Archive for Television
Today’s Miss Americas serve their term and then they’re never heard from again. Or so it seems.
There’s no prerequisite, of course, that the winner of arguably the most famous beauty contest of all time needs to stay in the limelight when she hands the crown over to her successor.
But there was a time when Miss America was often the springboard to bigger and better (or, at least, more profitable) things.
Mary Ann Mobley was one of those Miss Americas who stuck around in our consciousness long after she sashayed down the runway.
She was the first Mississippian to win the legendary contest, and she parlayed that distinction into a pretty decent stage and film career as an actress.
Like so many other women of her era, Mobley was able to star opposite Elvis Presley on screen, and like her brethren, she out-acted him.
Mobley had a smile that went from ear-to-ear and her dark beauty was a stark contrast to the blond, lighter handsomeness of Gary Collins, an actor and game show host (and fellow Mississippian) who she married in 1967.
Mobley captured the Miss America crown in 1959 and six years later she was a winner again—this time with a New Star of the Year Golden Globe.
But despite all her credits on stage and screen (big and small), it was in charitable causes where Mary Ann Mobley was a true Miss America.
She served on several councils and contributed to many charities and her work was exemplified by the naming of a pediatric wing after her, at a hospital in her hometown of Brandon, Mississippi.
Mobley and Collins formed one of television’s most well-known couples, particularly in the 1980s. For many years they were both in our living rooms in some way, shape or fashion, with Mobley doing turns on shows like “Falcon’s Crest” and Collins chatting up folks on talk shows and helping them win money on game shows.
Mobley was the first woman to be inducted into the University of Mississippi Hall of Fame.
But Mobley’s sweet-as-pie good looks and her Mississippian, southern belle demeanor shouldn’t have fooled you, because she was also a very competent filmmaker.
You heard me.
For years, Mobley documented the “young victims of war and starvation in places like Cambodia, Ethiopia, Somalia and the Sudan,” according to a release from Warner Brothers.
That probably doesn’t sound like the Mary Ann Mobley with whom you’re familiar.
The Chairman of Miss America, Sam Haskell, sang Mobley’s praises after word of her death reached him.
“She challenged me, she loved me, and she made me laugh! I shall miss her!”
Mobley once spoke of her ever active life, when she was knee-deep in acting, fundraisers and volunteer work.
“I’m home about two days a month, and on those I have to pack.”
Allen Funt created television’s Candid Camera. But he was not the star.
If Funt were alive today, he would concur.
Funt, who took the idea of a roving microphone capturing unguarded moments from the days of radio and turned it into a TV phenomenon, also never liked the notion that his show made fools out of unsuspecting people.
Funt preferred to think that Candid Camera was more of a series of case studies on human behavior, rather than a gag-filled half-hour.
Regardless, the star wasn’t Funt, though he hosted the in-studio segments and often appeared during the hidden camera “case studies.”
The stars of Candid Camera were always the people—the folks whose behavior was being chronicled in a very unfiltered and unscripted way.
Therefore, the laughs that resulted were always from the audience’s glee at the reactions of the unwitting, caught by Funt’s hidden camera.
But that was then.
TV Land has trotted out a new version of Candid Camera, hosted by Funt’s son, Peter, and actor Mayim Bialik.
As in Allen Funt’s original version, the hosts in the studio don’t matter. Not that the younger Funt and Bialik do a poor job (they don’t), but they aren’t the stars.
The new version, however, falls flat.
It’s not the fault of Funt and Bialik. It’s the fault of the people. And that’s not even fair, really.
The charm of the original Candid Camera was not only watching normal people in abnormal situations, it was in the reveal—that moment when Funt, et al would finally let the unsuspecting in on the joke.
“You’re on Candid Camera!”
But back in the original show’s days, there weren’t cameras all over the place. There weren’t cell phones and tablets and the like, all equipped with cameras that could be whipped out at a moment’s notice, ready to capture just about anything the possessor wished to capture, newsworthy or not.
Today, people aren’t stunned or shocked by the presence of a camera, even if they didn’t know one was trained on them for a case study.
