Wednesday, October 23, 2013
When Talk Shows Were Fun: Happy Birthday, Johnny Carson
I always seems kind of weird to mark the birthday of someone who has already died. But sometimes, you just have to, and today is one of those days.
Today is Johnny Carson's birthday. He was born on October 23, 1925, in Corning, Iowa. For those of you who are very young, or who have been out of touch for the past few decades, Carson was the host of "The Tonight Show" from October 1, 1962 until May 22, 1992, a run of just under thirty years, nearly unprecedented in American television, perhaps in television anywhere. He wasn't the first host of the show - he was preceded by both Steve Allen and Jack Paar - and it wasn't really a departure in form. Generally, he did a monologue, followed by some sort of comedy sketch, after which he would interview guests and, often, present a musical guest or a stand-up comedian. The guests were usually celebrities, although he did sometimes interview "regular" folks or people who did things that were of interest to him. Which is how astronomer Carl Sagan came to be a regular guest on "The Tonight Show". Carson was an avid amateur astronomer and was friends with Sagan, and invited him on the show numerous times. Carson's show is where Sagan's signature phrase, "billions and billions", became popular.
One of the highlights of the show were the sketches, where Carson took on a number of personas. My own personal favorite was Carnac the Magnificent, who appeared in a robe and an elaborate turban and "answered" questions that were sealed in envelopes. Other characters included Art Fern, the "Tea Time Movie" television host, and Aunt Blabby, an old lady who was supposed to be an expert on the affairs of the elderly and who would be interviewed by Carson's long-time sidekick, Ed McMahon.
The approval by Carson could make an stand-up comic's career. Carson would signal that approval by asking a comic to sit down in the interview chair for a few words after their performance on the show. Among the comics that received this stamp of approval from Carson were David Letterman, Roseanne Barr, Ellen DeGeneres, Tim Allen, and Robin Williams. Here's a clip of the invitation to sit that Carson extended to Robin Williams on Williams's first visit to "The Tonight Show" on October 14, 1981:
The thing that really made the show, however, was Carson's easy rapport with his guests. Reportedly shy in his real life, Carson always seemed to be able to get anyone to talk to him and could seemingly hold a conversation on any subject. It was always relaxing to watch Carson, unlike some talk show hosts (and I won't name names) that are work to watch.
It was never work watching Johnny Carson host "The Tonight Show". It was relaxing. It was fun. And I it, and him. Maybe the jokes weren't always in the best of taste. And perhaps they seem dated if you watch clips from the show now. But it was late at night. The kids were supposed to be in bed. And, this was a show for adults (although I watched from a fairly young age, usually during the summer once I got a television in my bedroom and was allowed to stay up late enough to watch). This was as close to the edge as people could get on TV, before Saturday Night Life came along and before cable TV was a thing.
The point is, Johnny Carson did his job beautifully. I miss his brand of hosting, as opposed to the more forced, confrontational hosting of some of today's crop of late-night talk show hosts.