Back in the late fifties, when ABCTV’s Who Do You Trust? daytime quiz show was headquartered in New York’s Little Theater, host Johnny Carson and sidekick Ed McMahon were frequent patrons of nearby Sardi’s bar. On at least one occasion, the pair enjoyed an overlong recess with their favorite publican and returned to the studio fairly pie-eyed. During the afternoon taping, Carson sought to engage the show’s guests in his usual wry repartee, but his liquid lunch had all but derailed his train of thought, causing him to repeatedly ask the contestants if they were married, where they hailed from, etc. Realizing his own limitations, Carson managed to turn the dangerously muddled situation into an uproarious circular conversation that delighted the studio audience and compelled ABC to let the questionable program run. To this day, Carson says that it was one of his favorite moments before the camera; he had fashioned another victory from near failure and offended no one in the process–because he let everyone in on his predicament.
Whether he is dispensing sly double-entendres or topical barbs, Johnny disowns with his personable delivery, as if each hit-or-miss crack were a parlor trick between mutually pleased friends. His true close friends are extremely few in number, however, and as guarded in their comments about him as he is about every aspect of his personal life and private self.
For 17 years, he has been a mighty distraction in the nation’s bedrooms, keeping 15.5 million of us awake with his well-ordered antics. A true show-business legend, he has demonstrated unparalleled staying power in a medium characterized by shooting stars and swift burnouts. Yet few figures so famous in their own time have remained so elusive.
The 53-year-old Carson has long since given up the jovial nightclub binges of the sort that once prompted an indignant Jacqueline Susann to dash a Black Russian in his face. He and his statuesque third wife, Joanna, now usually confine their socializing to small gatherings with such friends as Henry Bushkin, Johnny’s lawyer and trusted confidant. When not working on The Tonight Show or paying his annual visit to the Las Vegas stage, Carson is usually at home reading, watching TV (sparingly), playing tennis on his own court, working out in his gym, pounding skillfully on the set of white pearl drums that sit across from his gleaming weight-lifting apparatus, or practicing other enduring hobbies like magic and astronomy. When it comes to personal deportment and late-night comedy, the venerable host of The Tonight Show trades the capital sin of excess for the cardinal rule of control.
As a result, he is a virtual nonentity to the gossip columnists that haunt the lavish premieres, gaudy receptions and chic bistros that are the stomping grounds of the star community–a fact that pleases him greatly. And he has hardly made himself available to other members of the press; this is his first in-depth interview in thirteen years.
John William Carson was born in Corning, Iowa, on October 23rd, 1925, the son of Homer Lloyd and Ruth Hook Carson. The elder Carson was an itinerant lineman for an electric company, and the family (including daughter Catherine and son Richard) moved during the first eight years of John’s life to numerous other small towns in the state (like Shenandoah, Clarinda and Avoca) before settling in a large, frame house in Norfolk, Nebraska. By all accounts it was a secure childhood. Homer Carson landed a supervisory post with the Norfolk power and light company and the Carsons spent their summer vacations on a lake in Minnesota.
A shy child, Johnny nevertheless mustered the courage to make his acting debut as a bumblebee in a grammar-school skit. Roles in other school productions followed, and he simultaneously honed his household flair for mimicry, most notably a creditable impersonation of Popeye. At twelve, he came upon an inspirational text called Hoffman’s Book of Magic and quickly became immersed in the art of illusion. He sent away to various Chicago mail-order houses for additional manuals and tricks, and shortly thereafter received a black-velvet-covered magician’s table from his parents for Christmas.
Armed with these tools, “the Great Carsoni” first appeared at the age of 14 before the local Rotary Club, his prodigious feats of prestidigitation rewarded with a purse of three dollars. His interest in dramatics and magic grew as he entered high school, and he shunned sports in favor of school plays and presentations of magic for Norfolk 4-H picnics. To earn additional money, he worked part time as a movie usher in the Granada Theater and sold Saturday Evening Post subscriptions door-to-door. A good student, he also wrote a humor column for the Norfolk High newspaper and contributed random notes of levity to the high school yearbook:
Football season opened this [September] and I went out to make the team. I would have too if they hadn’t found where I hid my brass knuckles…November was the month of blackouts, which the students enjoyed very much. December ended with Bob Jesson waiting at his fireplace for Santa Claus and bag. Bob was interested in the bag, I believe…After graduating from high school in 1943, Carson toyed with the idea of becoming a psychiatrist or a journalist but shelved both notions when he was accepted in the navy’s V-12 training program. He later attended the midshipmen’s school at Columbia University and ultimately was assigned to the battleship Pennsylvania, bringing a footlocker of card tricks along for comic relief. Between entertaining his fellow swabbies and fighting in the Pacific, Johnny once found time to amuse Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal for several hours with his best sleight of hand.
Carson entered the University of Nebraska after his discharge in 1946, majoring in journalism with the intention of pursuing a career as a comedy writer. Boredom set in and he switched to radio and speech, a move that led to a ten-dollar-a-week writing job on Lincoln’s KFAB radio station in a comedy western entitled Eddie Sosby and the Radio Rangers. Carson eventually wrote a senior college thesis, “How to Write Comedy Jokes,” that was fleshed out with taped excerpts from the popular Fibber McGee and Molly program and the shows of Fred Allen and Jack Benny. The effort earned him an A.B. degree in 1949 and he settled in Omaha with his new wife, a fellow graduate and former magic assistant named Jody Wolcott.
In time, Johnny got his own show, The Squirrel’s Nest, on Omaha’s WOW-TV. He also served as a disc jockey on WOW radio, often butchering the commercials of such local advertisers as the Friendly Savings Bank. (“Drop in any time. At two or three in the morning is fine. Help yourself. Just leave a note.”) With the help of a cameraman, Carson put together a half-hour audition film of his best routines and spent his vacation peddling it, to no avail, in San Francisco and Los Angeles. At length, a family friend intervened and recommended Johnny for a staff announcer job at KNXT-TV in L.A. This opportunity was parlayed into a Sunday afternoon broadcast, budgeted at 25 dollars per show, called Carson’s Cellar. Among the Cellar’s avid fans was a fellow named Red Skelton, who hired the witty young man as a writer and supporting player on his CBS-TV program. One night during rehearsal, Skelton was knocked cold by a breakaway door that failed to fulfill its function, and Carson was called in to substitute for the unconscious clown prince of television.
This stroke of luck led to the fateful creation by CBS of The Johnny Carson Show, a 39-week clunker that was canceled in the spring of 1956. His burgeoning career suddenly deflated, the semi-star found himself playing a club in remote Bakersfield, California, to half-interested houses.
Borrowing money from his father and a bank, Carson and family left for New York, where he joined the Friars Club and gradually repaired a shattered reputation with his deft roasting of such sharp-tongued colleagues as Jack E. Leonard. Hired by ABC to handle Who Do You Trust?, he built the whimsical quiz show into the network’s biggest daytime attraction. During the evening, he occasionally filled in for Jack Paar, who was then hosting The Tonight Show over at NBC. Admiring his quick, off-handed approach to comedy, the networks offered Carson starting roles in various sitcoms, but he always declined and held on to his “secure” position with Who Do You Trust? But as Paar began to publicly reaffirm his intentions to leave The Tonight Show–and mentioned Johnny on the air as a possible successor–NBC redoubled its efforts to lure Carson away from ABC. He finally gave in to their entreaties and signed on with a first-year salary of approximately $100,000. On October 1st, 1962, at 11:15 p.m., Groucho Marx introduced Johnny Carson as the moderator of The Tonight Show, and a new era in television, and comedy, was born.
