Ah, you thought you’d avoided the big screen-grab Bleat, didn’t you. Well, this is the week where I prove the adage about being unable to please everyone all of the time, so here we go. Let’s say hello to our special guest:
Before the Tonight Show, he had several roles in fifties television, including the happy face of Jell-O. (“Now in new Apple flavor,” he noted. Wonder what happened to that one. Sounds delicious.) Before I go on I should note that I admired Carson long after I stopped watching him, and no amount of nostalgia for the shows I saw as a kid was sufficient to make me watch his last few years. In the early 80s I watched Letterman, which made the Carson show look like one of those giant heavy cars favored by old men who wear hats and sternum-high pants. It just wasn’t cool, at least to my 25-year old sensibility, which of course knew everything. I’d watched it as a kid, though – as I noted when I wrote about Paar last week, the Tonight Show was a window into a hip adult world. But by the time I was into the 80s, the old Tonight shows looked garish and mannered – wide lapels, bad décor, endless repeats, predictable guests – why it’s Joan Embrey from the zoo with a creature that may or may not urinate on the desk, and then we’ll show a clip of Ed Ames throwing the tomahawk, which is funny not only because it lands in the groin but it mimics an erection too. The monologues were notable not for insight or pith, but for the routine Carson would play with the audience. He’d tell a few bad jokes, look startled at the poor reaction, recover his pose in a second, bomb again, react with mock alarm, then dance to “Tea for Two.” Golf swing, commercial.
Of course, the ritual and routine were part of the show’s appeal, as was Carson’s self-deprecating schtick, his easy charm and cheer and remarkable self-possession. But when I was growing up I thought he was born to be the Tonight Show host. I didn’t know about this:
It was a 1955 comedy-sketch show that ran for 39 episodes, and had almost as many title cards:
I wonder how many people recognize that shape today, or how it was always connected with a man in a smock and a black cap in an atelier, creating Art.
This is the one they stuck with for most of the run; it emphasized his stick-thin physique . (Makes you wonder if the critics of the time regarded Dick Van Dyke as the thinking man’s Johnny Carson.) Then they switched again:
If there’s one thing you can take away from the show, it’s how the consultants and network execs managed it to death. Within six weeks they’d redone the opening to include the obligatory chorus line (the “Carson Cuties”) who joined Johnny on stage for no particular reason. At the end of the run they were throwing all sorts of sidekicks and recurring actors into the mix. It only lasted one season, but 39 episodes is quite a lot. The DVD contains ten, and they have some very funny moments. Carson is young, eager to please, comfortable enough to break the fourth wall a few times a show, and not much of an actor – he substituted accents and posture for character, as he did with his Tonight Show characters, but the results were still amusing. He did a lot of “roving reporter” bits. Here he covers an Arabian beauty pageant:
The show’s credits for the skit:
The first show introduced him to America, and showed us his wife and three kids.
The boy in the middle died in a car crash in 1991. This one is Cory:
According to the internets, he’s now a guitarist. Possibly this guy? Probably.
This bit was funny as hell:
He played a mentalist who read the audience’s mind, and in the middle of the bit he found himself unable to concentrate, which led to this card:
It’s a mild joke, but it must have looked somewhat startling; you didn’t see actual real true network logos, or other corporate symbols, used like this. When you think about it, that’s the 1955 equivalent of the Saturday Night Live mentality, twenty years ahead of its time. Or so I get the feeling.
But it made me wonder: it looked like a take-off on someone famous. And indeed, it was. Not Dillinger, but Dunninger.
A guest spot from . . . him. You know, That Guy:
I don’t know who he is – Arnold Stang crossed with Orville Redenbacher by way of Dennis the Menace’s father. But he was in everything. I’m sure I’ll know tomorrow.
After the show ended, Carson was still under contract to CBS, so they put him in a short-lived daytime show, one episode of which is on the DVD set. Not very good. It’s not just the lame material that seems sad, it’s the fact that Carson seems comfortable doing it. But soon after he took a job that must have seemed like a fall from the heights:
Johnny Carson, quizzzzmaster. Think of it: you used to have a TV show on a network, coast-to-coast, cover of TV Guide, and now you’re doing an afternoon game show with an organ banging out your themesong. The faces on the show look like old photos from Grandma’s album:
The disk only has one episode, but you could watch twenty. He was good. For once the weightless cheer didn’t have to anchor a big show; he could just chat with Regular Folks and crack jokes, and he displayed a gift for endless spontaneous repartee that completely lacked the quality of his competitors, who talked constantly and said nothing. Like Groucho, Carson used the guests as foils and springboards, but unlike Groucho, he wasn’t one step removed from the guests, toying with them like a lazy old lion batting around a nervous cub.
It saved his career, and elevated him to the point where he’d no longer have to talk to ordinary folk very much any more. Too bad. The disk ends with a snippet from a guest-host appearance at the Paar show, and he’s nothing like Paar; he must have seemed boringly ordinary compared to Paar, smooth and frictionless, a company man. But there’s a moment where he sits down behind the desk and grins:
And that’s just the way things should be, you think. And so they were until the day he left.
Augh! I'd promised a "24" update this week. Crap. Right. Shoot. Well, like i said, it's my week to disappoint everyone, somehow. Apologies - it was a four-column day, and it's midnight now and I haven't even begun to watch it. But there's a new Quirk and a new Funnies . . . and no, that's not the same, I know.
One last note: Cathy Seipp is in the hospital. She's a wonderful writer, wry and charming and funny. I never met her, but we did a podcast together for the Instapundit network, and she gave me a nice book review, which was typically smart and generous. Her daughter is updating her mother's site. Pay it a visit; read her works; pray if you're so inclined. Maybe pick a good line and memorize it.
Read the words and remember the name: in the end it's all an author can hope for. I hope she knows that we did, and we will.