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Backstage with Ron Onesti: When Late Night Was Late Night

Ron Onesti: When Late Night was Late Night

It wasn’t until I hit puberty (I think I was 20) when I was allowed to watch TV past 8 pm.  That didn’t mean I got to choose what we watched.  We only had one “television set,” black and white, only went to Channel 11 (32 and 44 came later) and had a “bunny ears” antenna with its tips wrapped in tin foil.  There were times I had to hold it two feet to the left, one foot back and over my head just to get the reception my dad was happy with.

Like many households at the time, our house was regimented with what we watched.  It was the same every day.  The Ray Rayner Show in the morning, Bozo’s Circus at noon, Garfield Goose and game shows (Match Game and Password) during the day, sit-coms (The Odd Couple) in the evening, the news with Fahey Flynn at night and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson before bed.   Saturday mornings we watched cartoons and “Abbott & Costello meet…” movies, Saturday nights had the variety shows, Carol Burnett and Sonny & Cher-style, Sunday was Family Classics, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, and The Ed Sullivan Show.

As I channel surf before bed these days, it is now that I realize just how masterful Johnny Carson was as a late night talk show host.  These hosts today all seem more concerned on using the platform to establish their own careers as singing, punchline-laden, ever-clever, physical comics than giving the audience a glimpse into the lives of the rich and famous with the main focus being on the guests.  The “bits” and “skits” today seem so overplayed and forcibly funny, even as compared to Johnny’s “Carnac the Magnificent” and that fast talking, pencil-thin mustached auto salesman he played  with his blonde bombshell assistant,  Carol Lawrence.

Johnny Carson has always been “The King of Late Night TV”.  I used to think it was because, for many, many years, he was pretty much the only game in town.  But as show after show since he ruled the “after the 10pm News” slot attempts to come close to the Johnny, Ed McMahon and Doc Severinson model, none succeed.  In a sea of late-nite talk shows, none can compete to the classy and intelligent banter led by Carson.  Even the “goofy” guests like Rodney Dangerfield and Don Rickles respected Johnny, and he them.

Johnny never tried to compete or “one-up” his guests.  More often than not, he sat back and let them do their thing.  The hosts today MUST be the funny ones, rarely letting their guests truly finish their stories.

And fashion wise, if you watch some classic Carson, you can see him evolve with the times over his three-decade run.  Large lapels, vibrant colors, bell bottoms, white patent leather shoes-you never know what you were going to get.  Johnny wasn’t too crazy with his dress, but he did take some style chances.  The show never lacked, as the musical director, Doc Severinson, soared to new heights with his thick moustache, multi-colored Nehru jackets and psychedelic sportscoats.

Even when some shows attempted to add the “co-host” element, none can sit at the table wit the Irish counterpart of Carson, Ed McMahon.  I was lucky enough to get to know big Ed, to the point that he gave me a great gift after a couple of shows we did outlining his career.  He actually filmed himself announcing, in the same spirit he did five nights a week for thirty years, “Heeeeeeeeere’s Ronnie!”  What a trophy that was for me!  I cherish it to this day and play it on our big screen before some “Oldies” shows.

Man, I miss those nights.  My mom in her armchair, my dad laying on the couch, me, my brother and sister on the carpet.  Carl Sagan’s explanation of the universe was always confusing to me, but the animals that Joan Embry brought to the show kept us interested.  Monkeys ventured off onto Johnny’s head, reptiles would snap at him causing him to run from his desk in fear and kitties relieved themselves as he held them…THAT was TRUE entertainment!

Thank you, Johnny Carson!  You set the bar pretty high for today’s talk shows.  Too bad that rather than scaling the bar, today’s hosts choose to use it as a limbo bar, just shimmying under any sense of true, classy and upscale entertainment.