Johnny’s guests that inaugural evening were Joan Crawford, Tony Bennett, Mel Brooks and Rudy Vallee, and the band was under the direction of Skitch Henderson, with Doc Severinsen on trumpet. Ed McMahon, of course, was the announcer and resident straight man, duplicating his earlier duties on Who Do You Trust?
The New York Times bestowed a favorable review, the writer noting that, “at the onset he [Carson] said he was not going to describe every guest as an old and dear friend, an indication of a refreshing attitude against prevalent show business hokum. “In summation, the Times ruled that his “healthy independence” could “wear very well.”The same could not be said for Carson’s marriages. His first had produced three sons–Chris, Ricky and Cory–but little lasting happiness. As his star ascended, a yearlong separation from Jody sank into eventual divorce in 1963. In August of that year, Johnny was remarried to Joanne Copeland, 30, a vivacious, dark-haired actress that he had met briefly years earlier. A former airline stewardess, she was currently appearing on a daytime TV program called Video Village. The couple separated seven years later, and was divorced in June 1972. That August, Carson made the surprise announcement during the tenth anniversary party for The Tonight Show that he had secretly wed divorced ex-model Joanna Holland that afternoon. The celebration took place in Los Angeles, and the New York-based Tonight Show, after having made regular “trips” to the West Coast during the latter part of the decade, soon after relocated permanently in California.
The ever-faithful Ed McMahon left his wife of 27 years and four children to follow the show to L.A., and in short order his marriage was dissolved. He has since remarried. Professionally, the years since have been relatively peaceful and prosperous ones (insiders estimate that Carson now banks as much as $4 million per annum for his services), although there have been occasional storms, such as Johnny’s ire at being preempted by night football games; or his suit against a toilet manufacturer to prevent the production of a portable “Here’s Johnny!” commode; or his lingering threats to leave The Tonight Show, first expressed in 1967 after NBC allegedly violated his contract by showing reruns of the program during an AFTRA strike.
Carson himself has become a kingpin of our popular culture, and The Tonight Show is a kinetic icon for adults of all ages. His conversational comedic style, which he acknowledges as having been shaped by such early heroes as Jack Benny, Bob Hope and George Burns, has become the very paradigm of nonchalant patter for every aspiring young stand-up or sit-down wit. As a fashion plate, he has easily eclipsed such seminal Tinsel Town trendsetters as Fred Astaire, Adolphe Menjou and Cesar Romero with his smart, ungarish taste in sportswear. When he adopted the turtleneck sweater as a respectable alternative to a shirt and tie, millions of American men responded in kind. His Johnny Carson Apparel, Inc., formed in 1970 in conjunction with the Hart, Schaffner & Marx Company, continues to thrive. Likewise, since wife Joanna convinced him to stop tinting his hair and let the silver shine through, the look has been universally embraced as the hallmark of seasoned suavity.
But behind his affecting raiment and distinguished visage, the private Johnny Carson retains the same intensely reticent disposition he has carried all his life. So when his puckish off-camera side does surface, it sometimes catches even his oldest associates completely off guard.
“I’m always impressed with how funny he can be off-camera,” admits veteran Tonight Show writer Pat McCormick. “One time I went into the Polo Lounge [in the Beverly Hills Hotel] with him, and the guy at the door insisted that he wear a tie before he could enter. So he went off to his room and put on a tie, but took off his shoes and socks. I was amazed. And there was no rule in the place about shoes and socks, so he just walked in, sat down and put his bare feet up on the table. The guy at the door was stunned. It was a hilarious night.”
A few practical jokes notwithstanding, Carson is a man profoundly uncomfortable with his own emotions, and unable to express his pain, insecurity and deep caring without considerable difficulty. A frequent giver of generous, thoughtful gifts, his magnanimity is one manifestation of his submerged sensitivity, but sometimes such distanced overtures to others simply do not suffice.
They were changing the sign on the Shubert Theater across the street and we spent most of the time looking out the window at that and commenting about it,” says Ed McMahon, recalling the day in 1957 when Carson interviewed him for the announcer’s job on Who Do You Trust? “We spent five minutes together, and then he said, ‘Well, thanks a lot, Ed, for coming up. I appreciate it.’
“I walked out and I was convinced I had blown the job. I figured he didn’t like me; I’m not the type he wants. A couple of weeks later a guy calls me on the phone and says, ‘When you start Monday… ‘ And I said, ‘What?’ Everybody assumed I knew I had been hired!”
“Johnny has a very strong shyness,” McMahon explains. “I think he would love to have hired me without meeting me, because that meant getting out of his shy character and into being Johnny Carson, and that’s something that he has to turn on.”
Usually, Carson hides behind a precise, dispassionate regimen, and expects others to understand.
“When you never hear anything from him, you’re doing a great job,” says McMahon, “because he doesn’t constantly send you laudatory phrases or gestures. It’s just assumed you’re doing a good job, or you wouldn’t be there. And we have the kind of friendship where we don’t have to keep saying to each other, ‘I’m your friend.’
“On the show he likes efficiency. It’s all done in a pattern. I mean, I psych myself up at a quarter after five every night and I walk into his office to see him. Everything is geared so that he and I will see each other and chat for five to seven minutes each day beforehand. And we’ll just kind of ramble–we never talk about the show; I never hear the monologue–until I leave him at twenty-three after five to go down and do a five-minute warmup with the audience. And I usually leave his office laughing.
“He has great difficulty in getting his emotions of love and warmth out,” McMahon confides. ‘I’ll tell you a story I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone before, that explains a lot about the man and our relationship.
“One night after the show about 10 years ago, he was so nervous he was chain-smoking cigarettes, and he said, ‘C’mon, I want to talk with you,’ which was very unusual. It was the last night of our performance in Hollywood, back when we were based in New York and used to come out a few times a year. So I said to myself, ‘What the hell is this?’
“He said, ‘Let’s go outside.’ So we went outside the studio to a quiet room. And then we went into another room, and he lit another cigarette. And he said, ‘I have something I want to tell you.’ I thought, ‘Jeeze, this is it. I’m getting the ax. He couldn’t bring himself to tell me before.’ “
And finally he says, ‘I just want to tell you that I know what you’re doing; I know what you’re doing. I know you’re helping me out there. I know what a supportive person you are. I know that you are…’
“He was trying to pay me a compliment but he was having the greatest agony in doing it. I couldn’t handle it. I was in tears, and I left the room and I started running down the hallway at NBC. He came out after me and over my shoulder I could hear him yelling, and I looked and saw that he was crying too. And his final words to me were: ‘You see, goddamnit! You can’t take a compliment any better than I can!‘”
It is sunny but cool on the November morning that I arrive at Carson’s Bel Air mansion. Before admitting me, a beefy guard at the front gate punches the button on the outdoor intercom and confirms my appointment. The expansive compound consists of a large, modern art-filled ranch house and a smaller two-story building that contains Johnny’s private study and gym, the two adjacent structures flanked by a kidney-shaped swimming pool, tennis courts and lush, manicured grounds. Barefooted and dressed in tennis whites, Johnny greets me at the front door of his study with an iron grip of my hand and then sits me down inside on a long couch amid his many mementos, among them a prominently displayed photo of himself with Hubert Humphrey.
