Johnny Carson and His Guests:  A Study in Retroactive Relevance

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Baby Boomers and Gen Xers often talk about “the good old days” as if the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s were easy, breezy, more innocent times, while Millennials and Gen Zers talk as if nothing much happened before they came along.  They could all learn a lot by watching The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, a timely time capsule telecast nightly on Antenna TV at 11:30 p.m., exactly the time period when Carson long held court as the most powerful man in television, at least in front of the camera.  If nothing else, the Tonight of his time is a smart and entertaining alternative to what now passes for post-prime entertainment on the broadcast networks (including the Jimmy Fallon version of Tonight, which is good for goofy fun but little else).  Every night the vintage Tonight offers a new treat for those of us old enough to remember the Carson era -- and the world as it was at that time.  But there is plenty of serious stuff to contemplate, as well.

There’s Suzanne Pleshette, years after The Bob Newhart Show ended, talking about her latest project and intimating that the casting directors may need to recover their couches, a remark that generates much laughter from everyone in the audience, including the women.  It’s not unlike the time Marilu Henner appeared at the peak of her Taxi fame wearing a white silk blouse and Carson, staring intently at her chest, remarked that it must have been cold backstage.  The audience roared, including the women.

There’s Cloris Leachman, then in her 50s, looking considerably younger and predicting she would live to a ripe old age because she doesn’t eat meat and maintains a healthy lifestyle, long before such things were part of the national health conversation.  (Leachman is currently in her 90s.)

There’s Joan Rivers (above, with Carson), in happier times as a guest, flaunting a new fur wrap and making vicious fun of Elizabeth Taylor’s weight gain.  Carson would later choose Rivers as his first female guest host, and then his first permanent guest host, an accomplishment at the time for a woman given the show’s status then as the top moneymaker on all of broadcast television.  (Years later, when Fox offered to make her the first woman to host a late-night talk show of her own – another huge accomplishment – Carson got pissed, forever banned her from Tonight and never spoke to her again.)

There’s Dick Cavett talking culture with Carson.  He was formerly Carson’s smart, sophisticated and struggling time-period talk-show rival and the only one to last a few years opposite such formidable competition.

And there’s the man himself, Johnny Carson, being naughty in those recurring Mighty Carson Art Players sketches, the humor in which often revolved around women with big breasts (see below).

Watching The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson for a few nights makes clear that much has changed over the decades – except when certain guests are on who make it seem that nothing much has changed at all.  For example, there’s legendary ABC News reporter Sam Donaldson (below) talking about the challenges of covering a president (Ronald Reagan) who used to be in show business and admitting that he sometimes interjects personal opinion into his work, with combustible blowback from viewers and the media alike.

More to the point:  A recent telecast from 1981 featured noted author and intellectual Gore Vidal (pictured at top), a popular talk show guest throughout his career.  Think things are terrible today, young people?  Consider the following excerpts from his conversation with Carson – many of them still unnervingly relevant -- and then consider locating and reading one of his many acclaimed, painstakingly researched novels about the history of this country.  One can only imagine what he would write about the Trump years, were he still with us.

Here is Ronald Reagan’s game plan for the economy: Cut $30 billion from everything and then add $60 billion to the military budget.

About once a generation the fundamentalist Christians swing down from the trees.  The last time they did was in 1919 when they gave us Prohibition.  Now they are swinging down again. [Note:  At the time of Vidal’s appearance on Tonight the state of Arkansas had just become the first to pass a law that made it mandatory to teach creation in school along with the theory of evolution.]  I think they will cause some disturbance, but they are only about one percent of the population.  Most Christians are not so violent on the subject.  If they want to have school books that explain the Garden of Eden rather than evolution, they should have them.  Then, when the kids cannot go to MIT or become doctors or lawyers they’ll think maybe they should study other books.

Why should any minority tell the majority of the country that their little religion is going to be the national religion?  This is not a Christian country, nor a Jewish country, nor an Islamic country.  This is a secular society; a society of law, not of religion.

What’s so wonderful about book burners is the people who are always burning the books are those who are absolutely incapable of reading one.  The book burners think people who read must be bad people -- probably Communists trying to overthrow the country.  Let’s burn the books, as they lead to ideas!  Ideas are dangerous, as they lead to thoughts!  This kind of thing has always been going on in the United States and we always tamp it down.  Now they are raising a lot of money and they are intruding on elections!

Religion is tax exempt.  This is the murder these guys get away with.  I want the IRS to take [their] money away the way they take my money away and your money away.  Then we will see fewer of them.

Bad times attract thoughtful candidates.  But it’s two million dollars to go into a Democratic primary for State Senate.  That’s a disgusting waste of money!  One way around that would be to limit elections to about six or eight weeks and make it impossible for any candidate or political party to buy time on television.  That cuts the costs right there.  Let the networks and the local stations give free time, pro bono publico, for the six or eight weeks of the election.  You might get better candidates who didn’t have to read cue cards; who might be thinking as they spoke.  I feel very inferior to the President of the United States, who can read cue cards like nobody’s business.

And my favorite:

I didn’t believe American history could be as boring as I was taught in school.

Not to sound too much like Vidal, but if I were a history teacher I would assign regular viewing of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson as a way for kids to learn that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Reruns of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson are telecast nightly at 11:30 on Antenna TV.

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