Tag Archives: The Tonight Show

OH CARSON, MY CARSON

23 Oct

A photo personally autographed to this writer by Johnny Carson in the 1970s.

86 years ago today, on Friday, October 23, 1925, a woman named Ruth Carson gave birth to a son in Corning, Iowa… but Johnny was on vacation, so Ruth gave birth to Joey Bishop!

I couldn’t resist. That joke has been around for decades.

The house in Corning, Iowa where Johnny Carson was born on October 23, 1925.

But truly, the “King of Late Night,” was born on this date in this house, in 1925. John William Carson was born to Homer and Ruth Carson, and he would go on to leave a gigantic imprint on the world of television.

Although born in Corning Johnny didn’t stay there long. Due to Homer’s job with a utility company the Carson family moved quite a bit. After relocating to several western Iowa towns, the Carsons eventually settled in Norfolk, Nebraska. It was in this classic version of small-town America that Johnny began performing. And it was in this home that Johnny grew up.

The house in Norfolk, Nebraska where Johnny Carson grew up.

After learning magic young Johnny appeared around town as The Great Carsoni and built the foundation for his career.

Johnny Carson clowns around with his mentor and boss, Red Skelton.

Years later, his first big break came as a writer for Red Skelton. When Skelton got hurt during a rehearsal Carson went on in his place. CBS executives took note and soon Carson was host of “The Johnny Carson Show.”

By the late 1950s Johnny was based in New York and hosting a game show. The show was originally called “Do You Trust Your Wife?” but later became “Who Do You Trust?

Tickets to see "Do You Trust Your Wife?" and “Who Do You Trust?”

As you all know, Johnny Carson went on to host “The Tonight Show” from 1962 to 1992. In his almost 30 years at the helm Carson turned “The Tonight Show” into an institution. It became a nightly “must-see” for many and Johnny Carson himself became a barometer of public opinion.

Offices for "The Tonight Show" at NBC Burbank, 1979.

Carson left “The Tonight Show” in 1992 and pretty much retired from public life. He died on January 23, 2005 after a long battle with emphysema.

Johnny Carson became one of television’s biggest stars ever, but he never forgot his hometown of Norfolk, Nebraska. Carson donated nearly $5-million to various causes in Norfolk and the people there returned his love. So if you stop in at the Elkhorn Valley Museum in Norfolk, be sure to see the Johnny Carson Gallery there.

Entrance to the Johnny Carson Gallery.

Johnny Carson was born 86 years ago on this date in TV history.

 

Photos from Corning, Iowa and Norfolk, Nebraska ©Richard DiGangi

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FROM WACO TO WACKO

14 Aug

66 years ago today, on Tuesday, August 14, 1945 actor/writer/producer/comedian Steve Martin was born in Waco, Texas.

Steve Martin autograph signed on October 23, 1976

He began performing while still in his teens and by the time he was 22 he was writing comedy for network TV shows. Between 1967 and 1973 Steve Martin worked as a writer on half a dozen comedy variety series including “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” “The Summer Brothers Smothers Show,” “Pat Paulsen’s Half a Comedy Hour,” “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour,” “The Ken Berry ‘Wow’ Show,” and “The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour.” He was also a featured performer on several of those shows, as well as on “The Ray Stevens Show” in the summer of 1970.

I still remember the first time I saw Steve Martin on TV. It was on NBC on a Saturday night at 11:30pm, but I wasn’t watching “Saturday Night Live.” In fact, that show hadn’t even been created yet. I was watching the program that “SNL” replaced: reruns of “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”

It was that first appearance on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” in 1973 that brought Martin some national attention. His first appearance as host of “Saturday Night Live” in 1976 sealed the deal and made him a comedy “rock star.” I was in the audience for that show. In fact, I got his autograph earlier that day, on the back of my admission slip for the PSAT exam.

What's on the other side of Steve Martin's autograph? The date on my admission slip for the PSAT exam, which was administered that morning.

So, while many people were introduced to Steve Martin on October 23, 1976, I was already a fan.

But in addition to lots of laughs, I also remember a very touching moment provided by Steve Martin on the day Gilda Radner died (May 20, 1989). Martin was hosting “Saturday Night Live” that night and I was in the audience. When he introduced a clip of he and Gilda dancing in an old sketch it was quite moving. Martin, and most of the audience, seemed to be holding in some emotions.

Although Martin has never starred in his own series his career is a product of TV. From his roots as a writer… to his TV specials and guest appearances… to his hosting the Academy Awards broadcast… Steve Martin is a TV star.

