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Johnny Carson & Dick Cavett

At the end of Fred Gardner's reissued 1992 article Johnny Carson's story (AVA Jan 26, 2005) there is mention of a number of writers who provided material for Johnny. “It was a great period for me,” says Marshall [Brickman] who stayed through 1970. “The place was full of energy. The writers were divided into two groups. One group worked on the monologue almost exclusively. They came in, read the newspapers and periodicals banged their heads against the typewriters and submitted monologues to Carson, Johnny would then select from these. The other guys worked on all the other stuff — sketches, interviewing odd guests, thinking up what we used to call the five spot.”

In other words most everything that Carson mouthed was chewed once or twice by the writers group. How many were on each team? One could guess about five or six. I guess at this number because I once saw a TV show where all the writers of the Sid Caesar Imogene Coco show gathered for a funny fest. Neil Simon, brassy Mel Broooks, I think Woody Allen was once on the team and four other intelligent witty men. The amount of wit that went into the mouths and bodies of Sid Caesar and Imagine Coca impressed me. What was revealed was that Caesar the “genius” performer and imitator, mime and impersonator must have been like Carson a quick study or one of those annoying characters, that can photographically pick up the lines and deliver them with ease.

What was most impressive about Carson’s charm was his restraint as Gardner points out, he was smarter than the material he was given or the character he portrayed but he was even wiser than Dick Cavett was. If one can remember Cavett (1969-1974) was to interview so-called intelligent people and raise the level of discourse to a mature level higher than the soft entertainment of the Carson Show, however the problem was that Cavett was a middle brow who insisted, much like Larry Bensky of KPFA in trying to outsmart the intellectuals on his program. Carson on the other hand when sitting next to a mind of consequence remained attentive. Memorably Gore Vidal was on his show. Large size, comfortable in his intellectual stance, Vidal was chatting with “John” — Vidal never called him 'Johnny.” But most respectfully John didn’t interrupt Vidal with his usual clever chatter nor try to match wits with the literary and social critic; rather he let him speak. The entertainer Carson was much better at giving space to intellectuals than the pseudo intellectual Dick Cavett.

Just to round out the understanding of the figure Carson, one must remember the numerous writers providing him with wit to deliver. Nevertheless, the silliness of most of his late night antics and discussions with entertainers was the mainstay of the show. The format of interviewing Hollywood products is still with us as if they have something to say other than what they are on screen, which is provided by writers, the movement of the camera and the makeup crew.

Compare Carson to Jay Leno who used to do a fair job but got fatter and stupider while Dave Letterman is down right lowbrow and his audience loves him and he loves his ratings. It must be better to listen to trite chatter about the next film a star is about to appear in before going to sleep then to listen to the chatter of Charlie Rose, who, like Dick Cavett, tries to appear intelligent when he is a middle brow reformist flatterer to “Mr. Secretary” or” Mr. Ambassador.” Rose must also have a team of writers preparing material for him like Fresh Air radio Queen Terry Gross. One can't go on the air with two interviews a day or one a night without a team of writers, makeup artists, camera folks, and directors filling in the substance for the mouthpiece.

There are serious difficulties for these preparation folks; think of the difficulties the speechwriters have with George Bush. Bush has to read his text off the two plastic screens that reflect words back at him. If he is dyslexic as they say, do technicians write the words in linear form or in jumbled dyslexic form? When Bush is off the reflecting panels the facade falls. Rove and crew have cleverly limited Bush’s 'off the cuff” press conferences. But I bet even these are prepared and constrained. Bush like the other entertainers is a mouth piece who is capable of getting up and reading the reflector boards and appearing as if he meant it. Good acting? Well it's performance of sorts. Making the listeners and viewer believe that he is sincere — the stiff lip determined half grimace, which follows the down trodden worried droopy eyebrow look. Bush has three facial expressions. One, the worried face, two, the thin lipped Texas sheriff and three, the snide wise ass from Yale, when his left cheek drops into a smirk. No matter these expressions work well with the same script stated over and over. With this format, he doesn't have to practice much, just repeat the same up-beat blather, just what the viewers want to see and hear.

Entertainer’s on screens in the media on the radio do the same. They repeat their honest responses, imitate people who are concerned about the umpteenth interview, play the role of a good American, a popular figure, having studied the texts of 5 or 6 writers and playing the “as if” (as we say in acting) 'as if’ they had invented it by themselves and stating it for the first time. Performativity is the word to describe these acts.

Coda: Stage actors and performers have to be much more “real” since the media folks can edit what might make them look silly. The risks of live performance are that a heckler might blow the scene or the performer tires and loses a grip on the facade. With film and TV, the tech team simply cuts that section out. The interviewer always appears smart.

One other long-term interviewer who leaned so far to the right that he looked like he would fall out of his chair was National Inquirer editor William F. Buckley. He was most interesting since many liberals and leftists tried to catch him at his own game. I think Scheer, Cockburn and perhaps others tried to ‘cut’ the English accented sluicy goosey Buckley with his clipboard. Nice tries but the cameramen and the sound people were all Buckley’s. The radicals were interlopers and had no control of what came across the screen. They always looked foolish no matter how intelligent they were. The set up was a trap. In addition Buckley controlled the questions and his clipboard gave him advance notice of what the radical was about to say. Charlie Rose follows in the same vein when he meets a deviant personality he pummels them from a right wing position. All they can do is relax and think “any publicity is good publicity, at least I'm on Rose's show and my name will be remembered even if he makes me look like a fool.”

Who was the real Johnny Carson? The producers writers cameramen and the audience created the Carson aura, as Carson himself contributed to a character who they wanted to see: The good clean clever, but not intellectual, guy from Hollywood who opened his show with a golf swing.

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