Nobody who is a Johnny Carson fan will be surprised by my saying that the first half of the old Tonight Show was what pulled me in, night after night. Like so many others, I wanted to see Johnny succeed with his latest string of jokes, knowing some would fall flat. Knowing also that he might turn those unfunny fizzles into jokes. He might turn his own insecurities into one-liners. He might aim his discontent on the audience:
"When the show is over, we have an 800 number for telephone operators standing by to explain the jokes to you."
"Please don't leave during the monologue, for the seats are made of Velcro and I will hear you leaving." Priceless self-effacing humor.
As then, still now: Each night is like a new campaign in which Johnny strives to prove his talents once more.
I am thrilled to be watching full episodes of the Tonight Show from 1972 through Johnny's retirement in 1992. Best of all, at a time, 8 PM PST, when I can comfortably watch. I could not be happier with TV these days.
The first half hour -- Johnny and Ed
The guests arrive
He gave us some of the best stand up comedians anywhere. And there are many I am only now just discovering. Blame it on the one or two times I tried to watch Saturday Night Live and was left clueless to its fame for making people laugh. Last night on Tonight, I discovered Dana Carvey, so good he should have come before the dull Christopher Reeve. Another night, I discovered A. Whitney Brown making hilarious fodder of American Exceptionalism. And on Johnny's show. Carson was a politically tolerant host. Make 'em laugh, and they could pretty much say what they wanted.
I expected little of the guest, above, a stranger to me. How wrong I was. Very engaging. Very funny. With a little help perhaps from Johnny.
But the guests, indeed,were a mixed bag. Too many were there to push a book or a movie, with little to add. Carson will sometimes compensate with clever alibiing. But he could not spare us the thoroughly annoying Charles Nelson Riley, nor was Bob Hope the night I saw him anything but an utter bore, and an irritating one at that with a pencil in hand, tapping it against the desk as if only he mattered. Richard Prior, preoccupied with his medical condition. was almost impossible to endure.
The grace of it all
Beyond the humor, what is it about the man that resonates still? They talk about Johnny's class. Yes, of course, but for me, the word grace comes to mind. An embracing grace that pulled us in. What surprises me, a longtime Jack Paar fan who did not fully appreciate Caron until near the end of his reign, is how damn entertaining this show is. Have I changed, for I am finding it more enjoyable than before? Maybe because of all the other late night hosts I've wanted to like, never fully satisfied. I gave Conan O’Brien an earnest try, what was so funny about him??? Letterman and Leno may both have produced better stocked monologues. Letterman had that mean spirit, not countered by his equally nerdy sidekick, Paul Shaffer, too much like the host. Nice guy Leno seemed to sleep talk through his interviews.
How lucky we are to have these full Tonight Show replays. They are showing the one-hours weeknights, the older one-and-a-half-hour programs on weekends.
Johnny Carson may have been one of the loneliest men in the world. But when the lights went down, the band struck up and Ed bellowed into his opening spiel, that gleeful man through the curtain became one of the most ingratiating TV personalities of all time.
I'm already waiting for 8 o'clock tonight. I may skip a new episode of Big Bang Theory to see how the monologue goes. I still want him to succeed. He did get to us, didn't he.