Talk Show

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Overrated Johnny Carson was “the king,” a “living legend,” the man who put “The Tonight Show” on the top of the TV talk-show world when he took it over from Jack Paar (after some interregnum hosts) in 1962. Johnny doubled Paar’s viewership and defended his dominant position on network television for nearly 30 years on the air, well into the age of cable.

But his late-night juggernaut was born in hype (the show was heralded by every trumpet in the NBC publicity machine) and died in hype (it seemed as if there was not a newspaper in the land that didn’t run a headline on the king’s stepping down), and when Bette Midler was singing him his swan song, there didn’t seem to be a dry eye in the house.

Well, there were some dry eyes. And an awful lot of dry spots in between. “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson wasn’t really that good. He was running on empty most nights. He was filling the shell of himself. At first it was only one day a week off the air, to rest up and refresh himself, and then it was two. By the end, some would argue, it was five. He could walk through his routines in his Johnny Carson line of suits and live agreeably on his Johnny Carson company properties. And when he left the air in 1992, he axed some of the people who had been closest to him, as he did all the times he made major changes in his life. He emotionally cut them off, perhaps as he had been emotionally cut off as a boy during his father’s frequent moves as a lineman for an electric company. Sadly, in those last days on the air, one of his victims was Fred De Cordova, his longtime producer and friend.

When I visited the set in June of 1984, the Carson show still had eight more years to go. The first thing I noticed was the lackadaisical atmosphere in the control room. The show was about to start, and there was an empty chair—the chair of the director Bobby Quinn. What’s going on? I asked. Where’s Bobby? Oh, you don’t know? He’s walking down from the dressing room with Johnny, each of them with a cup of coffee in his hand—the ritual. So the show started without the director. When Quinn arrived and casually sat down in his seat, minutes into the show, he didn’t engage in a TV director’s characteristic “Ready camera one, take camera one,” or “OK, get ready three, take three.” He merely snapped his fingers. The joke in the control room was that Johnny didn’t even have to show up on any given evening; the show would run itself. What a contrast to Hal Gurnee’s control room on the Letterman show, which I was observing at the same time.

That’s not to say that Johnny couldn’t come back to life when the situation called for it. That included his last week on the air, with all the kudos and retrospectives and sentiments rolling in. There was no question that Carson was in control when he wanted to be, and he had been wild in his early days—doing George Plimpton stunts until his managers and agents said it was unsafe, too risky for his insurance policy. To some extent the “graying” of Johnny Carson happens to all talk shows that have been on the air awhile. An argument could be made that the same has happened to David Letterman, who comes back to life fully only with life-changing events, like the World Trade Center attacks, or his heart attack, or the birth of his baby.

Underrated The Arlene Francis “Home” show, which to viewers who watched it between 1954 and 1957 was nothing short of remarkable. It was one of the most intelligent, lively, spectacular mixes of daily journalism, information, and cultural and political discussions ever aired. And with her sensational revolving set, which would have cost millions in today’s dollars, her travels around the world, and her distinguished guests, she provided “quality” television in the days of Edward R. Murrow, Mike Wallace, et al., when quality was quality. The show was also ahead of its time as a feminist statement. Here was a cultured, articulate woman who was clearly the founder, shaper, and boss of her own enterprise. It’s almost shocking to see one of the few shows that survive at the Museum of Television & Radio in New York City. When she gently teases and banters with her male second banana, the veteran TV personality Hugh Downs, he takes the ribbing gracefully and in’ deference to his boss.

When General Sarnoff pulled the plug on the show at NBC— to the shock and dismay of millions—the result was the sudden eclipse of the most prominent woman of her time. What most people know Arlene Francis from is her 25-year run on the panel of “What’s My Line?” What they don’t know, or get to see, is the host of the “Home” show.

Writing of the demise of her show decades later in her autobiography, Arlene Francis reflected on a period in which she had been nominated for an Emmy, cited in a mid-1950s poll as one of the most influential women of her time, and offered a co-host role on the “Today” show before Barbara Walters (Francis turned it down). She had this to say, not about her performing and managerial abilities but about her willingness to duke it out in the world of men, as Walters was later to do: “I realized how deeply my inability to express myself without becoming apprehensive about what ‘they’ might think had affected me.... I had forgotten that a few waves are necessary to keep the water from becoming stagnant.”