So the reaction to the reveal in the new version is, well, muted.
And a muted reaction isn’t very entertaining to the TV viewers.
Now, that might not be so bad if the situations the people are placed in made up for the less-than-spectacular reveal reactions.
But they don’t.
Candid Camera debuted in 1948 and there have been a few relaunches along the way. So we’re talking 66 years, essentially, of the show’s existence. That’s a long time and it’s hard to come up with fresh new stuff.
Allen Funt, back when this notion still had the power to amaze
But again, the society in which we live makes it awfully difficult for us to be flabbergasted anymore by what we see going on in front of our eyes.
Whether it’s a soap dispenser at a market that doesn’t stop dispensing or a retail outlet that charges a $10 fee to shop in the store as opposed to online (both used in the new version), does anything really surprise us anymore?
The charm of Candid Camera was rooted in two certainties that existed decades ago that simply don’t anymore—a much more impressionable public and a genuine amazement that a hidden camera could be set up. The people were video virgins, so to speak.
Today’s society is far less impressionable and there are cameraseverywhere anymore. In fact, it seems like we are all on camera more than we aren’t, when you add security cameras and the like into the mix.
I think it would be more of a surprise if the revealing person shouted, “You’re NOT on camera now!”
Still, I give TV Land credit for trying to appeal to those of us who remember when an evening with Allen Funt and company was truly a special event. The situations were comical, the reactions were priceless and the reveals were the cherry on top.
However—and it’s not TV Land’s fault—today’s society is just so damned hard to amaze and impress. And we are certainly not aghast at the notion of a camera lens shooting us through a hole in a wall.
The result is that watching the new Candid Camera is like dusting off an old Jack-in-the-Box and failing to be stunned by the clown popping out—while being wistful of the days when it did.
Editor’s note: The following e-mail arrived from none other than Peter Funt himself, who saw this post, on October 1, 2014:
Funny thing about the “original.” There’s no bigger fan of my Dad’s work than me, and I never suggest that my stuff is as good as his was at his prime. However, I find that our memories have a way of distorting and condensing and selecting from the past. I think what you and some other viewers are, in effect, saying is: When I recall the handful of fabulous reveals that Allen got over decades – perhaps seen in highlights or “best of” packages – they’re better than what Peter gets week in and week out. How true!
I suspect that comedians and actors who cause moviegoers and viewers to feel a wide range of emotions are often feeling wide ranges of emotions themselves. Their roller coaster sometimes makes one too many bumps and they fly out of the car.
James Garner was once asked if he’d ever do a nude scene on camera.
“I don’t do horror movies,” he said.
Garner, who died on Saturday at age 86, was a Hollywood leading man but a humble Oklahoman at heart.
“I got into the business to put a roof over my head,” he once said. “I wasn’t looking for star status. I just wanted to keep working.”
And work he did, especially in the 1960s, when Garner was often teamed with the biggest female names in movies, such as Doris Day (Rock Hudson is more famously connected with Day, but Garner did his fair share with her as well), Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine and Kim Novak.
The film boom for Garner was set up by his work in TV’s Maverick, in which he starred from 1957-60, playing old Western card shark and ladies man Bret Maverick. The show went toe-to-toe on Sunday nights with The Ed Sullivan Show and The Steve Allen Show, more than holding its own.
If you were a casting director and could mail order a leading man, Garner would arrive at your office.
He was tall, dark and handsome, and possessed a self-effacing style bereft of cockiness. His Oklahoma lilt, which he never tried to disguise, added to the down home feel that just about all of his characters had.
Garner, for a brief time, even dabbled in auto racing, an interest that was piqued when he co-starred in 1966′s Grand Prix. Garner thus joined Steve McQueen and Paul Newman as actors/racers.
But mention James Garner, and even today the first thing likely to spill from peoples’ lips is The Rockford Files, NBC’s series that ran from 1974-80. Loosely based on Garner’s Bret Maverick, brought into modern times, the private investigator Jim Rockford character landed Garner an Emmy Award in 1977.
