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January 30, 2005

  • Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye (No, Really)
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    I can still remember the first time I ever watched The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. It was late September, 1980. I was on a school trip in Ottawa. Barring Cub Camps, it was the first time I had traveled anywhere without my parents. The school had us staying, four kids to a room (two to a double bed), in a local hotel. The first night we were there, the hotel had screwed up our food order quite seriously, so to make up for it, the following evening, after we came back from the National Museum of Science and Technology, the hotel gave each room a complimentary pizza.

    My room, which was made up of kids from the special education class I was in (another story for another day), ate the pizza—even saved some of it—and then, since by then it was already late, we did the subversive act of turning on the television after 11pm. At 11:30pm, The Tonight Show came on. I knew who Johnny Carson was. Grown-ups talked about him all the time. He was in People magazine a lot. He did a guest shot the Mary Tyler Moore Show (well, sort of—the gag was there was a blackout during the party at Mary's which featured him.) And yet, because Johnny was on late—that netherworld from which no child could visit—I was barred from ever watching him. Until now.

    I don't know if this is true, but I seem to remember this was a week Johnny was off, so they played a Best of Carson episode. But nonetheless the familiar theme came on and out came Johnny, and he did his monologue…and I don't remember if it was funny or not, because shortly thereafter teachers and chaperones descended into our room, took our remaining pizza slices and ordered us to turn off the TV. It turns out some of our more…industrious classmates had taken to dumping their pizza out the sixth floor window to the consternation of Ottawa pedestrians, the hotel, and adults responsible for us.

    After all these years, with everything that's been said about Johnny Carson, that's probably the only real memory I have of watching The Tonight Show. Ever.

    I'm sure I must have watched it a few times at various points of my adolescence in the 1980s but it's not making any large dent if it is. I'm sure I've seen an anniversary special because I remember all the clips they've been showing the past week. I think I tuned in for the monologue occasionally or if they had a guest I wanted to watch, but the ugly, unvarnished truth is this: I was never a fan of The Tonight Show. It was a show I had a passing familiarity with as it was the show that was on before Late Night With David Letterman.

    Actually, the even uglier, even more unvarnished truth is that I in fact spent most of my formative years watching Johnny Carson's competition. Ponder that for a moment. Because his competition was kind of dire.

    Ladies and Gentlemen, I stand before you to tell you that at the tender age of fourteen I was a true and devoted fan of Thicke of the Night, Alan Thicke's attempt to compete with Carson in 1983. I am unashamed of this fact. I was a fan of Thicke's afternoon talk show on CTV (Where he was amazing. My family loved him. Why the hell doesn't Talk TV re-run that instead of endless repeats of Pamela Wallin?) and when I could get away with having the TV on with the volume low (by the time I was 14 I was a notorious insomniac) I would watch it. And I loved it.

    No one else seemed to at the time. The stories of Thicke of the Night's freefall into cancellation are legendary. It was vastly overhyped in the time leading up to its debut. The Tonight Show threatened to blackball anyone who was interviewed by Thicke and the guests on Thicke of the Night were, as a consequence, not top-shelf. It achieved a zero rating in some markets. It is almost universally despised, though I have seen through my Google search on the program that there were its fans who felt that it would have probably been more successful 20 years later with Comedy Central and the proliferation of talk shows. I have to concur. I thought it was really funny at times. I liked Alan Thicke's monologues and his interviewing skills. There were some sketch bits that seemed flat—but frankly Jimmy Kimmel and Conan O'Brien have done worse—but there were others that were among the funniest I've seen on television, including Richard Belzer's recurring bit as an obnoxious talk radio host named Dick Ballatine. Belzer's first TV was done on this show, and I think it speaks well of Thicke's instincts, as was his use of improv artists which was years ahead of its time.

    I, sadly, cannot make a similar defence of the fact that I watched The Pat Sajak Show.

    Okay, I liked the way Sajak was always making jokes that went over the heads of contestants on Wheel of Fortune and wanted to see if he could transfer that to late night. He couldn't, not really. He was a good interviewer—I recently watched an interview I taped back then where Sajak interviewed Matt Frewer from (when he did Doctor, Doctor) and Sajak was absolutely solid—but the sardonic humour I liked seemed to be non-existent in what felt like a cut-rate version of Tonight. I did, however, like the last-ditch innovation of having a roundtable discussion with the guests at the end of the evening, which harked back to talk show traditions forgotten since the 1960s.

    While I watched Pat Sajak because I wanted to register a vote for the opposite network show to Carson, I watched Arsenio Hall, at least initially, because I enjoyed his show. I liked Arsenio's energy and his early monologues had real bite to them. I think he got cosier as time went on—and that killed him when he had to compete with Letterman and Leno—but you can see how today's Tonight Show uses Arsenio as a template more and more.

    Ultimately, I just watched the competition so I could get to 12:30. The talk show I really wanted to watch was Late Night With David Letterman. This was back in the days when Letterman was edgy and a little dangerous. Back when Viewer Mail letters often had really funny replies to the actual content of the letter and not a lame-ass joke shoehorned in. When Chris Elliot made it his business to loopily upstage Letterman at least once a week, and Larry "Bud" Melman ruled the airwaves. When the top tens had at least five good jokes and two great ones. Yes, those were golden days my friend.

    I watched all these people at various times in a campaign to avoid having to watch Johnny and Ed. And I was successful at avoiding them—I have absolutely no recollection of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson ending, while I vividly remember Dave Letterman's first show on CBS. This boiled down to the simplest of reasons: while I could see it was true that Carson had expert timing and a wonderful ability to recover from jokes that bomb, Johnny Carson was, to me, an middle-aged guy who wore a sports jacket and told whitebread jokes middle America loved. And as a teenager and young adult in the 1980s and 1990s, I hated that with a passion. I bristled everytime I saw those awful rainbow-coloured drapes; how unhip. For me, talk shows should be more…dangerous. I wanted the edgy loopyness of a Letterman, or even the urbaneness of an Alan Thicke. I know I wasn't alone in this—one of the details that has come up (that was never spoken of in 1993) in the wake of Carson's death was, toward the end, there were better ratings and better viewer demographics when Jay Leno guest hosted The Tonight Show.

    And yet, this past week as I read the earnest eulogies for Johnny Carson with an almost mordant enthusiasm, and read all these archived interviews from the New Yorker and Esquire and Rolling Stone from the past thirty years, I can't help but think I missed out. Perhaps that's because I discovered Johnny Carson turned out to be a more fascinating guy than I had thought—a man who in public is the epitome of undemanding charm and wit, but in private is guarded, socially awkward and ruthless. Just like every other comedian I've met, I suppose, but nonetheless it's a deeply compelling figure of a man.

    I suppose I appreciate those traits more in absence than presence. There's only one late night show that I think is consistently funny and that's The Daily Show where I think the worst bit is the inevitable star interview. The Late Show can be funny if Letterman just lets his instincts take hold— the best interview I have seen on television anywhere in years was when Dave interviewed Bill Clinton on the first anniversary of 9/11—but he rarely gets very edgy anymore. Late Night with Conan O'Brien is much more tolerable once you realize that the real star of the show is Conan and he'll never shut up even if a guest has something more interesting to say.

    Looking at all these old clips of Johnny Carson at his best reminded me of a time when the world was simpler, the jokes were softer, the ties were wider and the competition was routinely crushed by just one program in a universe without cable. I should know. I was watching that competition, but now I kind of wish I had watched Johnny instead.


    Posted by graeme | (0) Comments | Permalink

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