As a Teenager, I Hated Johnny Carson. Then Came the Pandemic.Breaking News
tags: popular culture, television, humor, mass culture
To be sure, Carson’s studied neutrality contained darker undercurrents, most importantly, the old boy’s club sexism that shows up in the tediously leering asides that female guests like Bo Derek and Elke Sommer are subjected to and even in the monologue. In 1984, on the day that Walter Mondale picked Geraldine Ferraro as his vice-presidential candidate, the first time a female politician had been chosen in that role by a major American political party, Carson asked his audience how many thought it was a good idea to have a woman on the ticket. Loud applause. Then he asked how many thought it was a bad idea. About the same. Then came the punchline: “How many think we should move ahead slowly and start with Boy George?” The premise plays like a parody of the pernicious lies of both-siderism.
While Carson hardly changed over the years, one thing I learned from watching episodes over several decades is that his show definitely did. When I watched Carson’s final years, his interviews always seemed like the product of much rehearsal, mapped out and focused on the promotional business at hand. But when Carson took over from Jack Paar in the 1960s, “The Tonight Show” was an hour and 45 minutes and for much of the 1970s it was 90 minutes before settling into an hour. In the early days, with that much time to fill, you can’t plot out every moment and the show was by necessity looser. In the 1970s (when the desk sat on a shag rug), his conversations with guests were freewheeling, with him frequently pausing to smoke a cigarette. He was more willing to talk at length with Truman Capote about capital punishment or suddenly decide to ask every guest on an episode what they recall about their sixth grade teacher.
A master of small talk, Carson listened intently, interjecting strategically, livening up an interview by drawing on a seemingly limitless store of canned jokes and even occasionally poems. When the actor Orson Bean told a story about someone who cut off an arm, Carson said that reminded him of an old joke about a guy with one finger: “He was a great pickpocket: He only stole key rings.”
But the main reason that Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” is so fascinating today is its guests. Since there was so much less competition back then, he always got the biggest stars in America. On a given episode, you could see Jim Henson, Mel Blanc and Jack Benny together, so you get to hear the original voices of Kermit the Frog and Bugs Bunny on the same couch, in dialogue with the greatest radio comedian ever. Just as newspaper archives provide a first draft of history, Carson’s show provides an evolving portrait of the heights of fame and talent of the moment, in Hollywood, but also the comedy clubs.
Seeing Rodney Dangerfield or Steve Martin on the show was guaranteed to be a treat, but there’s also a number of forgotten comics such as Ronnie Shakes who are reminders that the funniest people alive do not always make it big. Long before James Corden brought multiple guests at the same time onto American talk shows, Carson created fascinating moments of interaction, like the time Roger Ebert panned “¡Three Amigos!” sitting next to Chevy Chase, who had just finished promoting it. Carson played the straight man effortlessly, looking just uncomfortable enough to appear polite.