Some old-timers like yours truly will also recall Garner in a popular series of Polaroid TV commercials in the late-1970s, early-1980s, sharing the screen with Mariette Hartley. The chemistry between the two was so genuine that many viewers thought the pair was married in real life, even though the commercials never really suggested that they were playing a wedded couple.
Garner left The Rockford Files in 1980, not because of poor ratings or disenchantment with the show, but because of the physical toll. Garner, who was an athlete in high school (football and basketball), insisted on doing his own stunts, and the result was significant damage to his knees and back.
In his later years, Garner really used his tall Oklahoman stature to his advantage, often playing rugged, wise cowboys and fatherly and grandfatherly figures. His characters would occasionally fall in love as well.
Speaking of falling in love, Garner did that well, too—and fast. He married Lois Clarke in 1956—just two weeks after they met. He remained married to her until his death.
Despite his own stable marriage, Garner once offered that “Marriage is like the Army. Everyone complains. But you’d be surprised at the large number of people who re-enlist.”
And to show how much Bret Maverick resonated in Garner’s hometown of Norman, Oklahoma, the city unveiled a 10-foot tall bronze statue of the actor as Maverick in 2006, with Garner present for the ceremony.
Garner once explained his acting theory, such as it was.
“I’m a Spencer Tracy-type actor. His idea was to be on time, know your words, hit your marks and tell the truth. Most every actor tries to make it something it isn’t [or] looks for the easy way out. I don’t think acting is that difficult if you can put yourself aside and do what the writer wrote.”
Here’s the irony in Garner’s words: he may have been acting and “putting himself aside,” but to watch him on screen was to have the feeling that James Garner was just being James Garner.
He could have done much worse. And so could have we.
Before the commercial airwaves on television were taken over by ads for prescription drugs, lawyers and car insurance companies, there was the wild and crazy pitchman.
Every city had them.
The products being pumped were usually electronics, appliances and used cars.
The ads were low on productions costs—usually all we saw was the pitchman screaming into the camera with an occasional glimpse at what he was hawking.
The emphasis was on the supposed insanity of the pitchman, because the deals were so good, you see.
New York had Crazy Eddie, who pitched electronic gizmos while shrieking maniacally at the viewer.
And Detroit had Ollie Fretter.
Fretter, who passed away Sunday at age 91, blanketed the TV and radio ad space with commercials for his appliance store, starting in the 1960s and continuing for about 30 years. He promised five pounds of free coffee if he couldn’t beat your best deal.
The appliance wars in Detroit were hot in the 1970s and ’80s. Fretter went up against Highland Appliance’s creative ads on TV, and Adray Appliance didn’t do as much TV advertising, but Mike Adray was in the game. He sponsored lots of little league baseball and hockey teams to help keep his name on people’s lips.
We fell in love with the items that Fretter and Highland advertised on television. It was a time when microwave ovens, stereos, color TVs and newfangled refrigerators/freezers hit the market with gusto.
At the forefront was Ollie Fretter, who didn’t scream, but who was very prevalent in all his ads, never afraid to look silly and foolish on camera as he shamelessly plugged his metro Detroit locations.
Ollie Fretter, ever shameless
But it was the tag line about the free coffee that became iconic, not unlike Mr. Belvedere’s “We do good work,” which ended all of those home improvement commercials.
Fretter was hardly the only Detroit-area pitchman on TV at the time.
There was Irving Nussbaum for New York Carpet World (“The BETTER carpet people”); the aforementioned Belvedere; Mel Farr “Superstar” (Ford dealership); and a host of other car dealers, like Walt Lazar Chevrolet and Bill Rowan Oldsmobile.
These days, law offices are all over the dial, but of course it would be unseemly if those types got wacky on the air.
There was no shame in screaming about a steal of a deal on appliances and used cars back in Fretter’s day.
In fact, we all waited to see what Ollie’s next spot would bring. Each one seemed to want to outdo the previous in terms of silliness.
Fretter shuttered the last of his stores in the early-1990s. His was one of many dominoes to fall around that time as store after store went out of business, outdone by national, big box retail chains.
I always wondered if Ollie ever gave away any free coffee.
