Great Posts About the Tonight Show With Johnny Carson:
I suspect that readers do not come the Volokh Conspiracy to read about show business topics, but I just happened across this great reminiscence on Powerline by William Katz, a most interesting man who happened to work for a time as a talent coordinator for the Tonight Show during its zenith under Johnny Carson. Reading this, I was reminded that, when I was in college in the summer of 1971, I was in the audience of a Tonight Show taping when Johnny Carson, Ed McMahon and Doc Severinson were all there. I seem to think that there were a remarkable collection of noteworthy guests for that show, which was not always the case, but for some reason the only guest that afternoon (the show was taped in the afternoons) I can now recall was Jack Benny, of whom Katz writes very fondly in the excerpt below. I am a bit wistful that I cannot remember any other specifics of the show, but I do recall that the Tonight Show band was awesome. They played through most of the commercial breaks while Johnny tapped on his desk with a pencil and chatted with the guests. As a viewer, you had no idea how great the band was from the tiny bits you heard after the commercials, though on rare occasions, they get some air time of their own. As Katz writes, the audio on TVs then was too primitive to capture the power of the band. The Tonight Show was never my favorite TV show, though in those days you measured your growth by whether you could stay up late enough to watch it. Still, I really enjoy reading the whole thing here and here (with more posts to follow). Here is an excerpt:
On Johnny Carson: He had natural talent. As I said, he was distant, yet could make you laugh at a staff meeting. Among his gifts was remarkable self-discipline and a clear sense of who he was and what he wanted to do. Carson would tell us that "Tonight" wasn't a talk show, but a variety show. And he was right. Every part of the show had to be strong, not just the chats.I am looking forward to future installments.
In the middle of the afternoon, no matter what he was doing, Carson would get up and say, "I've got to do the monologue," and return to his office. There he'd select the jokes submitted by his writers, write some of his own, and learn them. When the show went on the air, I would look at "the board," a series of cue cards laid out left to right on a panel placed in front of him for the monologue. All it had on it were key words and phrases. Carson had essentially memorized the jokes. He did this every day. One of the many things I learned from Johnny Carson was the importance of memory in making presentations. Learn the material. Don't depend on a written text.
Carson also taught, "Buy the premise, buy the bit." It's another good lesson, applicable to presidential candidates as well as comedians. If people don't buy the premise of a comedy sketch, or a speech, or an immigration proposal, they'll never buy the rest.
Many in the audience don't know how difficult comedy is. It's the most challenging form of writing. It's far easier to make someone cry than laugh. In working with Carson I was reminded of the comment made by the great English actor Edmund Kean, presumably on his deathbed: "Dying is easy, comedy is hard."
If there was a steady influence on The Tonight Show then, it was Jack Benny. Fred DeCordova had directed some of Jack's shows, and Jack, in many ways, was Johnny's mentor. Jack Benny was an extraordinarily sweet man, who could break you up just by looking at you. Once, when the show was visiting Los Angeles, DeCordova had a staff party and Jack came over. He related, in his style, how he'd just gotten a ticket for an illegal u-turn. He then turned to something he'd discovered — that you could make a phone call to a particular number, and hear sex talk. Of course, Jack was a little boy, so all this came out with a sense of wonder. He had the same devilish personality off-camera as on. At the party, by the way, he rushed around to get chairs for the women.
Jack taught Johnny a fundamental lesson - to be generous with guests, to make them look good. Jack would say, "I don't care who gets the best lines. I just want people to stand around the water cooler the next morning and say, 'Wasn't the Jack Benny Show good last night.'" Johnny adopted that approach. It always worked.
Doc Severinsen is a sweet guy who ran one of the best bands in the business. You could not appreciate the Tonight Show Band through those tinny TV speakers, but in the studio it was spectacular. Just a few weeks ago we lost Tommy Newsom, the saxophonist who led the band in Doc's absence. Johnny used him as a foil because of his bland personality. In truth, he was a highly regarded arranger and instrumentalist.