Johnny Carson, the consummate ‘King of Late Night,’ holds court on Antenna TV
The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson may have ended its 30-year run in 1992, but fans of the undisputed King of Late Night finally have a desert island lifeline guaranteeing the revival of classic episodes in contrast to the competitive, watered-down trenches of modern-day late night programming.
Hands down the most influential late night host, Carson and oft-imitated guffawing sidekick Ed McMahon presided over a bygone, pre-politically correct era fueled by tongues unloosened by specially catered backstage gin tonics.
Devoted to preserving retro television, Chicago-based network Antenna TV first unleashed Johnny Carson — billed so since NBC retains rights to The Tonight Show exclusive moniker currently hosted by wunderkind Jimmy Fallon — on New Year’s Day 2016.
Tune in every weeknight at 11 p.m. EST (repeated at 2 a.m.) to catch sixty-minute episodes not seen since their original broadcast run. Don’t forget that extended ninety-minute episodes from the 1970s — prior to Carson infamously demanding that his workload be shortened which paved the way for David Letterman’s revered dismantling of staid talk show structure on Late Night — also air on Saturdays and Sundays at 10 p.m. (repeated at 1:30 a.m.)
Meticulously curated and digitally restored from The Tonight Show’s increasingly circumspect Burbank 1972–1992 era, viewers may question why the previous 10 years are nowhere to be found. Indeed, Carson was aghast upon permanently vacating New York City in 1972 to discover that NBC executives had wiped 95% of his master archives. Such tapes were erased and later recorded over as a cost cutting measure to partly offset cigarette advertising losses.
Regrettably, transitional cues from gaudily dressed trumpeter Doc Severinsen and the NBC Orchestra — featuring the hilariously deadpan saxophonist Tommy Newsom — along with musical guest performances have been severely edited on account of cost prohibitive rights issues. Eagle eye viewers have also detected trimmed if not downright omitted sketches.
Fortunately, famed Carson sketches featuring Carnac the Magnificent, Art Fern’s Tea Time Movie, Floyd R. Turbo, Stump the Band, Aunt Blabby, notoriously rotten magician El Mouldo, and cute animal segments spearheaded by Joan Embery are presented in full, more often than not enlivening the proceedings with dangerous abandon in contrast to the less spontaneous, too-rehearsed feel that permeates 21st century late night.
Beyond the dated monologues that nevertheless exhibit Carson’s genius timing and delivery, he truly excelled during sketches. But when a sketch bombed, the audience never hesitated to let their affable host know it. Watching him break the fourth wall to address loud booing was often better than any scripted material.
Desk segments between the nightly ruler and his subordinate were frivolous. One such perennial found Carson reading observations from a magazine article. McMahon would suddenly interrupt and exclaim, “You couldn’t possibly find a better article!,” prompting the mischievous host to utter a phrase like, “Wrong, moose breath!” Carson then gleefully read his humorous version proselytizing the “facts.”
The star power who occupied Carson’s couch at any given time is mind blowing. One comedy sketch from 1968 had Carson performing a strip tease, taking everything off except his trousers, after he garbled Rose Marie’s introduction.
The beloved Dick Van Dyke Show comedienne walked off the stage, followed by George “Goober Lindsey of Andy Griffith Show fame, Debbie Reynolds, Carl Reiner, and comedian John Byner. A few minutes later, after leaving Carson to sweat profusely and perform his strip tease, the guests walked back on, with all the guys shirtless and bare-chested.
Carson had an undeniable, charming knack for coaxing exclusive anecdotes from his guest interviews. Anytime actor Michael Landon sat on the couch, it was obviously evident that the mega-popular television star and the host remained friends off camera, too.
During a July 5, 1973 appearance only six months after Bonanza’s untimely cancellation, Landon related with unmitigated glee how awful pilot episode “A Rose for Lotta” was when it debuted in 1959 on the same NBC network.
“Two years ago we showed the pilot of Bonanza to the crew,” admitted Landon. “Now after all these years you forget what it was you really made in the beginning. Lorne Greene wasn’t there. I don’t know if he could have taken it. Really. It was camp. And it’s hilarious. Lorne’s constant line is [Landon adopts a mockingly serious tone], ‘If we’re not back in five minutes, kill him.’
“And Dan Blocker, every time a girl would get off a stage, Dan would go [Landon makes a goofy swooning face]. I was jumping around with an umbrella stabbing people in the stomach.
“We sat and watched this, all the guys that had worked together for so many years, and just yucked for one hour. Actually at the time we filmed the pilot we thought it was rotten. We were very lucky that the show got on because the pilot was not a particularly good pilot. Once it got on, things started to gel…”
Antenna TV is a Tribune Media owned digital sub-channel of local television stations and carried on local affiliate feeds of most major cable companies first launched in 2011 with a zany marathon of Three Stooges short subjects.
The retro-affirming network has struck a multi-year deal with Carson Entertainment Group, the sharp ad-libber’s production company established in 1980 and currently overseen by nephew Jeff Sotzing, to license hundreds of hours of the venerable late-night institution. The scheduling of episodes is carefully curated to run as themed weeks or months, as well as episodes that coincide with notable anniversaries, holidays and other milestones.
So if you’re having a bad day, check out Antenna TV’s edition of the supreme Tonight Show to witness a comedy icon at the top of his game.
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Further Reading: Elvis Presley and Johnny Carson were two kings in their respective fields who admired each other’s work immensely. However, Presley swore off watching The Tonight Show on the evening of his 40th birthday after Carson supposedly uttered a “fat and forty” joke in his nightly monologue. Subsequent retellings of the episode by members of Elvis’ Memphis Mafia have painted Carson in a negative light. But did the King of Late Night actually say those words 40 years ago? A viewing of the original televised clip and accompanying Tonight Show transcript presents stone cold evidence that will lay the claim to rest. Investigate “What Johnny Carson Really Said About Elvis…” for the complete lowdown.
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