It’s not easy to be a trailblazer when so many of the trails have already been blazed, but David Letterman somehow managed to blaze one anyway.
You may think that late night television was an already-mined resource by the time Letterman, 66, came along in 1982, hosting “Late Night with David Letterman” on NBC.
It’s true that TV at the witching hour was nothing new in 1982, having been first attempted some 30 years prior and being refined for 20 years by Johnny Carson when NBC gave Letterman a late night slot, following Carson’s “Tonight Show.”
But it turned out there was still plenty that Letterman found to do that not even the iconic Carson managed to discover.
Letterman announced today, somewhat shockingly during the taping of “The Late Show with David Letterman,” that 2015 will be the year of his retirement.
“This (retirement) means Paul (bandleader Shaffer) and I can finally get married,” Letterman said to a crowd that seemed to need the laugh to digest the news. But Letterman was serious—about the retirement part.
The longtime late night host said he had a phone conversation with CBS president Les Moonves not long before tonight’s taping and informed Moonves that 2015 would see the end of Letterman’s run on “The Late Show.”
Letterman was a morning loser when NBC gave him a mulligan—a big time mulligan—and put Letterman where his milieu clearly was, in late night.
Letterman’s morning show, which lasted just a few months in 1980, was a critical success of sorts (two Daytime Emmys) but a ratings disaster.
But he was back less than two years later, after midnight.
Where Letterman was able to forage—and where Carson either chose not to go or simply never thought of going—was in the mostly unexplored forest of pulling life’s non-celebrities into the party.
While Carson would occasionally interview folks like an old lady who collected potato chips that looked like people and animals, Johnny’s genius was in his gregarious chats with the famous and in his sketch comedy bits.
Letterman made 15-minute celebrities out of the every man with bits like “Stupid Pet Tricks” and “Stupid Human Tricks.” He also made Larry “Bud” Melman—real name Calvert DeForest, a little-known actor but his day job was working for a pharmaceutical company—famous with Larry Bud’s strangely humorous appearances, which many times made it seem like the joke was on Melman.
While Carson ventured into the crowd for bits like “Stump the Band,” Letterman took it one step further and blended crowd games with cameos from comedic actor Chris Elliott, with hilarious results.
And while Carson had Doc Severinsen and Tommy Newsome leading the “Tonight Show” band and functioning as occasional kibitzing partners, Letterman and Shaffer formed almost a tag-team comedy duo, chatting during the first 10 minutes of each show like they hadn’t spoken with each other all day.
It’s no coincidence that pretty much every late night show after Letterman’s employed a band with a leader who tried to be Paul Shaffer Light.
Sid Caesar and company started doing “Man on the Street” bits in the 1950s (something Carson never really did), but Letterman again turned it up a notch, beseeching the regular folks to partake in stunts and pull pranks on other unsuspecting folks—their colleagues, so to speak.
There are many other directions that Letterman took late night comedy and talk, but they are too numerous to mention here. Suffice it to say that while the genre had been discovered, Letterman took that block of clay and molded it.
“The time has come,” Letterman said today in announcing his retirement a year hence.
He wasn’t emotional, he wasn’t melancholy. He sounded like a man comfortable in his place and with his timing.
It was as if he was saying, “My job here is done.”
Which, it is.
The distinctly debonair, razor-thin, legendary British actor was in the middle of his scripted bit of monologue when suddenly the crowd was in an uproar.
It was 1974, in the middle of an American craze that inexplicably had caught on ever-so-briefly, as so many other American crazes seem to do—-inexplicably.
This particular craze was called “streaking,” or running naked through a very public place. The nation’s ballparks and football stadiums, to name just a couple venues, were being overrun by those sans clothing, making their mad dashes.
And now the Academy Awards show was being interrupted by a streaker. He was male, even if just barely.
David Niven, startled by the sudden burst of hoots and howls from the audience, turned and looked to see what the commotion was all about. A streaker was moving behind him, across the stage, flashing the “peace” sign with his fingers.
Straying off script, Niven commented with spot-on—as they say in his country—comedic timing.