He has now hosted “Saturday Night Live” a record 15 times (tied with Alec Baldwin) and prior to abandoning standup he starred in four network comedy specials for NBC: “Steve Martin: A Wild and Crazy Guy” in 1978, “Steve Martin: Comedy Is Not Pretty” and “All Commercials–A Steve Martin Special” both in 1980, and 1981’s “Steve Martin’s Best Show Ever.”

Happy Birthday to Steve Martin, the TV star (and movie star, playwright, musician, novelist, and art collector). Thanks for everything.

ON SECOND THOUGHT…

6 May

25 years ago on Tuesday, May 6, 1986, the Fox Broadcasting Corporation announced that comedienne Joan Rivers would host a late night talk show on the new network: “The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers.”

Flanked by FOX Chairman Barry Diller and FOX President Jamie Kellner, Rivers was introduced as the first “face” of FOX. But she had not yet broken the news to her current employer… and the fallout from that move is legendary.

First, a little background: Before Jay Leno became host of “The Tonight Show” (the first time) he had been Johnny Carson’s permanent guest host on the show. But before Johnny had Jay, Johnny had Joan. Joan Rivers was the first permanent guest host in the history of Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” Prior to that, dozens of stars had filled in for the “King of Late Night” over the years – some more often than others (Joey Bishop and David Brenner to name two).

When Carson heard the news that Joan Rivers was leaving to compete against him, it seems he took it personally. He apparently felt Rivers should have told him before the announcement was made. When Joan called Johnny afterwards, she claims he refused to take the call. The two never spoke again. So… did they live happily ever after? Not exactly.

Surviving souvenir from “The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers”

The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers” premiered on FOX, Monday October 9, 1986 at 11:00pm, but as every competitor to Johnny Carson had learned, it wasn’t easy to beat the king. The ratings for “The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers” were never big and Joan Rivers only hosted the show for seven months. Her last “Late Show” was May 15, 1987.

But much worse than the losing “The Late Show” was the loss of Rivers’ husband. Edgar Rosenberg had been an executive producer of “The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers.” Three months after Joan was fired by FOX Rosenberg committed suicide. He had been suffering from clinical depression.

Joan went on to have a syndicated daytime talk show, “The Joan Rivers Show”… then hosted numerous red-carpet shows with her daughter Melissa Rivers for E! and the TV Guide Channel.

Currently she hosts “Fashion Police” on E!…  and can be seen selling her line of clothing, jewelry and accessories on QVC.

TV viewers may also have recently watched mother and daughter in season one of their new reality show, “Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?” on WE tv.

Joan Rivers has also added several notable catchphrases to the American lexicon: “Can we talk?” (which I’m told is a Federal trademark) and her red-carpet question, “Who are you wearing?” which is now said by just about every red-carpet host everywhere.

But on this date, 25 years ago, Joan Rivers was introduced as the FOX network’s first big star. Only she knows if she would do it all again if given the chance.

UP YOUR NOSE WITH A RUBBER HOSE

31 Mar

66 years ago, on Saturday, March 31, 1945, Gabriel Kaplan was born in Brooklyn. Since then he has been a stand-up comedian, a financial investor, and a champion poker player… but most people know him as the creator and star of “Welcome Back, Kotter.”

From the letterhead used by “Welcome Back, Kotter” in the 1970s.

The sitcom about a man who becomes a teacher in his old high school premiered in September 1975 on ABC and ran for 4 seasons. It also made stars out of Gabe Kaplan and John Travolta.

Kaplan started doing stand-up in the late 1960s and by the early 70s got the break every comic dreamed of – a spot on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” More TV appearances followed and then Kaplan recorded a comedy album called, Holes and Mellow Rolls. As he explained in his routine, a mellow roll was a kind of ice pop. The album’s title referred to the insults or “ranks” he and his friends used to say to each other in high school. “Up your hole with a mellow roll,” “in your ear with a can of beer,” “up your nose with a rubber hose.”

It was that part of his stand-up act that drew the most attention and allowed Gabe Kaplan (along with Alan Sacks) to create a sitcom based on his high school experiences. The premise had Gabe Kotter (once a remedial student or “sweathog”) return to teach the current “sweathogs” at his old high school. And it became a hit.

Card with pre-printed autograph, sent to fans of “Welcome Back, Kotter.”

During the time “Welcome Back, Kotter” was a hit show, I was attending a real high school in Brooklyn. And since Gabe Kaplan was actually from Brooklyn a friend and I decided we should interview his parents for our school newspaper. We looked in the phone book and found a listing for Kaplan in the correct neighborhood. My friend called and did the talking. Gabe Kaplan’s mother agreed to let us come to their home to interview them. She asked us to call back the following week to set a date.

