Tag Archives: Johnny Carson

Another Example Of The Weirdness Of The 1970s

The 1970s was a weird decade. Well, I suppose every decade has its weirdness, but the ’70s definitely had its own special vibe. The fashions were pretty tacky. Even the most straight-laced looks just seemed slightly askew. Wide lapels, bell bottoms, platform shoes, ponchos, and everyone seemed to have long hair. Everyone except Telly Savales, that is.

And there were all those catch phrases pulled from popular television series. “Sit on it!” “Kiss my grits!” “Up your nose with a rubber hose!” “Dyn-O-Mite!” “Nanoo nanoo!” “Who loves you, baby?”

So many catch phrases.

There were mood rings. You could own a pet rock. You could track your bio-rhythms, while you read your daily horoscopes, which were so very important in the ’70s. (Of course, you know bio-rhythms and astrology are just a bunch of nonsense, right?)

It was also possible for a comedian to make a good living on just one joke. Remember Raymond J Johnson Jr? Mr. Johnson was a character played by Bill Sulga and he made a career out of telling people they didn’t have to call him Johnson. “You can call me Ray. Or you can call me Jay. Or you can call me Johnny…”

Now that’s comedy!

There was another person who gained world fame in that weird decade by using his one joke that consisted of essentially physically assaulting people. He was a comedian from England who, in the early ’60s, started working as a lighting technician in Australian television production. He soon made his way to performing characters on camera and became popular with fans. In 1970, he began co-hosting a children’s show and soon after came his “partner” in comedy – Emu.

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The man was Rod Hull. He began working with an unusual looking bird that was simply called Emu. Emus are large flightless birds found in Australia and are quite similar to ostriches. The feathered friend was a puppet made to look as though Hull was carrying it, while he operated its neck and head.

Emu had a foul (pun!) temper and it didn’t take much to set him off. Emu would savagely attack people, creating what has been called a kind of gleeful havoc. I mean that bird would really go after people. Often times, Hull, Emu, and the victim would end up in a heap on the floor. Emu’s attacks were startling and looked quite violent while, Hull, acting as a kind of wildlife expert, would appear to be futilely attempting to control the angry bird.

And it worked. People thought it was hilarious. Including those who were on the receiving end of the attack. And that was the key, I think. If those who were attacked reacted badly, Hull might have found himself in court or with a broken arm, which actor/comedian Billy Connolly did seriously threaten to do once and, thus, avoided being attacked. However, most victims played along. Some even had fun with it.

In 1974, Hull took this act to Saturday morning kids’ programming in America. He was a regular on the Hudson Brothers Razzle Dazzle Show. That’s where I first saw Hull and his maniac bird. And the routine was funny. And it’s really just one joke!

Hull was able to keep getting laughs from that one joke into the 1980s. I just saw, and this is what prompted me to write on this topic, Rod Hull and Emu’s appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson from 1983. I gotta tell ya, Hull was fearless. He was told, by the production staff, to go easy on Johnny and to not go after Richard Pryor, who was also a guest on the show. But Hull (and Emu) understood the comedy is not in going easy. An attack is funny. An all out assault that puts Carson face down on his desk and Pryor on his back on the couch is hilarious! And to their credit, both victims were laughing through the whole bit. Click here to see what I’m talking about. And you can read an excellent behind the scenes account of that Tonight Show appearance here.

Yep. A lot of weird stuff occurred in the ’70s. And I’m kinda glad it did.

Packing Peanuts!

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The best TV cop show ever!

I was very excited when I found that Johnny Carson had risen from the grave to retake his throne as the King of Late Night TV. Well, that’s not exactly what happened, but it is awesome to be able to watch reruns of Johnny’s Tonight Show. And I have been enjoying the shows very much. They make a fascinating time capsule.

For instance, in one monologue, delivered in late March 1981, Johnny had made a joke about then Secretary of State Al Haig being upset about a policy that made clear that in times of emergency, if the President is unavailable, the Vice President is in charge of the White House. Now, I had thought that was set down in the Constitution, but whatever. Days after Johnny’s joke, John Hinkley Jr. attempted to assassinate Pres. Ronald Reagan. Immediately after which, Haig declared himself “in charge” at the White House.

Coincidence?! Yes.

Anyway, I was going to write about the best TV cop show ever, wasn’t I? Well, that’s what the headline writer has indicated.

It’s because of the Tonight Show reruns that I was reintroduced to the best TV cop show ever. Right after Johnny signs off each weeknight, viewers are treated to two back-to-back episodes of Barney Miller (1975 – 1982). I’ve been watching the shows and they are excellent.

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The first season’s regular cast.

Not only is Barney Miller the best cop show, it is apparently the most authentic. In my extensive research (mainly reading Wikipedia), real police officers have remarked on how Barney Miller gets it right. Other cop shows are all about the action, real policing is more about the paperwork. The late actor (and a former cop) Dennis Farina while a guest on Dinner for Five stated he believed Barney Miller to be the most realistic police show ever on television.

Realistic or not, I think the writing and acting are top notch.

The writing was very much last minute for each episode. Co-creator Danny Arnold would frequently be working on the script as the show was being taped. That led to long days of taping, which led to the show eventually abandoning a live audience and opting for a laugh track instead. The first couple of seasons would have an audience for much of the taping, but the producers would also use a canned laughter to sweeten the laughs.