With typical British cool among chaos, Niven quipped, “Well, ladies and gentlemen, that was almost bound to happen… But isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?”
The Academy Awards—better known as The Oscars—are on this Sunday. Niven’s streaker incident was hardly the first time that the Awards were used to showcase one’s, ahem, views. Nor would it be the last.
Actors have used their acceptance speeches to push political agendas. Marlon Brando sent a supposed Native American (it’s been widely suspected that she was merely another actor, ironically) to refuse to accept his Best Actor Award for “Godfather”, purportedly in protest of the country’s treatment of American Indians.
George C. Scott declined his Best Actor Oscar for “Patton” because he didn’t like the political machinations of the Awards themselves. So he stayed home and watched a hockey game. True story.
Woody Allen made news by deliberately declining to attend the Oscars when “Annie Hall” was up for Best Picture, so he could keep a weekly clarinet-playing date in a New York club.
Those are just a few examples.
Others have put their foot in their mouths accidentally in acceptance of their awards, blurting out curse words or other untoward, awkward things.
And who can forget Sally Field’s, “You LIKE me! You really LIKE me!”?
Personally, I enjoy watching the Oscars, but mainly to pick them apart. I guess I’m masochistic that way.
I hope to be entertained and laugh along the way, however. With Ellen DeGeneres hosting this year, the odds of that happening are good.
I also look forward to the montage of those in the film industry who we lost since the last Oscars. Invariably there’s someone about who my wife and I will look at each other and say, “(Fill in the blank) DIED? I didn’t know that!”
Even the montage has angered me in the past. The omission of Farrah Fawcett several years ago still rankles me.
Yes, the ceremony is notorious for running long and some of the speeches are boring and still others will make you squirm a little, but there are also some kick-ass ones as well.
Watching the Oscars is probably like sitting in the kitchen and eating ice cream right out of the carton, but it only comes once a year, so view with impunity.
Now…if they could only move it to Saturday night. The damn thing goes past midnight and people have to work the next day, don’t you know!
Oh, and here’s the famous Niven clip.
There’s a certain delicate symmetry when a person’s birth city and death city are the same.
Harold Ramis has such a line on his biography.
Born: November 21, 1944; Chicago, IL.
Died: February 24, 2014; Chicago, IL.
Ramis, the comedic actor/director who passed away Monday from a rare and painful vascular disease, was as Chicago as wind, deep dish pizza and crooked elections. If you cracked him open you’d have found a Cubs cap and a megaphone.
Ramis was always smirking. He had that twinkle in his eye, as if he knew something you didn’t. When it came to movie making and laugh making, he did.
Ramis was one of the leaders of a band of merry men and women who yukked it up at the original Second City improvisational theater group in Chicago, starting in the late-1960s. He was hardly alone when it came to finding fame later, but his imprint on American filmmaking puts him near the head of the class.
Ramis’s first role on the big screen saw him smirking all the way through 1981′s “Stripes,” the comedy he co-wrote and starred in with Bill Murray, directed by Ivan Reitman. Three years later, Ramis again took to the typewriter—this time with co-star Dan Aykroyd—and wrote “Ghostbusters.”
As the years went on, Ramis found more fortune staying behind the scenes, writing killer dialogue, physical comedy and directing the same.
Ramis’s body of work as a writer and/or director reads like so many film critics’ Top 25 lists of comedy vehicles.
“Caddyshack”; “National Lampoon’s Vacation”; “Groundhog Day”; “Analyze This”; “Analyze That”; “Meatballs”; “Stripes”; “Ghostbusters”; “The Office” (TV); “National Lampoon’s Animal House.”
That’s some serious comedy, right there. Iconic stuff.
And, of course, there was the transformation of Second City’s magic of improv from stage to small screen, when Ramis was a lead writer in the 1970s and ’80s on “SCTV,” produced out of Canada, when Toronto joined Chicago as a major contributor of raw talent that would go on to bigger and better things.
You’ve heard of John Candy, right?
Ramis spun his work off “SCTV” and made his foray into film, and we laughed and laughed.
