Johnny Carson was very much a political animal — but one from another era.
Watching the repeats of vintage “The Tonight Show” episodes on Antenna TV or Time-Life’s upcoming DVD collections “Johnny and Friends: The Complete Collection” and “The Vault Series, Vols. 1-6,” shows how his political humor was pointed but much more genial than the caustic satire of such current late-night hosts as Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah and Seth Myers.
Take these samples from Carson’s monologues:
-- “There is a power struggle going on between President Reagan’s advisers. Moe and Curly are out. Larry is still in.”
-- “Democracy is welcoming people from other lands, and giving them something to hold onto … usually a mop or a leaf blower.”
Though Carson, who died in 2005, stepped down from NBC’s “The Tonight Show” in May 22, 1992, after hosting the late-night series for nearly 30 years, his comedy has a timeless quality that links him to other great American humorists.
“There was so much of Carson that was part and parcel of that special type of television interaction between entertainer and viewer,” said Ron Simon, curator at the Paley Center for Media in New York. “I think one reason his humor seems relevant is it really goes back to a Mark Twain or a Will Rogers.”
Simon notes that although Carson’s humor is topical — he even has a few jokes on then-businessman Donald Trump — “we can certainly feel the humanity in the remarks. You can see that he’s taking the underdog side, he’s always making fun of political power.”
Jeff Sotzing, president of Carson Entertainment and Carson’s nephew, believes that if Carson were alive today, his humor would be the same.
“He was never nasty,” said Sotzing, noting that Carson kept his own political feelings “close to his chest. He was never angry. When he did do some jokes about Nixon at one point, he heard that Nixon was upset and walking around the White House in the middle of the night fuming. And Johnny said ‘We’re not doing that anymore.’ He pushed it, but only to the point where it was humorous. I think it’s a little too rough these days. I don’t think he would like that at all.”
Sotzing noted that when reruns of the show began running on Antenna TV in 2016, he was worried that audiences would be disappointed. “I was concerned that people would say ‘You know, I remember that show as really being good and it’s not.’”
But that’s not the case at all. “It holds up,” he said. “It’s simple, clever, classy conversation with not a lot of bells and whistles because the technology at that time just did not exist. It’s adult, clever, wonderful conversation.”
“He knew he had to appeal to a really diverse audience,” added Simon. “Obviously everything is so different today [where] you look for your own little clan and you appeal to them first, your fan base. Whereas Carson had to appeal to everyone.
“Carson was the dominate presence on American television in the three-network universe. He began in ’62 when television was in more than 90% of the homes. He concluded when cable and new digital technology was just beginning to challenge the three-network universe.”
Carson was the master of the double-take who loved bantering with his idols such as Jack Benny, George Burns and Bob Hope and other contemporaries — most famously Don Rickles — and introducing such new comics as David Letterman, Jerry Seinfeld, Roseanne Barr, Garry Shandling and Jay Leno.
“If you had six minutes and you were able to get booked on ‘The Tonight Show’ and you were successful, you became a big star,” Sotzing said. “The television networks were not that fragmented as they are now.”
Carson also developed a number of memorable characters, including Aunt Blabby, Carnac the Magnificent, Floyd R. Turbo and Art Fern. The DVD set features one of Carson’s funniest skits from 1976 when he strides onstage on a small donkey dressed in a white cowboy outfit replete with sequins to sing “Rhinestone Cowboy.”
“One of the things you have to remember about Carson was that he trained in comedy,” said Simon. Carson spent the late 1950s and the early ’60s honing his craft on different types of shows, most notably the ABC daytime game show “Who Do You Trust?” from 1957-62, which “Tonight Show” sidekick Ed McMahon joined as announcer in 1958.
“I think ‘Who Do You Trust?' was really important because he was able to communicate with everyone and developing interviewing skills that would really pay off in the 1960s,” said Simon.
One of the first things that emerges when Carson takes over “The Tonight Show,” Simon noted, was that “he had a tremendous curiosity for so many topics, whether it be astronomy or culture. That he was drawn to life around him that he both wanted to know about and make fun of too.”
Carson’s first decade in New York was quite different than the Los Angeles-based “Tonight Show.”
“He was much more of the urban sophisticate,” said Simon of his New York persona. “I think that was certainly appealing to a new audience. There’s no doubt that Carson comes from the Rat Pack era and he brings that sensibility nightly to television.”
By the time he arrives in Los Angeles he becomes the “establishment” and “takes on all comers to actually control that 11:30 time slot,” said Simon. “I guess the one thing that you can almost feel as you watch Carson is that he’s galvanizing power. He’s one of the most powerful individuals in television — able to work on his own terms, to own his show and to say who follows him. He becomes his own little corporation.”
Carson, who was married four times and was often described as aloof, felt the most comfortable doing the series. “He was haunted by demons, but in that 90 minutes or an hour, he was himself,” said Simon, “ The rest of his life was a little difficult for him. His show was his laboratory. He created this idolized version of himself that he saved only for the show.”
Unfortunately, most of the shows from the first decade were erased. “But there’s lot and lots of little pieces where you see Ed Ames’ tomahawk throw and the Japanese bath with Don Rickles,” said Sotzing. “It was general practice for all the networks to just re-record over the masters. When the show moved from New York to Burbank in 1972, they decided to have an anniversary show in October and that’s when you see that the show has no clips, it’s just guests.”
The 5,000 episodes remaining of “The Tonight Show” are given special treatment. They are in cans in an underground storage vault in Hutchinson, Kan., 200 feet below the surface.
Only a few hundred episodes have been released. “The guys at Time Life are just really good at knowing what to put together and how to put things together,” said Sotzing.
“We discuss different themes that would work,” Sotzing explained. “Then we go back and actually pull the shows and see if they actually work. Sometimes ideas don’t pan out. I like the fact it’s not edited up. It gives you a nice sense of the timing because the timing was much slower back then. I like it.”