When we called again Mrs. Kaplan said Gabe never heard of our high school and didn’t think it was a real school. So he told her not to do the interview, and that was the end of it.

Months, maybe years, later I saw Gabe Kaplan on a talk show discussing fame. He said that when “Welcome Back, Kotter” became a hit people would call his parents pretending to be from phony high schools just to score an interview. I always wondered if he meant us.

For the record, we were real, our high school was real, and the interview request was real. Our school — Edward R. Murrow High School — was brand new and in just its second year of existence. That may be why Kaplan (out in Hollywood) had never heard of it. And I suppose “Edward R. Murrow” would’ve been a great name to use for a made-up school.

Gabriel Kaplan autograph signed outside the Ed Sullivan Theater on October 18, 1975.

After “Welcome Back, Kotter” Kaplan starred in several films and gave sitcoms one more try with “Lewis & Clark” (1981-82). His next act led him to the financial markets and then professional poker.

Since the late 1970s Gabe Kaplan has been a champion poker player participating in the World Poker Tour, the World Series of Poker, and winning the Super Bowl of Poker Main Event in 1980. Kaplan has earned more than $1-million playing poker professionally.

He has also been a poker TV commentator, most notably for 6 seasons on “High Stakes Poker” on GSN.

Close-up of Gabriel Kaplan’s autograph.

The cast of “Welcome Back, Kotter” will be honored at this year’s TV Land Awards in April. All the living former cast members: Gabe Kaplan, Marcia Strassman, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs (aka Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs), Ron Palillo, Robert Hegyes, and even John Travolta are planning to attend. And if anybody’s a no-show? “Up your hole with a mellow roll.”

Oh… and Happy Birthday Gabe.

SITTING IN FOR JOHNNY…

4 Feb

75 years ago today, on Tuesday, February 4, 1936 comedian David Brenner was born in Philadelphia.

After a first career as a writer and producer of TV documentaries, and already in his 30s, Brenner left his job and gave himself one year to make it as a standup comedian. Just as that year was coming to a close David Brenner made an appearance on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” in 1971. From that day on he has had a career in comedy and he gives “The Tonight Show” all the credit.

In fact, according to Brenner, he appeared on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” 158 times, which Brenner says is the record for most appearances by any guest on the show. He also guest-hosted for Johnny more than 50 times.

Publicity photo for David Brenner in “Snip,” an NBC sitcom that never made it to the air.

Although Brenner made hundreds, perhaps thousands, of appearances on TV in the 1970s he has only had his own program once… almost twice. The photo above was from a David Brenner sitcom that was never broadcast. “Snip,” produced by James Komack, was on NBC’s fall schedule and set to premiere in September 1976, but it was abruptly canceled before a single episode aired.

Because “Snip” had an openly gay character, which would have been a first on TV, NBC apparently was concerned and decided not to break that barrier. One year later that distinction went to the character of Jodie Dallas (played by Billy Crystal) on ABC’s “Soap.”

If God Wanted us to Travel by David Brenner

David Brenner finally starred in his own program from September 1986 to May 1987, when he hosted a late night syndicated talk show. “Nightlife” was a 30-minute program with Billy Preston as musical director, but it could not find a niche and lasted just eight months.

David Brenner’s autograph inside If God Wanted us to Travel signed in 1990.

Brenner stopped touring for many years due to a custody battle involving his oldest son, but he is now back on the road.

Happy 75th David… I wish you many more. You made the 1970s a laugh riot for me and my friends.

SONUVAGUN

3 Feb

93 years ago today, on Sunday, February 3, 1918 Joseph Gottlieb was born in The Bronx, New York… but after growing up poor in South Philadelphia, he eventually became comedian Joey Bishop.

Perhaps best-known as a member of Frank Sinatra’s “Rat Pack” Bishop was first and foremost a nightclub comedian. After paying his dues in many cities he started making appearances on that new thing called television. 

Still photo, taken off my television in the 1970s, of Joey Bishop guest-hosting” The Tonight Show”

Joey Bishop could be seen on talk shows, game shows, variety shows and by the 1960s he was a fixture on television. He starred in one sitcom called “The Joey Bishop Show” from 1961 to 1965 on NBC and then CBS, but he then had another program, also called “The Joey Bishop Show.”

Joey Bishop is one of the many stars who took on Johnny Carson in the late night wars. From April 1967 to December 1969 his talk show, “The Joey Bishop Show” ran on ABC with Regis Philbin as his sidekick, and Johnny Mann as musical director. The show aired directly opposite Carson and never picked up steam, lasting just 2 ½ years.