Harold Ramis: 1944-2014
In the “I am not making this up” department, Ramis once worked in a mental institution in St. Louis for seven months.
“(The experience) prepared me well for when I went out towork with actors,” Ramis once said. “People laugh when I say that, but it was actually very good training. And not just with actors; it was good training for just living in the world. It’s knowing how to deal with people who might be reacting in a way that’s connected to anxiety or grief or fear or rage. As a director, you’re dealing with that constantly with actors.”
Sadly, the man who brought us to tears of laughter and split our sides so often, had a painful and debilitating end as he battled his rare vascular disease.
Vasculitis develops when the body’s immune system turns on its network of veins and arteries. Blood vessels become inflamed, restricting the flow of blood or cutting it off entirely, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Ramis was first diagnosed a few years ago.
Coming from someone who should know, having worn both hats, Harold Ramis once gave his analysis of the roles of writer and director.
“I always claim that the writer has done 90 percent of the director’s work.”
However you choose to slice it, there’s no number crunching needed with this: Harold Ramis made people laugh.
Today, Chicago is a little less windy, the deep dish pizza a little colder. Even the Cubs are worse off.
Television was pretty much an extension of the theater when Sid Caesar first started showing up in the living rooms of America in the late-1940s.
The performances were shown to audiences much like you would see something live on stage—few if any close-ups, archaic blocking, everything horizontal. Not that you couldn’t deliver the goods shooting that way—just look at any “Honeymooners” episode.
But it was the work ethic that also translated from theater to early television. The shows may have been in front of cameras, but the players performed like it was Broadway—live and often.
Sid Caesar is gone. The year, just 43 days old, has already been unkind. We’ve lost legendary animator Arthur Rankin, Philip Seymour Hoffman and, on Monday, Shirley Temple Black.
Caesar was 91 when he slipped away today in California after a short illness.
Caesar lit it up every week, for 90 minutes no less, in “Your Show of Shows,” which was basically television’s first foray into sketch comedy.
Every Saturday night, from 9:00-10:30, Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner and Howard Morris—plus several regular guest stars, put on what was essentially was a live variety show—39 weeks a year.
It was, truthfully, the original “Saturday Night Live.”
“YSOS” won a couple of Emmy Awards along the way, but its lasting imprint has nothing to do with hardware. The early-1950s was a great time to be on television if you had any bit of pioneer in you and cared to blaze some trails. And Caesar and his band of merry men (and women) did plenty of blazing in the four years that “YSOS” was on the air.
Writing for Sid Caesar was as important as performing with him. If you wanted a career in TV as a writer, you wanted to write for Caesar. He was television’s doorman for aspiring writers.
Reiner called upon his years of writing and performing on “YSOS” as inspiration for “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” which set many scenes in the writing office of Buddy Sorrell, Sally Rogers and Rob Petrie, who wrote for the bombastic, hard-to-please TV star Alan Brady (Reiner).
Sid Caesar was widely known in the 1950s as the best comedian in the world—TV, radio, movies, you name it. He had the rubber face, the gangly body and the New York-soaked voice that always went well with comedy.
It was Caesar and fellow comic Ernie Kovacs who looked at television as a block of clay with which to play, like children in a sandbox. Maybe the better analogy is pigs in slop, for the comedy of Caesar and Kovacs was hardly spic and span—in terms of props, physicality and creativity.
In “YSOS,” Caesar and Coca could be anyone from a squabbling married couple to an artist and his muse to two bums on the street. Always, they were scenery chewers but most importantly, always they were funny.
“Television had its share of comedy geniuses,” Los Angeles Times television critic Howard Rosenberg wrote in 1994. “Yet arguably none has been as uniquely gifted and inventive as Caesar. Watching him perform, you just know light bulbs are popping continuously in his brain.”
Caesar wasn’t as prolific on the big screen, though he did do memorable turns in films such as “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” and Mel Brooks’ “History of the World: Part I.”
But movies weren’t Caesar’s milieu. He was a performer who needed the rush of going in front of a live audience, being beamed live into people’s homes, eschewing multiple takes, cue cards and TelePrompTers, which weren’t even around when Caesar came on the scene—not that he would have used them anyway.