“It’s about time we spoke in person,” he says with a businesslike smile, alluding to the months of phone conversations that preceded our meeting. Up close, his strong, flinty features are lined and accented with a salt-and-pepper stubble. The eyes are blue-green and piercing, and his frame is trim, muscular and agile. Obviously tense, he drums his fingers, taps his feet and rises from his chair opposite me at measured intervals to pace in a tight circle and light another Pall Mall–but his steely eyes remain fixed on mine with nary a dart or a flutter. During our initial head-to-head exchange (and a followup session a week later at The Pierre in Manhattan), his manner is affable but resolute. Clearly, he sees our talk essentially as a task, but one to which he is determined to lend a cordial, relaxed air. (After the first interview he is markedly becalmed and gregarious, as if a burden has been lifted from him.)
That night, I stand on the sidelines in Studio I on NBC’s sprawling Burbank lot as bespectacled executive producer Freddie de Cordova warms up the audience for a Wednesday installment of The Tonight Show that features guests E Lee Bailey and Andy Williams. De Cordova baits the anxious crowd, toying with their dismay at the prospect of an absentee Carson, and then proclaims, to elated cheers, that Johnny will indeed be hosting tonight: “…and we’re just as surprised as you are!”
Big Ed McMahon hurries out to detail the ground rules of audience participation, consisting mainly of repeated pleas for wild applause for whatever may ensue. A gaudily attired Doc Severinsen cranks up the brassy theme song as McMahon barks his intro, and then Ed intones the prayerlike “Heeeerrrrrrre’s JOHNNY!“
The white-suited star strolls out through the parted curtains that hang between his tiny desk and the bandstand, flashing a winning grin and clicking into his time-honored repertoire of nervous ticks: the craning of the neck, the smoothing of the tie, etc.
Carson’s in high spirits and his monologue flows out briskly to an enthusiastic reception; he winks to the cameramen and jokes easily with the tiered throng before him. It’s another round of The Tonight Show, the sight all too familiar, yet still strangely fascinating, and every mechanism in this curious little universe is in its place and operating like clockwork.
Johnny utters his last opening quip with habitual panache, and the wholesome, fresh-faced audience settles back as if in church for a live dose of the safe, comfortable ritual. He signals to the band and winds up his golf swing as the booming music segues into a commercial break, but tonight Johnny draws out the gesture just a few seconds longer than usual, carefully watching his monitor for the station break as he delivers a loud, robust “Ahhhhhhhhhhh–shit!”[Smiling] I gotta tell you from the start, I don’t know anything about comedy.
[Laughing] Oh? Well, I don’t know about that.
I don’t know many people who do, strangely enough.
A lot of comedians, comics and humorists prefer to be funny than to talk about being funny.
Yeah, because you always end up being pedantic or really unctuous. If you try to analyze a joke and dissect it, take it apart–it’s no longer funny. Unfortunately when you talk about humor, comedy, it’s so relative. That’s the big problem. The worst thing you can say about anybody is that he has no sense of humor. That’s the crusher of all things; the girl says to the guy, “You have no sense of humor.” But everyone has a sense of humor. A lot of things that some people find funny, other people just don’t find funny, so that is the problem for comedians or people who do comedy–just trying to find some kind of a common denominator if there is such a thing, or just reach as many people as you can.
But it’s a very hairy problem. That’s why you have somebody who will say, “Gee, I think Laurel and Hardy are wonderful,” and somebody else will say, “They stink, I don’t understand them.”
They might be put off, for instance, by the pratfalls, the buffoonery, one shoving the other.
That’s the big problem when you start discussing comedy. When you say, “What is funny?” I don’t know. It sounds like a copout, but I don’t really know until I go out and do it–and I just hear the laughter. I like Laurel and Hardy, but I don’t see them just as pratfall comedians. If you study Laurel and Hardy, it’s a very, very special relationship. Books have been written on it. At times they are very polite, they are very protective of each other. Whenever Ollie introduces Stan, he says [doing an effective Oliver Hardy imitation], “This is my good friend, Mr. Laurel.”
He’ll be very courtly.
[Nodding] Very courtly manners. But…and then when they go at each other, it’s “Stanley!” and so forth. There’s a wonderful relationship between the two of them. I think a lot of their humor is very good satire, a lot of it’s slapstick, but…I keep looking at that pillow over there [indicating an embroidered pillow on a nearby couch].
[Reading the pillow’s needlepoint axiom] It’s all in the timing.
Yes, it’s all in the timing, as far as I’m concerned. Humor is so much timing, and that’s why, as we talk here for reproduction in print, I know that you can never make that transference from the audio sound of a joke or delivery, with all the nuances, to paper. That’s why some funny people who can write very well–for example, S.J. Perelman’s a good writer; H. Allen Smith had a brief flurry where he was funny–never fared too well when they tried to do it in person.
I think there is a noticeable shift in the comedic climate from time to time in this country. When you were writing that humor column back in Norfolk high school, what was the climate?
I emulated a lot of people when I first started. I think everybody, when they first find out they can get laughs as a kid, they steal deliveries, steal the jokes that are kind of current at that time. I was an admirer of Fred Allen, Jack Benny, all the radio comedians in that day, and your humor takes on their realities because you haven’t developed your own style yet. I was writing jokes more or less in the style of a Bob Hope.
Picture jokes of that style, because I’d listen to him. And then sometimes I would copy Fred Allen. I loved Fred Allen because he was one of the true natural wits, a man who could sit around and say amusing things and not make jokes. There are a lot of good deliverers and there are a lot of good stylists, but the genuine wits are few.
There’s that old cliché that you hear over and over again: that a comic says funny things and a comedian says things funny. But Fred Allen, to take a specific example, was a man who wrote very funny. I remember I used to have a few letters from him, and in his letters he would really take time–he was a laborious kind of writer–to write amusing things.
Well, Fred Allen was one of the great wits, but he was very critical of TV throughout his career, even when he was on TV.
I think television, when Fred was alive, was so basically new that maybe he didn’t even really see the possibilities in it. And Fred was not a particularly attractive man, in that he was kind of sour-faced. His sense of humor had more appeal than his appearance, and he sensed that. I think Fred would be much more acceptable nowadays, especially his cynical observations of what the hell is going on. He was ahead of his time in a lot of things he did.
He did a lot of satire, a lot of social commentary, and it was interesting, because he and Milton Eerie coexisted on TV, around the same time that TVs were owned mostly by well-to-do people and not the broad-based radio audiences they’d both previously known. Berle was very big on using TV in a very flamboyant way with relatively big productions and outlandish pratfalls, but Allen remained a true wit in a simple setting.
Sure. Fred Allen’s a verbal comedian and Milton is a physical comedian. I can tell you a joke that Fred Allen did about Milton Berle when Berle, at the time, was on television on Tuesday nights; that was the big night, and people would stop in at bars to watch The Milton Berle Show. Fred was still on the radio at the time, and I remember a bit where Fred’s wife, Portland, came on and said to Fred that Milton had missed his television show on Tuesday night because he had the flu.
Fred said something like [mimicking Allen’s dry, nasal delivery], “I, don’t know how Milton could get sick. He’s got enough mold on his jokes to make his own penicillin.” That’s a witty joke.