Both before and after he competed against Johnny Carson he served as Johnny’s guest-host on “The Tonight Show” many times. In fact, by some accounts he guest-hosted more than 175 times (which some say is the record for any non-regular guest-host).

 Bishop also starred in many films, including the original “Ocean’s Eleven” with his “Rat Pack” pals.

He died in Oct 2007 at age 89… but on this date in TV history, February 3, 1918, Joey Bishop was born.

Thanks for the laughs you sonuvagun.

THE HEIR APPARENT

1 Feb

29 years ago tonight, on Monday, February 1, 1982 Late Night with David Letterman premiered on NBC

Late Night with David Letterman: The Book was edited by Merrill Markoe, then Dave’s longtime girlfriend. It was published by Villard Books in 1985.

David Letterman, a former weatherman from Indianapolis, had moved to Los Angeles in 1975 to try his hand at the big time. In just seven years he had succeeded in a major way. Of course, like most comedians of his era Letterman’s real goal was to host “The Tonight Show.” But “Late Night” seemed like a huge step toward eventually reaching that goal.

TV audiences might have remembered Dave’s last TV show, a morning show on NBC called “The David Letterman Show.” It was clear that NBC executives were impressed with his talent and wanted to find a spot to expose it. However, Dave’s sense of humor just didn’t seem to fit with daytime audiences and the show, though critically acclaimed lasted just 4 months.

The Letterman Wit by Bill Adler, who I interviewed about Letterman in 1994.

I personally had predicted greatness for Letterman years earlier. In November 1978 my family went to New Hampshire to celebrate my Grandmother’s 75th birthday during the week of Thanksgiving. While there I watched “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” and saw a new standup comedian making his first appearance on the show… his name? David Letterman.

At the time, there was the usual speculation about who might replace Johnny Carson if he left “The Tonight Show.” All the entertainers mentioned as potential successors had their strong points and their drawbacks. When I saw David Letterman that night I saw several characteristics that made me think that someday he might be the one.

(Let me say that I am not ALWAYS a great judge of talent. In 1987, while scouting standup comedians for a video I was producing, I passed on Drew Carey.)

Late Night T-shirt given to me for my 30th birthday – a gift from Jim Murphy, now Senior Executive Producer of “Good Morning America.”

First, he was Midwestern. In the late 1970s network executives still liked white bread hosts from middle America – no one too ethnic. Letterman also looked good in a jacket and tie. Comedian David Brenner, who was considered a potential replacement for Carson, always wore an open collar, which was popularat the time.

The third and most basic requirement Letterman exuded was talent. The man killed in his first appearance. In fact, I still recall one of his bits from that night. He asked if anyone had seen last night’s episode of “The Waltons.” Letterman explained that in the episode, the family had saved up enough money to “get that thing removed from John-Boy’s cheek.”

The “Late Night with David Letterman” Book of Top Ten Lists was published by Pocket Books in 1990.

Succeeding Johnny Carson was years away, but the “king of late night” did take an obvious liking to the new kid and Letterman became a frequent guest on “Tonight.” He also became a frequent guest host. Once NBC signed him to a development deal they tried to find the right place for him. The morning timeslot hadn’t worked out, so they had an idea.

The Tomorrow Show” hosted by Tom Snyder had been following Carson’s show for eight years. Over the previous year NBC had tinkered with the show until it was an unrecognizable mess. The network decided to cancel “Tomorrow” and put David Letterman in that timeslot. What they actually did was to give Johnny Carson control of the one-hour following his “Tonight Show” and that’s why “Late Night with David Letterman” was produced by “Carson Productions.”

Johnny Carson with “his favorite,” David Letterman, on the cover of Rolling Stone’s “Comedy Issue” November 3, 1988.

Most readers of this blog know the rest. “Late Night” became a huge hit and Letterman became a huge star. And while he didn’t ascend to host “The Tonight Show,” we all know he was Carson’s choice for the job. And that, I think, is a nice consolation prize.

Late Night with David Letterman” broadcast more than 1800 new episodes and ran until June 25, 1993. That’s when Dave left NBC and brought his show to CBS to compete against new “Tonight” host Jay Leno.

Esquire Magazine, May 2000 – Cover Story: The Fall & Rise of Dave.

So “Late Night with David Letterman” lives on. Only now it’s called “Late Show with David Letterman.” Dave’s CBS show premiered on August 30, 1993 and continues today after more than 3500 episodes.

David Letterman is right when he says there will never be another Johnny Carson. But I think the closest we’ll ever come is the true heir apparent, David Letterman himself.

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