introduces Johnny’s 10th anniversary show in 1972. In a December 12, 1975 telecast included on The Vault Series set, Dino lets loose with some ad-libs that have to be bleeped by the censor…which kind of puts the lie to Dennis Prager’s suggestion that The Tonight Show was always “kid-friendly.”

The Vault Series kicks off with a telecast that is worth the price of admission: the October 2, 1972 show celebrating Carson’s 10th anniversary of captaining the S.S. Tonight Show.  Johnny welcomes this powerhouse lineup: Dean Martin (who does a bit at the beginning, spoiling the chance for a reunion with one-time partner Jerry Lewis, who also appears), Jack Benny, Governor Ronald Reagan, George Burns, Joey Bishop, Don Rickles, Dan Rowan & Dick Martin, Dinah Shore, and “Tea Time Lady” Carol Wayne (who gets to chat up Johnny in a short segment after spending the evening showing his guests to the deluxe couch).  With all those comedians on hand, you’re guaranteed a lot of laughs and ad-libs (my favorite was Bishop’s josh that the show is really Johnny’s sixth anniversary…and Joey’s fourth, referencing all the times Bishop guest-hosted)—but I also got a little sad while watching, knowing that my idol Jack Benny wouldn’t be with us much longer (he passed on in December of 1974).

Bing and Ray perform…to the accompaniment of Marvin Hamlisch on piano. It just doesn’t get any better than this.

Bing Crosby and Ray Bolger figure in another classic telecast (it’s one of four shows from the week of March 2-5, 1976—the March 4 program has Johnny singing his rendition of Rhinestone Cowboy), and again I got melancholy knowing Der Bingle was marking time, and that there have been few performers like Bolger since.  The 1970s allow me to see those Tonight Shows featuring classic movie and TV performers that are my favorite entertainers (and why I would probably sit stone-faced through a Jimmy Fallon interview with Miley Cyrus…because I care not one whit).  Other guests in the shows on this marvelous set include Buddy Hackett, John Denver, Dom DeLuise, Charles Nelson Reilly (who mentions his previous boob tube association with Dean Martin), Orson Welles, Sean Connery, Michael Caine (they promote The Man Who Would Be King), and Burt Mustin.  Burt Freaking Mustin!  There’s even an 11th anniversary telecast included in which Ken Norton and Muhammed Ali are on hand for a “weigh-in.”

“Like a rhinestone cowboy…”

Normally, I’d set these shows to play “without commercials”…but I left the ads in, because I get a kick out of seeing what was hawked on the TV set of my youth, watching Doris Roberts promote air freshener or Mariette Hartley sell Nestle’s Toll House morsels.  So, I respectfully disagree with Messrs. O’Connor and Prager as to why today’s hosts can’t compare with Johnny Carson—it’s because they could never match Carson’s one-of-a-kind unflappability and flawless ability to make the show look spontaneous (even when it wasn’t).  Even if they endeavored to behave like good little schoolboys.  Buy this set, people.

5 thoughts on “Johnny on the spot

  1. My memories of Carson are extremely vague; I was too young to know who his guests were or to get his jokes, but I remember the love showered upon him when he retired. I’m willing to bet he wouldn’t have gotten as much of it if he was as partisan as Colbert or Kimmel.

    It must be difficult to remain neutral on a topic, any topic, that impacts so many people when you have a public forum, whether it’s a late-night talk show watched by millions or a blog read by dozens. It’s easy to be as outrageous as Colbert; that gets attention. Carson walked a rougher road.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Prager writes in his article: “In his 30 years as host of The Tonight Show on NBC, he never so much as hinted as to how he identified politically.” Well, this is simply not true. On one of the shows on the Vault Series set, he chats with James Garner and mentions that Garner was among the many guests who showed up at Chasen’s for a surprise anniversary party for Johnny and Ed (they had been working together since the days of Who Do You Trust?). Johnny remarks that although he spotted Garner, he didn’t think anything was amiss because the two of them had appeared at other functions supporting political candidates for office.

      Garner was a lifelong Democrat. (He met his wife Lois at a rally for Adlai Stevenson in 1956.) Now, while it’s certainly possible that he and Johnny were on opposite sides of the fence in the spirit of bipartisanship I strongly suspect Garner and Carson were of the same stripe. So, yes—there is subtext available if you’re willing to look for it…but that’s not what Prager set out to do; he was assigned an 800-word “bash the Left” article by his bosses, and he dutifully complied. Nevertheless, I appreciate you pointing me toward the Mediaite article, Br’er Rich, because it gave me a nice angle in approaching the review.


  2. When you first put this up at the Old Location, I sent in one of (I thought) my better comments, covering Carson’s critical darlinghood (which only happened after he’d outlasted everybody else), with a brief side about That Man In The White House and his inability to take a joke.
    Here at the New Location, my comment seems to have been lost in transit.
    Any idea what happened?

    As long as I’m here, I might point out that Dennis Prager scarcely has to be “assigned” to attack the Left – or at least his demonized version of same.
    Prager’s been riding this hobbyhorse for many years; he runs it in a parlay with his curious maintaining that his own Right Wing never does personal attacks.
    (Brief pause while you pick yourself off the floor.)

    I’ll guess that you don’t want to turn this site into a political one, any more than any of your readers would want you to.
    For the sake of my acid reflux, I’d prefer the old fun stuff any time, twice on Sunday.

    …. BUT …
    … if it does come up, I do stand ready with my own views, many of them like yours.
    All you have to do is ask …


    1. Nobody is more disappointed than I that I wasn’t able to transfer the old comments to the new TDOY, Mike. If there’s software out there capable of accomplishing this I’m not acquainted with it. But I appreciate your input, Mr. Television!


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