For those of us over a certain age, Johnny Carson was so much more than just a talk show host. He was there for us every night before bed, in a time when viewing choices were limited. It seemed the whole country would watch, then talk about it the next day. His retirement in 1992 opened up the floodgates of late night talk shows, but it also left a hole that will never be filled. Even now many Carson clips have millions of views on YouTube and DVD sets of The Tonight Show are top sellers.
As popular as Johnny was though, he was famously private and difficult to know. And given the thousands of guests he had over the years there were bound to be some great stories left untold. That’s why I was happy to find The Johnny Carson Podcast. Host Mark Malkoff talks to frequent guests and insiders about their Tonight Show experience and memories. The guest list has been impressive in the three year run of the podcast, ranging from the first guest comedian Tom Dreesen to Charles Grodin, Dick Cavett, Paul Williams, David Steinberg, as well as writers, musicians, behind the scenes personnel.
My personal favorite guests are the comedians. Throughout the 70’s and 80’s getting a spot on the Tonight Show could catapult a comedian to instant stardom. Getting laughs from Johnny meant you were good, getting the OK sign after a set meant you were on your way to stardom, and Johnny waving you over was the highest honor and the equivalent of being made man in the Mafia. Several comedians on the podcast talk about going to the airport the next morning and being recognized, where it had never happened before. They suddenly went from being paid peanuts as a mid level act to being headliners, with “From The Tonight Show” prominent on the billing.
One of the all time great Tonight Show debuts was a then-unknown Steven Wright, plucked from obscurity in a Boston comedy club by Tonight Show producer Peter Lassally, who just happened to be in town to visit colleges with his daughter. Wright is the guest on episode two of The Carson Podcast and talks about that appearance in deeply personal and touching way that I’ve never heard before. I happened to see that first appearance when it originally aired and was blown away by this weird guy and his surreal jokes. Even better than the jokes was his genuinely stunned and shocked reaction when Johnny calls him over. It’s not an act, he really was that shocked. As he says on the podcast, here he was sitting with the guy he’s been watching since he was 14 years old and decided he wanted to be a comedian. You’re seeing someone’s lifelong dream literally come true, which is a pretty rare and amazing thing.
I love when Carson says a lot of comedians don’t come out of Boston. Wright was the first and opened the floodgates for a wave of great comedians like Denis Leary, Paula Poundstone, Bobcat Goldthwait and many, many more
Malkoff asked Wright who he thought had the best Tonight Show debut of all time and he said Drew Carey. Yes, for those youngsters out there, the Price Is Right host was once a portly stand-up comedian from Cleveland. He was also a guest on the Carson Podcast and tells the whole story of that appearance, and explains that his bizarrely short haircut on the show was an accident.
Another all time great guest was Charles Grodin. He was the first guest, and one of only three ever, to sign an exclusive contract to be a regular guest on the Tonight Show. For a number of years he would appear every few months as the lead guest and proceed to bust Johnny’s balls the entire time. It was all an act but done so well and so deadpan that many viewers thought it was real. The audience would often boo and viewers would send hate mail. Johnny loved it of course, it was a chance for him to verbally spar with one of the few people capable of matching him quip for quip. Grodin has made two appearances on the Carson Podcast, where he talks about his friendship with Johnny and his regret at turning down Johnny’s offer to join him on an African safari later in his life. Grodin’s act of being “in character as himself” was a precursor to what Larry David did years later on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Here he is getting some real candor out of Johnny:
With three years of episodes and new ones coming out regularly, The Carson Podcast will keep you entertained for hundreds of hours. All of the above episodes are great but you can jump in anywhere. Begin with Dreesen and episode one or just dip in and listen to your favorite guests. I strongly recommend The Carson Podcast, it’s a great resource of untold stories and fond memories of the king of late night.
Website: The Carson Podcast
iTunes: The Carson Podcast