...ruled "Tonight" for 30 years
...best-ever "Tonight Show" host?
PBS special on Carson
neglected Allen's impact
By GERALD NACHMAN
On a recent edition of PBS' American Masters series, commemorating the 20 years since he gave up the show, Johnny Carson was psychologically fileted, finely sliced and diced by colleagues, friends and family, all of whom found him remote and living in his own tightly wound world.
Noticeably absent from the documentary were comments from his two surviving sons or his first wife and widow. He seemed like a man absent from his own life, a cool, gifted but bloodless TV shadow.
Johnny Carson: King of Late Night was an incisive and thorough two-hour show, as far as it went, and writer-director Peter Jones didnt whitewash Carsons drinking and womanizing, and presented a diverse docket of witnesses from all areas of Carsons life, including biographers.
But the show didnt go nearly far enough in one crucial area--analyzing the lame Tonight show itself under Carson. There were laudatory comments but few critical insights about what actually happened on this legendary show every night for 30 years, apart from examining Carsons famous monologue.
I also felt that (to build the case for Carson) Steve Allen, easily the shows most creative host over its long history, was unfairly ignored, with just a brief mention, even though Allen was responsible for designing the template for the show (its look and style), brilliantly hosting it for five years before sending it on its profitable, hugely popular way.
Allen also had a much more restless, curious, innovative mind than Carson, with a pure satirical sensibility capable of creating unique, clever sketches (with the aid of his two right arms, Stan Burns and Herb Sargent, and later Bill Dana), characters and segments.
Carson, despite his talents--delivering sharp monologues, fronting a (too) smoothly running show and bantering with guests--was never, to me, an innately funny guy. He could do polished monologues, react with a patented dazed or mock-innocent look, and get off fast ad libs, but he was too buttoned-up as a person and as a comedian to react instinctively, like Allen, who was so loose and unrestrained a wit that he could go in any direction. Allen also could get a bit silly, as did Carson, diving into a vat of Jell-o, etc.. but usually he aimed higher.
To rerun that ancient and overused definition, a comedian is someone who says funny things (Carson) but a comic is someone who says things funny (Allen). Allen was never just a jokemeister, scoring off the days news; he was a consummate wit and genuinely amusing guy.
Carson was mainly a reactive comic who settled into a show with a frozen format soon after he took over (it remains freeze-dried under Jay Lenos rigid, self-satisfied 20-year reign), a series of mindless pop star interviews promoting CDs, movies, TV shows, books, concerts; the chat-ups have all the substance of Entertainment Tonight.
Allen sought out unusual characters, authors, politicians and personalities, and used them in inspired ways in sketches, but Carson was content to play patty-cake with starlets and a stable of regulars while waiting opportunities for a double entendre, an easy way to score laughs. Even fans of Carson (also Leno) often only watched him for the monologue before turning off the rest of a predictable show plodding through the same tired motions.
Not mentioned, of course, was Carsons shameless habit of stealing characters for uninspired sketches: Aunt Blabby was a ruthless rip-off of Jonathan Winterss Maude Frickert, his drunken TV pitchman was swiped from Red Skelton (for whom he once wrote) or maybe Jackie Gleason. Art Fern was a name he took from Allen, one of whose favorite catch phrases was, Hows your fern? Johnny also stole his Magnificent Carnac swami mind-reader bit from Allens Mad Libs, with nary a nod of credit.
Allen, and later Jack Paar, delighted in discovering and promoting new comedians, which Carson also did but in a far less hands-on way, mainly by bringing back comics he liked (no small boost, to be sure). Paar often whiny, fawning and painfully candid -- could be a pain in the neck to listen to, but he and the show were much less predictable than Carsons pat version night after night.
Carson wielded such power that his famous OK gesture could hand a young performer a career.
But Allen was much more the activist host. Carson seemed content to meet with writers, do the show, have a few drinks and get home. Allens fertile brain came up with ideas for guests, sketches and shtick; unlike Carson, he seemed to have a life beyond his 90-minute show each night.
Steve Allen was the Tonight show founder and diligent inventor. Johnny Carson was its highly skilled hired hand who rose to become the silky CEO of late night television.
©2012 by Gerald Nachman. This column first posted May 28, 2012.
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