Well, it’s very much to the point, too. Whereas with Allen’s satire and social commentary, there was always immediacy to what he was saying, Berle was immersed in a tradition of gag lines and vaudeville immersed in slapstick.
[Smiling] But of course, Fred was a juggler, you know, in vaudeville. He worked first as Freddie James, World’s Worst Juggler. He later became a writer and a wit. He wrote a good deal of the shows himself; I think Fred Allen would have a resurgence if he were still around.
Speaking of Fred Allen and his work as a juggler, you worked a Midwestern circuit as a magician when you were a young man. Did you ever read and employ comic tools in your act. like a Bob Orben-type book of patter?
Oh. sure, sure. And Orben’s still in business, writing funny stuff for magicians. I think when you’re a kid, you look at all that stuff. I remember buying some Fun Master gag files at one time. Then you realize very quickly that most of it is stock type of humor. But until you learn to write what you can do and what works for you, you grab a little of this and a little of that.
My magic really became comedy. I played it more for laughs. I did all the sucker type of tricks with the audience, doing jokes along with them.
Humor also serves as a convenient form of distraction to help carry the magic off.
[Grinning] Oh God, you’re taking me back. Yeah, the trick would go wrong, or it wouldn’t function right. The use of humor as a counterbalance or a saving device became a matter of experimentation.
You’ve always been good at working with situations where things don’t go right, and that’s more advantageous to you than if they did go right.
I do a lot of reaction type of comedy I guess. You react to the situation. You play off what is happening, trying to make something out of a disaster. People love to see if you’re going to get out of it.
I think that one of the things that is the most innovative about The Tonight Show is the way that you work with the camera. The camera and, as a result, the audience become accomplices or conspirators with you. I think about George Bums and Jack Benny referring to the camera and using the camera as sort of a confidant, but that was always in a scripted context. You’ve been very successful with instilling a kind of vitality in the camera as a presence, to where we feel a sense of intimacy.
Well, television is an intimate medium. I’m not conscious when I use the camera. I know it’s there. I use it like another person and do a reaction at it–lift an eyebrow or shrug or whatever. I’m conscious of it, but I’m not conscious of it.
There is a real sense of… naturalness in the way you work with the camera that makes the air of intimacy so convincing.
And I think the director, Bobby Quinn, who’s worked with us for many years, can almost read if I’m going to do a reaction to what is happening. So I will know that maybe this camera is going to be up and I can react to the situation and do a “look” and then go back to what I was doing.
The Tonight Show is one of the few places on television where one can see stars, prominent people, and you’ll get a glimpse behind their public personas.
Sometimes you cannot penetrate them. You know they will do what they want to do. You try to break through and get them maybe a little off guard and have some fun, because otherwise it becomes [stiffly], “Tell us about your latest movie,” and all of those obligatory questions you have to ask occasionally. It’s easy to be socially relevant. I could go in at five tonight and say, “Give me four guests, give me the heads of the prisons of California and give me a politician and give me some psychiatrists and we’ll just discuss what happened in Guyana.”
And you can sit there and discuss people in cults and get very heavy, and everybody will say, “Oh, that’s very socially relevant.” That’s a talk show, but that’s not what I do. I’m an entertainer, and I always look at myself as an entertainer. So it has bothered me for a while when we would get a little flak from the critics saying we’re not doing anything “deep.” That’s not the idea.
Yet, there is a topicality to your show. You’ll come up with witty jokes–not gags–about Watergate, Camp David, drugs, changing sexual mores…
I think some of the material we’ve done on political things is some of the best material on the air. And it does get a strong reaction–especially in the political arena. We sense the mood of the country very quickly. For example, I remember when Agnew was first selected as vice-president, it was easy to do jokes about him; nobody knew who he was, and he was good fodder for material.
Then, when Agnew became the voice of so-called Middle America, all of a sudden the jokes were not particularly funny. When he fell into disfavor, then again you found out that the people would buy the caustic material. Same thing with Nixon. To take another example: when Wilbur Mills was in trouble with the infamous Fanne Foxe and the Tidal Basin thing, it was funny until people found out he was an alcoholic. And then you knew immediately to stay away from it, because you were taking advantage of someone after the man came out and admitted it.
Has there ever been a joke you felt uncomfortable doing, either at the time or in retrospect?
NBC used to come to me years ago. They wanted to see the monologue before the show, and I said, “No, I can’t do that.” I can’t have somebody sitting up in an office and making capricious judgments on what he thinks is funny or not funny. I said, “You’re going to have to trust my judgment,” and they have. And nobody sees the monologue outside of the writers and myself; they give me the stuff, and I add to it or edit it, and put it together. Nobody sees it until it’s done. And I don’t think in seventeen years there have been more than one or two instances where something might have been cut.
Have there ever been any specific skits that you wanted to get on the air, but which you later thought better of?
We had a thing we wanted to do once on Siamese twins, and it bordered on the uncomfortable, because we figured people would say, well, it’s a physical handicap. Although the material was funny, we might have offended somebody. Yet, it’s impossible to do humor without offending somebody. If I do a joke about President Carter, people are going to get angry. If I do a joke about Amy Carter, or if I do a joke about Nixon, or if I do say something about Bert Lance, like when he was in trouble, certain people are going to get angry.
But otherwise, you keep saying, “It’s so hot that…” or, “My wife is so fat that…” and you can’t really do that if you’re going to say anything and make some point.
You’ve always had a kind of iconoclastic flair in your humor, even going back to when you were working on the radio in Omaha. In Kenneth Tynan’s  piece in the New Yorker he wrote about these formatted, prerecorded interviews you would receive at the station and then mischievously distort.
I know what you’re talking about, and I loved that. In the old radio days, the record companies would send out these prepared interviews, and they would send you a script so you could interview the recording artist. You’d play the Patti Page tape and say, “Gee, it’s nice to have you here today, Patti,” and she’d say, “Thank you for inviting me tonight; it’s nice to be here.” Then the next question would be, “When did you first start singing?” And the taped reply would be, “Well, I think I was about ten years old, and I was in a church play or something.”
So I just wrote my own questions, and I’d say, “I understand that you hit the juice pretty good and you’ve been known to really get drunk pretty often. When did that start?” Then they’d play the cut, and she’d say, “Well, I think I was about 10 years old, and I was in a church play…” and it was wonderful. Just these insane, wild, provocative questions, and then the engineer would play this innocent track with the prerecorded reply. They quit sending them to us very soon. I’ve always liked irreverence.
I recall watching Who Do You Trust? when I was a young kid, and there was always a sharp wit there, in the same way there was on Groucho Marx’ show. You’ve always tried to expand the boundaries of whatever format you were in.
I think I have to. Who Do You Trust? wasn’t really a quiz show. The quiz at the end was just a device to bring people on and have some fun. It was a la Groucho. I’ve always liked that kind of humor.
You also did a television show called Earn Your Vacation in 1954.
God, that goes back, originally, to radio in the Fifties. People came on the show to win a trip. The people came on, and I’d do the comedy interview and then play the game. That was more a game show because there was a big prize involved. Who Do You Trust? was really [laughter]…I don’t even know what the hell the point of the game was.
What single person do you admire most or emulate to some extent? A lot of people say that you were very close to Jack Benny and that he was instrumental in helping you get going on TV.
We were good friends. Jack, yes, I admired very much. Fred Allen was another one. Jack was really one hell of an actor in playing a role, which I admired. If you had followed that show at all and you could write, you could almost write it yourself. The characters were so well identified and well established that it was wonderful and unique.