It truly was the Golden Age of Television in Sid Caesar’s day. Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason, Reiner and Kovacs were lock step with Caesar when it came to television comedy—all pioneers in their own way and all making their mark in this new medium that supplanted radio as the family’s watering hole of entertainment.
Caesar’s shtick included his famous “double talk” bits, in which he’d shamelessly combine languages, dialects and jargon with hilarious results. Thankfully, YouTube functions as our own personal Museum of Broadcasting History, so we can fire up a Caesar sketch 24/7.
There’s great irony in one of Sid Caesar’s quotes, coming as it did from a pioneering genius such as himself.
“The guy who invented the first wheel was an idiot,” he once said. “The guy who invented the other three, he was a genius.”
That makes for some laughs, but Caesar invented the first wheel of sketch comedy. There was nothing idiotic about that.
How will TV historians judge Jay Leno?
The legacy of Johnny Carson was already filed and ready for perusal long before the amateur magician from Nebraska hung up his microphone in May, 1992 after nearly 30 years of hosting The Tonight Show.
Carson’s imprint on television history—forget just Tonight—was plainly indelible about 10 years into his run, when the show moved from New York to Burbank. So the next 20 years were spent building on a legacy that saw the unofficial launch of countless stand-up comedians’ careers and the cementing of various other entertainers into the public’s consciousness.
That, plus Carson’s own star grew so bright that we were blinded by it when he walked away from the studio and into retirement.
But what about Leno, whose final show as Tonight’s host for 22 years was recorded on Thursday?
When Carson took the mantle in 1962, the show was eight years old and had been hosted by Steve Allen (1954-57) and Jack Paar (1957-62). Television was still in the midst of carving a swathe in pop culture. It was more than a year before the medium grew up fully with its hour-by-hour coverage of the Kennedy assassination.
Carson had the advantage of being able to use the show as his own piece of modeling clay, because when Allen and Paar hosted it, not nearly as many people were watching.
This was not the case with Leno, who took over in 1992 in a much stickier fashion, having been the winner in a two-horse race for the show’s reins with David Letterman.
So there were more than a few crossed eyes watching Tonightwhen Leno took over. Many viewers were in one of two camps—Leno’s or Letterman’s. Those in the latter, no doubt, wouldn’t have been unhappy if Leno crashed and burned.
Carson’s fingerprints were all over everything when he hosted Tonight, from the opening monologue to the iconic interview moments to the Mighty Carson Art Players and to the audience participation games.
Leno’s iconic guest moments were far fewer, and it’s uncertain how many stand-up careers he truly launched. Leno’s imprint pretty much was reduced to the jokes in the monologue, but some of that wasn’t his fault, because Carson’s team were like gold miners who didn’t leave Leno’s people much to discover.
Still, hosting a show for 22 years is nothing to sneeze at. The ratings may have dipped at times, but to be fair, the viewing pie was sliced into many more pieces during Leno’s run than when Carson ruled late night.
Sadly, Leno will be largely remembered for two things when it comes to Tonight: the mini-controversy in the way he took over (the tiff with Letterman) and the way he regained the show from Conan O’Brien after a brief foray into the 10:00 p.m. time slot.
It’s unfortunate, because those who had long moved on from the way Leno’s run started, were either moved to be against him yet again when the O’Brien mess happened, or if they were too young to recall the bumpy beginning, framed O’Brien as victim.
Neither cast Leno in a good light, obviously.
If the body of Leno’s work on Tonight is to be judged solely on what happened on camera, then he acquitted himself well, even if his humor was hardly cutting edge. If the off-camera nonsense is taken into account as well, then Jay Leno will be forever known as a polarizing character whose agenda was perhaps less than gracious at times—an opportunist who should never have come back once O’Brien was given Tonight.
Regardless, Jimmy Fallon is on the clock. It’s unlikely that he’ll do the show for anywhere near Leno’s 22 years. And that, in of itself, is at least one feather in Jay’s cap.