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Friday, May 11th, 2012

Looking Back at the 'Johnny Carson Show' (No, Not That One)

The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)

For the 29 years that Johnny Carson hosted The Tonight Show on NBC there was no one else in late night. 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of Johnny assuming the Tonight Show throne, and to celebrate, instead of taking the easy way out and looking at an episode of that show (we already did that) we’re going to dig even deeper and take a look at one in a series of comedy shows hosted by Johnny Carson all the way back in 1955.

First things first: CBS’ The Johnny Carson Show doesn’t have much in common with The Tonight Show. For starters, it was only on for 39 episodes, and was considered a flop in the ratings. On top of that, the show was very sketch heavy, featured no interviews, no celebrity guests, unless you count Elaine Stanley who sings a song later in the show in one of the sketches. Then, of course, there’s the age difference. The Johnny Carson that probably springs to mind when you imagine him is the silver-haired, older gentleman, sitting behind the desk. Here, Johnny is a spry and wiry 30-year-old kid, with jet-black Don Draper hair, and seemingly a little nervous.

Prior to this show, Johnny did have some on-camera experience, though this was his first time with a national show with his name on the title. After making his way up the ranks in Nebraska radio, Johnny hosted a low-budget sketch show named Carson’s Cellar on the CBS affiliate in Los Angeles. Comedian Red Skelton, a very popular act during the 50s and 60s if you’re unfamiliar, became a fan of Carson’s show and invited him aboard to join the writing staff of his own show in 1953. One year later, when Skelton accidentally knocked himself unconscious an hour before his live show was set to air, Johnny stepped in to host. Not long after, CBS tapped Johnny to host a game show by the name of Earn Your Vacation, and then the following year they gave him The Johnny Carson Show.

This particular episode begins with a brief monologue that immediately launches into a sketch. Johnny has decided that he is going to show the viewers a few photos from the Carson family album, since he comes from a very proud and illustrious family. He opens the book up and immediately crumples up the first photo he sees, saying that that one “spelled Carson with a ‘k.’” The sketch proceeds with Johnny introducing different Carson relatives, as the camera cuts to Johnny, who puts his head through a board with a hole in it (like the roadside attraction photo opportunities) to act as the “photo” of that relative. This includes him dressing as his twin sister Gladys Carson, an old spinster who is knitting a handkerchief, Douglas Fairbanks Carson Jr., a dimwitted Davy Crocket figure, Tempest Carson, a Marilyn Monroe-style songbird with Johnny Carson’s face, and older brother Randolph Carson, whose body is built disproportionately short.

Up next is a live Jell-O commercial, which was actually rather charming, and featured two small children who interrupt Johnny as he shills for Jell-O because the love the delicious fruit flavor of Jell-O brand gelatin.

After the commercial we get what is probably the strongest sketch of the night, though once it falls into its rhythm, it does become a little predictable. Johnny serves as the translator between a UN delegate from the United States and another from “Slovia,” which is either a mispronunciation by the announcer of Slovenia, or, more likely, a stand-in for all Slavic countries. The main comedy in the sketch comes from Johnny having to act out exactly what these characters do as he translates for them. When a cute secretary walks in, the Slovian delegate gives a wolf whistle, which Johnny then repeats for the US delegate who announces, “at least we agree on something!” The sketch ends with a disagreement between the two countries that Carson must deliver. When one delegate pokes him hard in the chest to emphasize his words, Carson passes it on to the antagonist. This continues and escalates into lapel shaking and face slapping until finally a challenge to a duel is issued. The two delegates stand back to back and they pace as the translator stands between them and counts the three in both English and Slovic. The turn and shoot, both hitting poor Johnny who, with his last ounce of strength announces, “good heavens, they’ve killed each other!”

The final sketch of the night is a long one, and takes up the remaining fifteen minutes of the show. In response to a recent movie that had come out about the life of Vincent van Gough, the show is presenting a look at a starving artist living in a cruddy-looking basement apartment in the East Village. For most of the sketch, the humor is derived from just how crappy this pace is. Johnny folds his Murphy bed up, but it crashes straight through the wall. There’s a garbage chute that extends and dumps right into the middle of the floor. The artist’s landlord comes in and demands the rent. Johnny heads to a nightclub to try and sell one of his abstract paintings by walking table to table. When the beautiful nightclub singer says she likes the painting (and can even identify what the abstract drawing is) he gives it to her free of charge. He goes home, discouraged, about to be evicted, when the singer appears in his doorway, leading to my favorite joke as she exclaims, “John!” and Johnny replies “Girl! You didn’t tell me your name…” She brings someone in who buys his paintings. The pair is about to kiss when the garbage chute extends, separating them and they live happily ever after, we assume.

The evening ends by continuing the artist theme, as Johnny tells us before it ends, he’s going to paint a group portrait of the audience. He scribbles away and then reveals his canvas to the camera to show a drawing of one man in the crowd. “Thank you, Sam for coming down.”

If one goes back and watches a best of Carson’s Tonight Show one will notice that the host played a lot of characters during his tenure, whether he was Carnak or Aunt Blabby. Clearly The Johnny Carson Show provided the host with the experience necessary to write and sustain these beloved characters over the many years. Shortly after The Johnny Carson Show was cancelled, he moved on to ABC’s Who Do You Trust?, where he was able to interview guests and ad-lib a bit more than he could in the past, allowing him to effectively audition on the air to take over The Tonight Show when Jack Parr moved on. It’s inspiring to see that even though his trajectory began with a rocky start, things worked out alright for the Once and Future King of Late Night.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, the head writer of his website, a podcaster and a guy on Twitter.