He was always the target of the humor, and then in reaction he would build up sort of a vocabulary of facial quips in the same way that you have a familiar wink or a look of exasperation.
Yes, that image of put-upon frustration. Jack was very smart. He played off of his cast; they would put him down, and he would react. He was basically a reacting type of comedy character and it wasn’t important to him who got the laughs on the show. The show was the thing. It was never the Don Wilson Show or the Dennis Day Show even though they might get tremendous laughs. It was always The Jack Benny Show. That’s important, because if the show is working, it’s yours.
You should try to help the guests be as good as they can be, because the better the guest is, the better I’ll be. I’ve got Buck Henry on tonight. I always look forward to having Buck on because I know we’ll start throwing things around, and we don’t really know where it’s going, and all of a sudden we’re into something and it’s good. Somebody like Buck-Henry, who thinks funny and has got a rather bizarre sense of humor, brings out the craziness in me. Some of the best moments are times like that.
Who else is a favorite of yours?
Well, the problem is, if I started naming favorites, guys are going to call me tomorrow and say, “How come you didn’t mention my name?” There are a lot of people that work in different ways. I like to have [Buddy] Hackett on. Hackett is a self-starter. [Bob] Newhart, to me, can be very funny. Carl Reiner is fun to sit and verbalize with, because things sometimes will just take off. When Mel Brooks is on I sometimes start doing things I wouldn’t otherwise even think of doing.
The outrageous moments on the show are the most memorable.
Many of them are wonderful low humor. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with low humor if you do it well. Low humor can be very effective. I can sit and talk with a Buck Henry and it can be intelligent and funny. Then I can still get up–if I want to–and do a sketch that is a complete knockabout type of thing–whether it’s Art Fern doing the Tea Time Movie–and get away with playing both ends of that spectrum. The audience will buy it.
In other words, you can do a complete burlesque thing, low burlesque comedy, which you don’t see much anymore, and then turn around and still do a stand-up routine or a sit-down exchange that has a certain air of sophistication. I think we really stole the name of the Mighty Carson Art Players, by the way, from Fred Allen. Fred Allen used to do the Mighty Allen Art Players.
Whatever you’re doing, belief is never suspended. Whether it’s skits or banter or characterizations, everything retains an impromptu- quality.
And yet some of these things I started putting together years ago. The old lady, the Aunt Blabby character, I had done years ago in Omaha. I did her on local television back there, and she just evolved over a period of time. Art Fern, the Tea Time Movie host, grew out of a local slickster salesman on TV; he had a little pencil mustache and a very bad toupee that looked like it had been painted on his head. It’s just a take off on the guys out here in California who do their own selling, whether they’re selling the “Miracle Vegetable Cutter” or whatever, and he just became a good running character The character I’ve been doing lately, Floyd Turbo–he’s the epitome of the redneck ignoramus, and he always takes the “pro-hunting” or “pro-Concorde” stance.
I’m still working with Turbo. I find things each week when I go out to do it that I throw in: his gestures at the wrong time, his not knowing where he’s supposed to be, his feeble attempts at humor, his talks about things he doesn’t quite understand. But usually it starts out as a one-time shot. When we have a sketch, we get, like, one run-through and that’s it. And I like it better that way because it’s Parkinson’s Law that if you’ve got a week to get ready, it takes you a week, and if you’ve got a day to get ready, it takes a day.
In the early days, in that small-screen format, TV was trying to evince a flamboyance that would rival what was being done on the wide screen. Yet The Tonight Show in its unique comedy context, is very simple, completely unadorned, not at all like a conventional variety show.
The gingerbread doesn’t help you much. When NBC put on NBC Follies years ago, they spent a lot of money building a proscenium stage, and they had these girls coming down in Ziegfeld-like costumes, and it didn’t work because that essentially is Broadway and Hollywood-and TV is still an intimate type of thing, basically.
Take the obligatory dance numbers they have in Broadway or variety stage shows. You see 20 dancers come out with a huge production number. It’s really a filler to get ready for the next sketch or whatever. TV doesn’t need that. Ed Wynn told me years ago about girls on television; he said [imitating Wynn], “What’s sexy about a three-inch girl?”
The point he was making was that when you see them on Broadway and they come down onstage and they’re bigger than life, that’s one thing. When you see them on television, it’s often pointless and unimaginative.
You’ve talked to me in the past about “pure television.” What is pure television?
To me, it’s still the performance on TV that is most important. The personality is more important than all of the dance numbers and the big production things. I always thought those things have been kind of lost on television, because they ignore the automatic focus that TV provides.
But I got the feeling, even if you take all that glitter away, and pare it down to a spare sitcom or variety format, it’s still not the kind of pure television that you were talking about.
Well, pure television to me is also immediacy. That’s why I don’t like to do The Tonight Show a week or two in advance, like a lot of shows do. I like to be able to go out tonight and talk about what’s happening today. So the immediacy of doing this kind of show, I think, has a certain value in it. People know it’s happening right now. Sure, we’re delayed on tape, but we don’t edit the show; we don’t shoot two hours and edit it down.
When Saturday Night Live says, “Live, from New York!” it’s live in the East but it’s not live out here. Doing it the same day on tape is exactly the same thing as doing it live.
In both programs there’s also the element of risk.
And I think that’s a part of pure television. We don’t know on any given night how it’s going to go. You get an immediate feedback from the audience on what you’ve done, and if it all falls together, it’s a great feeling. If you’ve had troubles, you say, “Okay, there’s tomorrow night.” Every night cannot be a winner. Although I don’t do it five nights a week anymore–I’m doing it four this week–there’s no way you can go out and have everything be of high quality.
You don’t stop the tape even when people are being off-color or whatever. You might bleep it out, but people can see that things were getting out of hand.
Yeah, I think there’s that aura of “What’s going to happen? How are they going to get out of this? This is not going well.” That, to me, is what television started out to be. Now, mainly, it’s a device for screening movies or situation comedies with canned laughter.
And The Tonight Show, or shows like it, I think–if they all went off the air, it would be too bad for television.
Obviously, you don’t care for canned laughter.
I never liked…excuse me, I’m going to sneeze here. Aha-choo! Sorry, I wish that sneeze could’ve been funnier, but then it probably would have been prerehearsed and on videotape. But I never really liked canned laughter, although there are places for it. But you really have to know how to use it.
There is a truth that laughter begets laughter to a certain extent, but most shows use it so horrendously. Pretty soon there’s no distinction between what really deserves a laugh and what doesn’t. But it can help a show, I think, if it’s done well. Jack Benny used to use it so well that people didn’t even know he used it. I once saw Jack go out and do a monologue to a set of empty seats; there was nobody there except a couple of stagehands. It was a filmed show. And Jack walked out and said “Good evening” and looked at the audience–there’s no audience there–and he does his joke, and he paused because he knew exactly when he should.
Are there any sitcoms that you enjoy?
Oh, I think the writing in All in the Family and the old Mary Tyler Moore and Maude shows was some of the best writing that was ever done on television. I think there are more laughs in an All in the Family show than there are in an evening on Broadway.
People forget that. You go to see a Broadway play that was supposed to be a comedy and you come out and you say, “What are they talking about? It wasn’t that funny.” Then you sit down and watch an All in the Family episode or Mary Tyler Moore and it’s wonderful humor. Some of the stuff was superb.
