Wednesday, 10 November 2021

Johnny On Johnny and Tonight

Johnny was the King of Late Night.

Even though Jack Paar was fascinating to watch and Steve Allen was more versatile, Johnny Carson sewed up the title, and not just because of length of time he hosted the Tonight show. Viewers loved the comedy, whether it was Carson trying to dig himself out of a bad writing hole during a monologue, one of his corny old sketches read off the cue cards, or someone on the panel doing something unexpected, people in huge numbers loved watching him. They lament his absence today, criticising the current late night hosts for too many political jokes and wooden interviews.

Here’s Johnny in a feature interview that appeared in papers March 1, 1976. He had a long way to go yet. He didn’t walk off the stage at NBC in Burbank until May 22, 1992.

Variety keeps Carson recharged

HOLLYWOOD – The sound of a tennis bail can be heard in the Johnny Carson estate — where tropical vegetation frames a modernistic structure of redwood, stucco and glass — and manicured lawns meander past a swimming pool to acres of wooded grounds.
Johnny and third-wife Joanna are completing their morning's match. Later, he'll take another turn on the courts with comedian Harvey Korman, then change from tennis whites to slacks and shirt for the drive through Bel Air's rarified air to smog-enshrouded NBC-Burbank — where his "Tonight Show" is taped.
His work centers around his nightly 90-minute video offering that occupies his time 37 weeks a year for which he reportedly receives an annual gross income in excess of $3 million.
He rarely sees the press. "The number writers love to do, is about the amount of time I take off from Tonight ' They don't seem to realize I spend more time in front of the cameras in four weeks than most performers do in a year. I'm on the air four days a week, six hours every week — except for the 15 weeks I'm on vacation And, let me tell you, after 14 years, I need that amount of time to recharge."
HIS FAVORITE form of recharging comes from playing tennis, relaxing in Scottsdale, Ariz., or getting together with a small group of friends at his Los Angeles estate.
Joanna and I aren't caught up in the Hollywood goer-outer syndrome. In this town, if you wanted to be part of that circle, you could be going to two, three different openings at night. But that's not my scene. I've got a small circle of people I feel close to socially — a few actors, a doctor, a lawyer, a dentist. And I'd rather be with them, or at home reading."
Reading comprises a large bulk of his work for “Tonight.”
"It's important for me to stay on top of current issues. I get on stage, and I have to know what's going on in the world."
He is as controlled and his demeanor as casual-cool as the Johnny Carson about 15 million people watch each night on TV. But hackles are almost visible when he refers to critics "who evidently expect my show to be ‘Omnibus’ or ‘Meet the Nation.’ Programs like that are a hell of a lot easier to host. You get on air, ask the interview subject a question — then sit back.
"MY FORTE is comedy — and I put together a nightly comedy-variety show. Which is a hell of a lot of hard work. Besides, what's wrong with comedy? I never saw Jack Benny being socially relevant. 'Tonight' gets into relevant issues, but I don't want to spend all my time debating capital punishment.
"What's the future for those who do? You keep hearing about startling new shows going on the air. Then they unveil with the same thing that's been done dozens of times before: interviews with prostitutes wearing masks, FBI informants, a group of homosexuals, civil rights leaders. And where do they go the week after that?"
Johnny Carson is going into his 15th year of "Tonight Show" glory in October, and says it isn't getting any easier.
"It keeps getting more difficult to keep the show fresh, to come up with things we haven't done before.
"Look, I don't even like to hear 'Tonight' referred to as a talk show. David Susskind, William F. Buckley, David Frost — they had talk shows. They'd come on, say good evening, ask questions of a guest — then relax while the answers poured out.
"I'M DOING a 90-minute variety show every night. And that's not easy — which isn't the public's business, or its problem. I don't tell them about the hours I spend on the phone each day with my writers and producers, about the work I put in on my opening monologue, about getting to the studio at 2 in the afternoon to go over format and concept."
The show is — like such TV offerings as the Mike Douglas Show and the Merv Griffin Show — structured in advance.
"We don't use cue cards or have dialogue written, but we certainly do block out areas of discussion we'll go into with guests. No one can put four people on stage with no idea of what he'll talk about — and come off brilliant Unless you've got a Buddy Hackett, a Don Rickles, a Bob Newhart. With them, it's put ‘em on — and let 'em go."
He seems confused when I mentioned former "Tonight Show" guests who maintain Johnny is a master at the put-down, at withering with a glance, an acid-tongue retort.
"I've never been unfair," he says. "I want my guests to look as good as possible, so the show will be as good as possible. I don't want it to be bland, and I'll challenge statements of guests at times. But put them down, never. If I did, they wouldn't show up, would they? "WE'RE NOT ever looking for new trends for the program. They just happen. Television has undergone incredible change, much of which we on the inside are too close to the picture to realize is ever happening. It's like having an outsider come into your house and tell you how much your child has grown. And suddenly you realize, my God, he has at that. Do you realise things we talk about on air now — that we couldn't mention a few years ago when you weren't even able to bring up the word ‘marijuana’ in discussion.
"What's taste? There aren't any more rubes out there. People are pretty much the same, city after city. And there's no Mr. Average mythical person I'm playing to. I've just got to follow my own personal guide-lines.
"It would be a matter of bad taste to kick a guy when he's down. Sure, all those headlines were funny at first about Wilbur Mills and that stripper. But when you learn the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee has emotional problems, that he's an alcoholic, well, you lay off. It wouldn't be fair to make him the butt of jokes — just as it wouldn't have been fair to continue the Agnew cracks after he was indicted. As I said, it's a matter of taste.
"Sure, there are days when I wake up and think, 'Oh, God, I've got to psyche myself up and go before the cameras again today.' But that's the way with any job, I'm sure. The President must wake up sometimes and think: ‘I don't want to meet with that dippy congressman this afternoon.’
"But I enjoy Tonight: If I didn't, I'd quit. Once I did almost quit — but then I realized I didn't know what the hell I'd do with my time.
"If anyone told me 14 years ago I'd be doing 'Tonight' this long, I would have told them they were crazy. All I can tell you now that for me I guess it will be pretty much like Jimmy Durante has said: ‘The audience tells you when it's time to pack it in.’"

1 comment:

  1. Still catch Johnny from time to time on " Antenna TV ". With just one deadpan expression, like ; " Why did I even get out of bed this morning?", he could make a bad monolog gold. He knew who to reign in and who to turn loose. I believe it was Robin Williams' first appearance that Johnny allowed to go right off the rails. It was hilarious. The part about not kicking a public figure once they are down and out, whether it was their fault or not, because of a matter of taste?...Boy, that has gone out the window these days. Sad.