Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Heeeere’(wa)s Johnny

Due to what can only be described as ‘circumstances’, the BrokenTV gang found themselves sat at home for most of today watching old telly programmes. One of which was a compilation featuring prime cuts of ‘The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson’, taken from the 1960s and 1970s, which only added weight to our theory that Johnny Carson might just be the greatest television personality of all time. Relentlessly warm, quick-witted, but always willing to allow the guests the lions share of the limelight when it would be more entertaining. Even when they’re of the feathered variety, as this clip shows:

A good example of Carson’s lightning-quick wit comes from 1973. Tonight Show announcer and sidekick Ed McMahon was fronting a live advert-within-the-show for Alpo dog food (as used to happen with big US TV shows, referenced excellently in the Larry Sanders episode ‘The Garden Weasel’). The spot entailed McMahon scooping some of the dog food out into a bowl, where it would be gobbled up by a grateful pooch in order to highlight the beef-based magnificence of Alpo.


“The real beef could be the reason Hernandez here… c’mere boy… come on….”

Live television being what it is, the disinterested mutt merely sniffed at the food before buggering off, leaving a floundering McMahon looking around for rescue. Now, normally, that would be enough for a nice big laugh and a smattering of applause from the audience before moving on to the rest of the show. Column inches in the press might bring some extra attention to the programme, and the whole event would make for an easy ‘best of’ clip the next time a compilation show is put together.

However, that wasn’t enough for Carson. The second it became clear the camera-shy canine wasn’t going to return, Carson trotted across the set and bounded into shot on all fours, recasting himself as the hound, like some sort of quadrupedal Lucy Robinson. Reaching down, Carson picked up the bowl of dog food and pretended to wolf down the marrowbone jelly coated chunks within, to howls of laughter from the audience and crew. Wagging his ‘tail’ appreciatively and gratefully nuzzling the leg of McMahon, within ten seconds he’d selflessly rescued his friend from an embarrassing moment, saved the blushes of the show’s sponsor (not to mentioned handing them a minor PR coup), but most of all, quadrupled the merriment quotient for everyone involved.

And, speaking as an unpopular television blog unable to go anywhere near the smell of dogfood, the fact that one of US television’s biggest ever stars would be willing to shove his face so close to a bowl full of the stuff on a whim is especially laudable.


Layering on a few extra scoops of pleasure from any situation was pretty much the trademark of Carson, but there were also plenty of moments where Carson could push at the strict boundaries of what the network deemed ‘acceptable’. Perhaps his most celebrated bit was his Carnac the Magnificent character,


Carnac, donning a hugely ornate turban, would take a ‘hermetically sealed’ envelope, place it to his mystic forehead, and using his special psychic powers announce the answer to a question printed on a card inside the envelope. Once the answer had been read out, Carnac would open the envelope, remove the card from within, and tell everyone the question he had just answered. A cut price mock-up of Jeopardy! would have been a less elaborate way of doing the same bit, but would have been a lot less fun.

Now, much of the time, the questions and answers would relate to current events (well, then-current events. He wasn’t that psychic), such as California Governor Jerry “Aber Alles” Brown dating singer Linda Ronstadt, or the antics of Soviet Foreign Affairs Minster Andrei Gomyko. Gloriously however, they could just as easily be a bit of silly wordplay, such as the following exchange:

Carnac, putting the envelope to his temple: “Dippity doo!”

Ed McMahon: “Dippity doo?”

Carnac shoots McMahon a withering glare as he opens the envelope to read out the unseen question.

Carnac: “What forms on your dippity early in the morning.”

See? A good joke, repeated utterances of silly made up words, and it turns out to be a gag about smegma! On NBC! In 1972! Happily, YouTube is awash with pieces of Johnny Carson magnificence, so here’s one of said clips. This, and the many similar clips on YouTube are well worth a look. If nothing else, they might give a bit of valuable background for jokes in old episodes of Larry Sanders and The Simpsons.


We’ve now found a quick and easy to use video splitter program that isn’t hateful, so here’s that dog food clip in full. From now until the legal department of a faceless corporation demands its removal, enjoy:

Obviously, the whole thing works more effectively when you're not expecting it, but just appreciate that expert timing. A master of his art.

2 .:

Anonymous said...

Cheers for this Mark; Carson was a genius, and there's not enough notice paid to that fact in this country. There's never been anyone to match him in Britain. Brucie's always been kind of half there, whereas Bob Monkhouse was almost there but never got a show that did him full justice (probably the fault of there being no tradition in the UK for weeknightly talk shows).

Mark X said...

Too true. Sadly, with just the three channels in operation for most of Carson's tenure there was no room in the schedules for his show over here, meaning all we've ever really been able to go from is the occasional clip* and Simpsons reference. But hey, in this digital age, there's always a chance to chase Letterman through the digital wilderness - last seen on DivaTV I think.

(*Like the brilliant appearance by Rod Hull and Emu, shown during Channel Four's tribute to Hull. Splendidly, said clip is on YouTube, 7m48s into this animal-based compilation:

Additionally, the DVD of They Might Be Giants' documentary film 'Gigantic' includes an extra of Carson introducing the band onto the show, with them performing "Birdhouse..." alongside the NBC Orchestra, which is a brilliant thing to see as a TMBG fan.

Indeed, it's a shame the UK never really cottoned onto the format. I'd love another chance to see Monkhouse's 1980s chat show that went out opposite Panorama on Monday nights. In fact, just as soon as I work my way into the Director General position at the BBC, I'll make sure that's put onto iPlayer.

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