First of all, I think that people have to like the people that make them laugh. I think it’s so important. They have to like or identify with the characters. The thing that made All in the Family good was that you had wonderful people doing it. You had Carroll O’Connor, Jean Stapleton and Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers. The rapport that they all had together was strong and they fleshed out the characters so well–as they did on the Mary Tyler Moore Show.
They all had this wonderful interplay, they all had their moments, and they all flattered each other, complemented each other. You don’t get that on most of the shows. Those are few and far between.
These days, comic actors compete with each other too much I think.
Yeah, everybody does. In some of the stuff I see, the kids are funny, the housekeeper is funny, the garbage man comes on and he’s funny. Everybody is throwing funny things around, but there are no convincing relationships between the characters. Well, in the first place, you don’t really give a shit. You don’t know these people, so you don’t care. Writers have just written jokes for them.
Sometimes people say that there’s a hot-seat quality to sitting next to you on ‘The Tonight Show.’ How do you feel about that?
I don’t know. A lot of people have never been on before. They’ve been watching the show for years, and now they find themselves sitting there in a position that they’ve always been watching. I can understand why that would make you feel uncomfortable. Hell, if I went on somebody else’s show and sat there, I could be uncomfortable, because, in a way, the guy behind the microphone has got the bat. He’s in charge. I don’t think I’ve been guilty of making people feel awkward. If they feel uncomfortable, I don’t think it’s because of the way I’ve handled them; I certainly don’t want them to be, because it doesn’t work for me.
Weren’t you on The Dick Cavett Show?
I did a show with Dick Cavett, and I did ninety minutes with David Frost once, and I felt a little awkward. I was not completely in control. I was not in charge there. When somebody else steps out of that role and into another role, they are not in command, and the guy usually behind the desk is supposed to be in command of the situation. So I think that makes for a little awkwardness.
When I see you helping guests through the show who are very nervous or even drunk, and then, in some cases, you’ll go to a commercial, and then the guest will discreetly take his leave, it reminds me of one of your big breaks–when you had to fill in on the old ‘Red Skelton Show’ after he had an accident. He is one comedian that I can think of whose comedy has always had a consistently life-affirming tone. And very kindly, especially in his pantomimes when he’s depicting old people, like his famous sketch of the old man watching the parade.
I like to work with elderly people and children. I don’t know why. I respect older people. I like working with kids. Maybe it’s the vulnerability of them. There’s a charm about older people that sometimes is childlike, and I enjoy them because, first of all, they can say anything they want to, which is just great. Age gives you a leg up on what you can say, because you don’t have to account to anybody. You’ve lived your life and earned the right to sound off. They’ll just say, “Oh, well screw that, I don’t like that, that’s a lot of shit.” And they lay it right out.
Critics, at the same time, have said that you have a schoolboy quality, a puckishness that isn’t seen too often on TV.
[Intrigued] I suppose that’s only because of the face. I’ve never had a particularly old-looking face. Even when I was 30 or 35, I looked like I was 25. That may be changing rapidly now. But if I looked different, you probably wouldn’t have that attitude. Or maybe it’s because I was born in the Midwest; you know, Mel Brooks calls me “Supergentile,” “Super-WASP,” and maybe it’s that particular look, but that’s just what I am.
Well, what was your first exposure to something funny while growing up?
[Very pensive] Gee, that’s tough, I’ve never really thought about that. I was always involved, even in grade school, in school plays or just screwing up or being silly in front of an audience. Maybe it was a self-defense type of thing, but I can remember doing that clear into high school. I remember once in grade school–this won’t sound funny now, but I thought it was very funny then–we had to do a 50-word speech or a 100-word speech on dogs. I can still remember it, and I got up and just recited names of dogs. It’s not funny now, but at that time it was successfully silly.
I was in all the school plays in junior high school, wrote a column for the school paper in high school, called “Carson’s Corn.” [Laughing] Do you believe that? Yeah, I did all the stuff for the high school annual.
Did you have any exposure to vaudeville?
Not vaudeville in terms of the Keith circuit or anything like that. I would go down to Omaha and see all the stage shows. I can remember touring shows coming through the Midwest, what they called tent shows, and I was fascinated. It would be the repertory company that would come around, maybe they’d call it chautauqua in those days. I remember going down to Omaha and sitting on wooden benches for a dime, and they would do a comedy; next night it would be a drama with a cornball villain and so forth.
Was there anyone in particular that impressed you? Stuck in your mind?
There were no stars or names as such; they were just touring groups of actors making 10 bucks a week or something. But to me, the fascination of getting up and putting on a costume or makeup, even in high school, to be in a play where you’re actually putting makeup on your face–it made you different. I mean the kids knew, hey, you were a professional, you’re putting makeup on. You were different from other people. You were up on the stage and they were sitting down here, and there’s a certain, I don’t know if you want to call it…power, but it makes you different. That’s why a lot of performers sometimes are good in front of an audience and not particularly good on a one-to-one relationship.
I always felt that when you succeeded Steve Allen and Jack Paar as The Tonight Show host, you altered the show to suit your personality. It had to be as different as it made you feel.
[Solemn] I remember when Paar was on there, people said, “Nobody will ever replace Paar.” Well, that’s true; Paar was Paar. I didn’t go in to replace Paar. And I originally turned The Tonight Show down when they offered it to me, when I was doing that daytime show and I was getting pretty good money for it. It was comfortable and it was easy. I said [fearfully], “I’ve got to follow this emotional, crazy man–who had his own appeal to people because of his vulnerability and his outbursts?”
It worked great for him. I realized that I had to go in and do what I did, whatever it was, and the audience would either accept me or they wouldn’t. And when I give this thing up, somebody will come along and do it. They’ll discover somebody else.
Friends of yours have said that you’ll still be there in 1985.
I doubt that. I don’t think so. We’re going on 17 years. I don’t want to sit there when I’m an old man. I’m 53 now; I don’t feel anywhere near 53, but I don’t envision sitting there in my sixties. I think that would be wrong.
You have become–and this is just a fact–so much a part of this culture. If you weren’t there, I suspect there would be a real gap. This sounds very sentimental, but, if there’s nothing going on on a weeknight, you’re home and there’s very little to look forward to, you can always turn on The Tonight Show and see you.
[Long pause] That’s flattering. I think one of the things is that we’re about the only show that does day-to-day humor. There’s no other show that does it. Saturday Night Live is on three times a month; they do sketches. The monologue, for example, to me is a very integral part of the show. Being out there every night, it’s the only show that I know of on television where anybody is commenting on what’s going on in the country every single day.
But why do you think people feel so comfortable with you?
I can’t analyze that. I really can’t. I just do what I do. People ask me, “How do you analyze that you’ve stayed on 17 years and the competition has dropped off?” See, either way you answer that, you end up sounding like a schmuck.
If you say, “Well, obviously I do a much better job than they do,” or say, “I’m more talented,” then people say, “You egotistical bastard!” If, on the other hand, you play Harry Humble and say, “Gee, I don’t know,” then that sounds idiotic, too. So no matter what you say, people say, “Aw, come on now.” I don’t try to shoot for an average audience. I do the things I like to do, and I think I’ve learned what people will accept from me. That’s just an intuitive thing.
In the past you’ve made remarks that seemed critical of Dick Cavett.
