Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Johnny Carson Becomes a Habit

Johnny Carson became a television institution. The reasons why may have been apparent even when he began his 30-year run on the Tonight Show in 1962.

Tonight had been based in New York since its inception in 1954. People tuned in Steve Allen to see what crazy things he might try. When he left, people tuned in Jack Paar to see if he’d implode on camera. Carson promised something tamer than both but his version of late-night entertainment quickly became more popular than what preceded him. Carson analysed the show in an interview during his show’s first sojourn to California less than a year after he took over—a place that would become his permanent base for 20 years starting in 1972. This appeared in papers starting May 20, 1963.
Carson Takes TV Show
On Visit to West Coast


HOLLYWOOD (UPI)— Johnny Carson, the nice guy who replaced Jack (The Weeper) Paar on the "Tonight" show, has brought his troupe to movietown for a few weeks to give and take with the stars.
Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Kirk Douglas, Edie Adams and Marlon Brando are among his scheduled guests.
Carson himself had a long fling at Hollywood with little success before flying off to New York and stardom. This is perhaps the only thing he has in common with his two predecessors on the show, Paar and Steve Allen.
They, too, bombed in tinsel town before hitting it large in big town on the Hudson.
But that is where most similarities end. Carson's ego is miniscule compared with Paar's and his intellect and proclivity for causes falls somewhat short of Allen's.
Higher Ratings
Still, Johnny has racked up higher ratings than either.
After eight months of his late night show Carson has not fallen victim to the jitters that finally caused both Allen and Paar to flee the man-killing show. "I enjoy the program," Johnny said over a platter of bacon and eggs. "I try not to let the pressure build up by taking a week off every two or three months. "If you have a bad night on the air you just have to forget about it because you can't go back and do anything to improve it.
'The law of averages is what saves you. Some of the shows are good and some are bad. You just hope for the best and take each day as it comes."
Some days are worse than others. For instance, Johnny recently arranged to have Zsa Zsa Gabor and Ida Lupino on the same show, only to discover the girls weren't on speaking terms. He had to separate their appearances to eliminate the possibility of a chance meeting backstage as well as on camera.
Last Outpost
Johnny is convinced his NBC show is the last outpost of "real" television.
"I hate to see TV become a projector for movies," he said.
"Our show is sort of like a peeping Tom who eaves drops on his neighbors. We're just people sitting around with a spontaneous gabfest on our hands.
"I think the show is a success because of the time slot it becomes a habit."
Carson’s success was no surprise to syndicated columnist Earl Wilson, who was a huge backer before Johnny even took over the Tonight Show. Here’s what he had to say in the July 1962 edition of TV Radio Mirror:
Begging Jack's Paar-don. . . . But Johnny Carson will successfully succeed him. That's my prophecy about how Carson'll make out, taking over the "Tonight" show this fall. Johnny's a funnier guy, strictly as a comedian; he could be a new Will Rogers. Johnny's "weakness" is that he's not hot-tempered and given to making violent attacks on people. The frequently-uttered comment around Madison Avenue among those who don’t expect him to be a satisfactory successor to Jack Paar is: "He's too nice a guy . . . he'd be better if he were more of a heel."
First, to set the record straight, Paar has never been against Carson taking over for him. Paar was for Carson.
A year ago there was a rumor that Paar wouldn't use Carson on the Paar show because he thought Carson overshadowed him.
"That can't be true," Johnny told me. "Because he has used me and I have subbed for him. Furthermore, Paar told me that he thought I was the one who should replace him when he leaves!"
So Paar was in Johnny's camp ahead of nearly everybody.
Grinning, easygoing, relaxed, accustomed to sitting around Sardi's having a drink, not above
having a date with a young beauty (his marriage is broken up), Carson's no controversialist. People will not be watching him hoping to see somebody get massacred.
The fact that he couldn't immediately take over for Paar is in his favor. Paar will have been off the "Tonight" show long enough that Carson'll escape some of the comparison that—regardless of his show—would have gone against him just because people generally want the old, established product.
Being "Mr. Nice Guy" worked pretty well for Perry Como. I say something approaching that will also work for Carson.
There's a magic to that "Tonight" show—due to the hour and the regularity.
Don't forget that Steve Allen was gigantic when he was doing it. It was he who "changed the sleeping habits of the nation." It was Allen who "kept more people awake than coffee." Look at the stars Steve Allen made on his show: Steve Lawrence, Eydie Gorme and Tom Poston, for example. And before Allen, there was Jerry Lester with the old "Broadway Open House." That program made Dagmar famous.
It was only when they left that show that they had trouble. Not that I think Jack Paar will have trouble. He's going to be ingenious enough to keep the excitement, the battling, the blood-letting raging, even though on the air only once a week. That talent—for excitement—is the one that Jack possesses probably in greater abundance than anybody on the TV scene . . . and the one that Johnny Carson lacks.
Carson succeeded because he was a regular guy, one who was amusing, funny, self-effacing, occasionally corny, a satirical commentator (in monologues) and the engine of what he called a “spontaneous gabfest.” The Carson Tonight Show wasn’t a commercial for a movie. It was a conversation (although Carson was briefed on some feed lines to play straight man). The show didn’t exist to make another TV show or movie look good. It existed to make the guest look good. And Carson looked good in the process until the lights were turned off for a final time.

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