The characters were well drawn and acted. Believable throughout the entire cast, from the main characters to the semi regulars to the one-offs. Hal Linden is terrific as Capt. Barney Miller whose job mainly consists of dealing with his squad of detectives, the public, the perps, while doing paperwork and figuring how to deal with budget cuts and government bureaucracy.

He’s the straight man, father-figure, counselor, and confidant to his detectives. And his detectives are all funny and distinctive in their personalities: Fish (Abe Vigoda) the old man of the squad; Yemana (Jack Soo) the problem gambler and maker of awful coffee; “Wojo” (Max Gail) the earnest, enthusiastic, but not too bright cop; Harris (Ron Glass) the intelligent, sharp-dressed, aspiring novelist; “Chano” (Gregory Sierra) the passionate, street wise cop; and Dietrich (Steve Landesberg) the deadpan, wry, fount of knowledge intellectual.

And the secondary characters were also well developed and played. There were Officer Levitt (Ron Carey), Liz Miller (Barbara Barrie), Inspector Luger (James Gregory) and a long list of reoccurring characters fleshing out the series.

Virtually the entire series takes place in one room: the detective squad room of New York’s 12th Precinct. And being in New York played a large part in the stories over the eight year run of the series. In the show’s premiere, which opens in Barney’s apartment, the viewer is made absolutely certain that NYC is a dirty, crime-ridden city unfit for human habitation. (At least, that’s how Barney’s wife sees it.) In fact, that aspect gets a little heavy-handed that first episode.

Like the Tonight Show reruns, Barney Miller also provides an intriguing historical insight on the attitudes of the day. During the 1970s, television began serving up sitcoms that would tackle social issues: racism, women’s and gay rights, ageism, child abuse, serious crime, and other topics too real to have been touched in previous decades. Barney Miller took on many of these issues.

The show discussed the struggle of women and gays wanting to be cops. In fact, Barney Miller was the first sitcom to feature an at least semi-regularly occurring gay character. The show also explored whether or not a husband could be guilty of raping his wife. Yes, these topics were played mainly for laughs, but raising an issue with humor is a good way get it into the minds of the viewing public.

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The regular cast at the series end.

An especially poignant episode came at the end of the first season. In it we learn that Chano, responding to a robbery call, is forced to shoot and kill a suspect. As was always the case on the show, we never see the shooting. We only learn of it back in the squad room. Chano attempts to put on a brave face. After all, it was all in the line of duty. He’s a cop, this is something cops need to be prepared to do. His colleagues and the audience can see this is tearing him up.

Chano is put on leave while the shooting is investigated and Barney visits his detective to check on him. In a rare occasion away from the set of the squad room, Barney attempts to reassure Chano that what was done was unavoidable. Chano keeps the brave face on until Capt. Miller leaves. He then breaks down and weeps. Heavy stuff for a sitcom. What is this? M*A*S*H?

The show may be a bit dated and can get a little silly at times, it still feels good to watch actors at the top of their game working in such intelligently written, endearingly human and funny stories.

Take my advice: Stay up after Johnny’s done and check out Barney Miller, the best TV cop show ever.

Packing Peanuts!

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Johnny Carson didn’t yell.

Mezzanine_631Earlier this week, I posted on the Nostalgia Zone’s Facebook page an article from Variety published last summer about the return of Johnny Carson, the King of Late Night, to television. Twenty years (1972 – 1992) worth of Tonight Shows will air nightly on AntennaTV. You can check your local listings to find the show, that is if there even are local listings anymore. Ah, just Google it.

And these won’t be “best of” clip shows. They are the full episodes!

What an excellent time capsule to view every night. And it is every night. Week nights will be the hour long shows, while Saturdays and Sundays will feature the earlier 90 minute long shows.

I stumbled on a show from 1972 last Sunday night and was thrilled to see the master again. The rerunning of his shows started January 1st, so I hadn’t missed many.

I had a few impressions from rewatching Johnny. I remembered that his monologue jokes could be very unfunny, but Johnny would make them work by his reactions to a joke that didn’t go over well. I remember remarking as much with friends back when we’d watch Johnny at the local bar.

Another thing the occurred to me was that Johnny, Ed, and the guests seemed more like adults on those earlier shows than the adults of today. Not that they didn’t act silly or anything. There was just a more grown up feel to them. It might have been the smoking or that some might be drinking on the show (that didn’t happen much and was probably mostly Dean Martin pretending to be drinking), but maybe it was the fact that I was a kid when I first watched those earlier shows. So, as a kid, the adults seemed more like adults than they do now that I’ve grown up.

Mainly, I’m reminded that Johnny was the definition of cool and class. He stood and sat up straight. He always looked clean and dapper, even in the horridly tacky 70s fashions. And he never yelled.

Well, he would yell if he was playing a character or if it was part of a joke. What I mean is Johnny never yelled out who his guests were. The current late night show hosts seem to believe they need to shout when announcing their guests at the top of the show and when bringing a guest out.

I can’t say all of them do it. I haven’t watch Jimmy Kimmell enough to know how he does it. But I’ve seen the others (Jimmy Fallon is the worst for this) and it’s yell, yell, yell out the names of the guests. Of course, that gets the audience revved up and noisy, so the yelling gets louder and more difficult to understand. Half the time I can’t tell whose name the host is shouting out.

I know. I’m am old man.

But, Johnny’s back and people can be reminded of or see for the first time how it’s done.

Oh! And how awesome would it be if the reruns of Johnny’s Tonight Show bring inĀ  better ratings than the current batch of guest name shouters?

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