Yeah, I didn’t mean that. It sounded, when it came out, as a put-down, and I didn’t mean it to be. I’m fond of Dick and I know him well, and I think he’s a bright, amusing guy, but I’ve often wondered if Dick wants to be an entertainer or a talk show host. People say, “What’s the difference between you and Mike Douglas and, say, a Mery Griffin and so forth–you’re all doing the same show.” And I’ll say, “Well, there’s one difference,” and this again is not being patronizing, but I go out on concerts, have for fifteen years, I play Las Vegas every year. I do a stand-up act. The other people don’t. I’m basically a professional comedian and it doesn’t bother me to say that. I always had the feeling that it bothered Cavett to say he’s a professional comedian. I don’t know why. There’s nothing wrong with being a comedian. But that word comic or comedian bothered him. Like he’d rather be known as a wit or as a humorist.
Some people see being a comedian as lowbrow.
[Riled] Baloney. Jack Benny was a comedian. Jimmy Durante, Fred Allen and Skelton–all comedians. What’s wrong with being a comedian? It’s not lowbrow.
The Tonight Show has always been a major vehicle for new comedians. In that respect, there’s nothing else like it on the air.
Because I realize that is the hardest type of entertaining to do–to stand by yourself and make people laugh. And anybody who says anything different is crazy. You can ask George Burns, you can ask any of the people who “stand.” That’s a lonely type of existence to get out there, one on one, and you don’t have any instrument, and you’re not dancing, and you’re not singing the latest hits. That is a tough way to make a dollar. It’s lonely; you’ve only got yourself.
Why do you think that you’re such a staunch supporter of these new comedians and no one else really does it?
They have ’em on their shows…
Not to the extent that you do.
Well, because it’s a hard commodity to find, first of all. There’s thousands of singers who can come out and sing a song. There are, however, not many young comedians who can come out and do six, seven, eight minutes. And it’s fun to see it when they do come on and hit and go on to other things. Joan Rivers, Flip Wilson and a lot of them are working now. Freddie Prinze, before he shot himself; and Johnny Yune is a new young comedian who’s come on who I think is going to be good. It’s fun to watch that happen.
Do you offer advice or counsel to these people before or afterward?
If they ask. If I feel they will take it well, because I don’t want to be patronizing. But most of them know. They appreciate it. I mean, if somebody came to me when I was starting and said, “Hey, this would work for you,” I’d appreciate it.
Freddie Prinze was so young when he came on the show and, prior to his appearances, he hadn’t had a tremendous impact. Did you offer him any advice before or afterward?
Only once did I offer him some advice, and he asked me. He was going to do a joke where he was going to say “fuck,” and he said, “What do you think?” I said, “You’re too young to get away with it. Jack Benny could come on, even though it was a mixed adult group, and do it, and the shock value would be funny. If you do it, they’re going to resent it.”
Did he do it?
No, he didn’t do it.
Do you have any other perceptions about Freddie and the way he was?
I didn’t know him well. I would guess it was too much, too fast, too soon. He came out of a minority background–from nothing–and being Puerto Rican and in the minority, and then all of a sudden having this tremendous surge of popularity, it’s tough to handle.
The money is there, the girls are there, the hangers-on are there. You fall into the drug thing. Liquor, pills; it’s too bad. I think he was simply unable to handle all of the shit that came down on him. He was 20 years old! And that’s not the first time that’s happened in our culture, as with rock stars that have not been able to handle fame and money thrown at them.
They mistake the recognition for importance. They have the fame, the recognition, but they ain’t important. They’re demanding this, they’re demanding that because they’ve heard that’s the way you do it. And your major stars, who are really secure and comfortable, they never have that problem. They walk in and say, “Where do you want me to stand?” Boom. And they just do it.
You usually don’t have any rock & roll or hard rock on the show.
No, and I’ll tell you why. Because it’s too much of a problem for us every day to set them up. I had a group on once–I can’t remember the name of the group [Young-bloods]; I don’t think they’re in the business anymore–but they were really hot and they didn’t like the platform, they didn’t like the risers, they didn’t like the lights; they were talking to my director–who had only been directing for 20-some years.
So I went in and told them to pack up and get the hell out of the building. I went on the air that night and I said, “We had booked, tonight, the so-and-so group. They didn’t like the lights, they didn’t like the directing, they didn’t like so forth; and so I told them to go home, blow their noses and when they grew up they could come back and be on the show.” And the audience applauded, because they had had it with that kind of behavior.
Is there anybody in rock you enjoy?
Oh sure. The Stones, and I think that Chicago and a lot of the groups are sensational. The Beatles were most talented; they could really write music. But some of the stuff I see nowadays…it’s like what Artur Rubinstein once said when I asked him to comment. He said: “I cannot comment on something I don’t understand.” It’s a howl, it’s noise, it’s a happening. Sometimes I cannot separate the musical talent from what is going on onstage. I cannot really separate it.
The kids are screaming and you can’t really hear anything. I can’t understand, for example, how 100,000 kids can go to a speedway and be a mile from something going on onstage there. But it’s the being there, being with your peers; it’s the culture. I’m there, I was there, but, as far as the music, I think it’s sold an awful lot of junk under the guise of talent. But kids, you see, are very fickle and there’ll be another band along next week. If that one falls out of favor there’s somebody else. We can go back to David Cassidy, you know. First, David Cassidy, next week there’s another hero, somebody to identify with.
Unlike some rock stars, virtually all comedians make themselves vulnerable to the audiences.
We go out naked.
Also, there’s an axiom that most comedians–a variation on the sad clown thing–are very intense and self-absorbed.
There’s a certain amount of truth in that. A lot of comedians are introspective, not the “sad clown” syndrome exactly; it’s more like the myth “to be funny, you must have suffered.” You must have been raised on the Lower East Side, and you must have fought your way out of this deprivation to be funny. That’s not really true. Do you have to starve, be deprived, to be a great writer?
But I think there’s a certain thing in creative people–and I’m not a psychiatrist–but I have found that people who are in the creative end of entertainment are not normal by most standards, whatever “normal” means. That is, as Margaret Sullavan said, “It’s not normal to walk out and bare your soul to a bunch of strangers, that’s not a normal thing for someone to do.”
Most people find that very awkward, and entertainers do it. I find that most comedians are a little cynical, as well they should be. And I am cynical about certain things. And people sometimes mistake the cynicism for being abrupt or cold. I think it’s just the way you perceive things around you. You’ve seen the silliness, the absurdity, the craziness that goes on in the world and you jump on that and expand it. You look at things in a different light. That’s what makes comedy.
Comedians are highly competitive, many of them. I think it was Lenny Bruce who said, “Comedians hate to see other comedians get laughs.” There are certain guys who really suffer when they see other comedians really scoring. I don’t. But I know a lot of guys where the competition among them is just ferocious. They talk about friendship and so forth, but a lot of them would kill each other. There’s something bizarre about guys who do comedy.
I find an intensity there.
[Nodding] And a certain amount of hostility.
I think Richard Pryor, for instance, is very aware of it himself.
Certainly. Of course, and he is. And he can be a very funny man. I’d like to see him not be so dirty, ’cause I don’t think he needs it. But I think that’s part of the hostility, and he comes out of the street, and it’s street language. And you either buy it or you don’t buy it. Redd Foxx is a terribly angry man, and I think he knows it. He’s very hostile. And I don’t think it’s healthy. I think it’s hurting him a little bit. It’s just a big game, it’s a fuckin’ game when you come right down to it. It’s ridiculous, the competition, the drive and all of that. And people running around trying to be happy, not even knowing what the hell it is. I think that’s a common denominator.
Another question I want to ask. A comedian who does very well on the show seems to get invited back to the couch. Is that a deliberate gesture?
We try to figure out, first of all, if a guy has had six or seven good minutes. If he comes to the couch and he doesn’t do well, if you don’t know him well enough yet, that does not help him. He comes out as a klutz. Once a guy’s established and the audience knows him, he can come to the couch, you don’t have to have him do a stand-up first because you know he’s bright enough or can deliver a stand-up sitting down.
How do they know when to come over after they’ve done a well-received stand-up routine?
That’s usually done before the show. Some people resent it, especially agents. Agents resent it more than the talent. That’s a certain “goodie.” A sign, I guess, that you have arrived when you’ve come to sit in the chair. But if you are dismissed, it’s not being cruel. It’s what works for the show. The show’s the point. Sometimes you have to do it that way.
I’ve booked guests at times that did not get on. Some other guest may have an ulcer or makes leather belts and is going to come out and talk about it, but if a comedian is working well, it’s silly for me to say, “Well now we’ve got to stop this and bring out so-and-so, who’s going to tell us how to make leather belts.” I don’t give a shit at that time. I don’t want to wreck the pacing of the show. [Adamant] We create the show while it’s on the air.
People have said that Ed McMahon has one of the most engaging laughs in show business, while others have been very critical of him.
[Irritated] He’s not sitting there going “ha, ha, ha” at everything I say. It’s just the nature of the man. He can’t be all things to all people. Somebody might say, “Ed’s got to laugh at everything Johnny says…” We just fall into funny things together, and some of them do become rituals of a sort that we do too much, but we enjoy each other. We’ve been good friends for a long, long time.
Who directs the writers?
Well, I talked with them this morning. If I get an idea, I’ll call the guys and say, “Let’s do this.” I used to write for Skelton, and I write a lot of my nightclub material, and I contribute a certain amount to the show. The job of a comedian is to be a good editor and say, “That’s good” or “I don’t like it.” You don’t have to give any reasons. It’s a very tough show to write.
Ernie Kovacs was a real innovator and recognized the possibilities of that form of pure television where the camera is a partner in what’s going on. Were you an admirer of his?
Well, here’s where I may get in trouble, if you want me to be honest. Kovacs was an innovator. I didn’t know him, I had only met him. So I don’t know whether he was really a funny guy. I know he did bizarre things, but most of the stuff, if you look at it in retrospect, does not hold up very well. Because he fell into certain devices, using camera tricks, sound effects, as kind of shock things. And I didn’t find them that funny.
I thought he was trying to make a point about the surrealistic qualities of humor, and he sought to explore these notions–funny or not.
I think he had a point of view, and I guess I just wasn’t a Kovacs fan. And that’s taking nothing away from him. A lot of people think Chaplin was the greatest of all times. I don’t hold with that. That’s almost sacrilegious to say if you are in comedy. Chaplin was a superb artist but I don’t think that everything he did was all that great. I think that some of the stuff that Buster Keaton did was as good as Chaplin’s. He just didn’t touch people like Chaplin did. Chaplin seemed to be able to touch both bases–pathos and comedy–better than Keaton. But I think that Keaton was a better physical comedian.
Polite drawing-room humor is a dying art. Comedy is more aggressive these days. Looking back, actors like W.C. Fields kicked the ball in that direction.
Fans today, they would love Fields, you know. Because he was against everything. Kick a dog in the ass, rail against every social convention. There was a black humor, a hostility there. He had a terrible childhood, you know, terrible childhood.
What do you think of the kind of black humor you see on Saturday Night Live?
I’ve often thought being bizarre just to be bizarre is no good. I’ve seen Animal House, and the kids will probably hate me for saying that I don’t think Animal House is very funny. Again, it’s my own personal point of view. I don’t think it’s very clever. To me, a food fight is sophomoric.
Those sophomoric qualities are also in the slap-stick tradition.
Don’t misunderstand me, I like slapstick. Laurel and Hardy did a lot of slapstick, but there was a certain timing and cleverness about it, a certain reaction, an interplay. All I saw here were a bunch of people doing crazy things.
It’s a distillation of the college humor…
[Arguing] It’s outrageous to be outrageous. Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, to me, was a far better, more clever picture. It was funny, he said funny things. But he made social points along the way. It was a tender relationship between people.
Chevy Chase said recently that he felt it was very gratifying for all comedians that Woody Allen won the Oscars for Annie Hall. He said it was a sign that a comedian was finally being taken seriously. Did you feel that Allen’s awards represented a significant breakthrough?
Yes, in a way it was, because it was the first time in my lifetime, I think, that comedy has really been honored. Comedy has always been thought of as frivolous and not too important and doesn’t have the social meaning, you know, as a “deep” picture, when in fact it does. I mean, what if you didn’t have the comedians? What if you didn’t have any funny people? Making people laugh is so damn hard. If you talk with Steve Martin, I think you’ll find Steve a very introspective man, and very quiet and bizarre in many ways, but I don’t think you’d find him, if you sat around in a room with him, hysterically funny.
I think you’ll find Mel Brooks more that way, because he has to be silly all of the time. He’d be sitting there saying, “Well, I’ll-tell-you-this-” and he’d be doing a shtick, and that’s Mel.
Still, I think they all spend a lot of time thinking about the human condition. Would you describe yourself as intense or introspective?
I suppose. I’m an extrovert when I work. I’m an introvert when I don’t. But if I’m with a group of friends and things start to cook, I’ll get in and be very funny, start to function.
Are you a big reader of humorists?
Yeah, I’ve read a lot over the years. You know, Stephen Leacock, Benchley and Mark Twain. I think the first book I ever read on humor was by Max Eastman, when I was in high school. He was explaining jokes, why people laugh. George Burns put it as well as anybody. He says, “If you laugh, it’s funny.”
Are you conscious of the enormous influence The Tonight Show has?
Only when I get out in the country when I go play concerts. It’s amazing to me, the reaction. I get so close to it that I really don’t realize sometimes the power or the exposure of that show.
You are, in my mind, a great believer in television and its possibilities to influence people and inform them.
Basically. I can go do a concert in middle Iowa somewhere, and those people are aware. You can go out and do humor about what’s going on, politically or otherwise anywhere in this country, and they know what’s going on–because of television. Look what the kids are exposed to by the time they are six. Forgetting the commercials, just look at what they are exposed to.
It’s incredible when you start to think about it. Thanks to TV, you see men walk on the moon. They can see almost anything at all. And it’s great if parents are really selective–of course, parents don’t want to do that, because that’s a responsibility they don’t want to take. And I get so mad at the critical put-down of television all the time, that a child may see 25,000 murders and that you can’t be with a child all the time to see what he’s seeing.
Also though, especially in young minds, you have the notion of TV keeping one company. Problem is, people see lives on television and they don’t compare favorably with their own life in any way, shape or form. Their frustrations are fired.
That’s true; I did a special [in 1969] for Monsanto, which they hated. But I liked it. They missed some of the points I was making. For example, in the special, I opened up on a television set, a close-up, it was a toy commercial: “Hey kids! Be the first in your neighborhood to have this wonderful whatever-it-was for $29.95.”