By chance, did you watch “The Tonight Show” last night? It featured a laugh-out-loud monologue, intriguing interviews, as well as a hilarious stand-up comedian with a very bright future.
Not only that, it helped many forget about the divisive political environment we’re constantly reminded of via wall-to-wall cable news coverage.
It was simply a pleasant hour of comedy; a great distraction to enjoy some mindless entertainment.
Oh wait, let me clarify: I wasn’t talking about the latest episode of “The Tonight Show.” I’m not even talking about the one hosted by Jimmy Fallon.
I’m talking about the good ole days of late-night TV when programs such as “The Tonight Show” were simply about — gasp! — entertaining viewers.
Remember When You Used To Tune In…To Tune Out?
Have a long day? Bad day at the office? Late-night talk shows were practically therapeutic in their ability to put viewers at ease.
It was a time when hosts understood that people sought an escape from their daily grind, an amusing end-of-day diversion to treat the “reality fatigue” they felt.
Johnny Carson understood that. So did Jay Leno. As well as David Letterman (arguably until the “Late Show’s” later years).
As for late-night talk show hosts these days? Not so much, and that’s putting it mildly.
“The Tonight Show” Monologue Used To Make Headlines — Not Vice Versa
It always used to be about the monologue.
People were adamant about catching the very start of Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” episodes, as Ed McMahon and Doc Severinsen welcomed you to the show.
TV audiences knew it was time to get comfortable, settle in and hear Johnny tell them some harmless, topical jokes. Soon enough they might even start dozing off; that’s not to say the show wasn’t entertaining — quite the contrary, it exemplified Carson’s comforting presence and his ability to help viewers relax and decompress.
It was also a time when jokes were…jokes. They didn’t come across as mean-spirited or vindictive, and there was no selfish intent to appease a particular political stance.
That’s definitely not what great late-night TV was about — and it’s definitely not what you saw in a Johnny Carson “Tonight Show” episode.
After all, we’re talking about late-night television ENTERTAINMENT, not “Meet the Press” or “Face the Nation.”
There’s a time and place for politically-focused shows featuring partisan viewpoints on current affairs…but it shouldn’t be so easy to confuse those programs with late-night television.
A Johnny Carson Tonight Show Wasn’t Just About Skits
Watching a recent episode of “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon,” I found it hard to believe that his monologue — again, what used to be considered ESSENTIAL “Tonight Show” viewing — lasted all but three minutes.
Couldn’t even make it to five minutes. I’m not sure it could even be considered a monologue since it was so short, but in this day and age, I guess it is.
Fallon can be funny and entertaining at times, while incorporating his brand of, let’s call it “appeasement humor” into the show. He’s more of a “skit guy,” something that served him well on “Saturday Night Live” — but a skit-driven program “The Tonight Show” is not, and viewers shouldn’t have to confuse the two.
One of Fallon’s extra short monologues not that long ago was likely due to including a musical skit (video) early on in the show about…growing a goatee (“Two Goats in a Boat”). Lin Manuel Miranda from the hit Broadway play “Hamilton” even joined in.
Was it funny? Entertaining? After about 15 seconds, it overstayed its welcome.
It ended up feeling a bit self-indulgent and would likely have been considered a time-filler had it aired on “SNL,” but I’m guessing they felt celebrity participation automatically deemed it worthy of airing in the show’s prime segment.
They Don’t Make’em Like They Used To
My nostalgic mind is reminded of when a classic Johnny Carson “Tonight Show” episode teased the audience about a “mystery guest” appearing later on in the show to sing a duet with guest Julio Iglesias. (The “mystery guest” revelation ended up being Carson dressed as Willie Nelson, singing “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before” with Julio.)
Was this comedy bit at the expense of Carson’s monologue? No.
Actually, Carson performed his complete monologue, in addition to a segment answering mail, Iglesias performing a song (solo), conducting an interview with Iglesias, and THEN dueting with Iglesias later in the show.
I still remember staying up, waiting to see who that special guest would end up being.
It was a time when people didn’t have such short attention spans and weren’t so quick to flip channels. Viewers were actually vested in the show, enjoying it from start to finish. Come to think of it, that very same episode of “The Tonight Show” also included a performance from comedian George Carlin. The audience was treated to over seven minutes of his stand-up comedy, not including the interview with Johnny that followed his performance.
Late-night shows today lack that type of quality and substance. Somewhere along the way, they also began serving other purposes, such as being major promotional outlets for their parent company’s products.
Here’s one example:
- Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is a Universal Studios release
- Universal Studios and NBC are part of the same company
- NBC airs “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon”
As a result:
- Universal Studios and NBC announce “The Tonight Show” will be “Jurassic themed” the entire week of the movie’s release
- NBC re-brands “The Tonight Show” into “Jurassic World: Fallon Kingdom” (get it?)
- The show features bits all week long that repeatedly promote the film
- The cast of the Jurassic World sequel also guest star on the show throughout the week
Was it a very strategic marketing campaign between two subsidiaries of the same parent company (Comcast) that used “The Tonight Show” as a promotional vehicle to hype its product to viewers all week long? Yep!
Did they also further reinforce this massive cross-promotion by airing Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom TV spots during “The Tonight Show’s” commercial breaks? Of course, they did.
I’m also reminded of all the times the Avengers cast appeared on “The Tonight Show” to promote their film releases. Oh, wait, that happened on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” — a show that airs on ABC, which is owned by Disney, which — surprise! — is the studio releasing the Avengers movies.
Today’s late-night shows serve a different purpose and cater to a much different audience. They’re targeting social media-driven audiences whose short attention spans crave spectacles and instant gratification. Speaking of which, Fallon’s “goatee” skit quickly became an online viral hit, like so many of his other sketches. And nowadays that’s what matters most…for some.
Johnny Carson Tonight Show Episodes Are A Distant Memory…Just Like So Many Other Things
I’m not looking to critique episodes of “The Tonight Show” or any of the other late-night shows.
My issue is with the state of late-night television. It’s no longer anywhere near as good as it used to be. Moreover, shows today don’t even care to expand their audience, as odd as that sounds; hosts are content catering to a specific group of people who share their interests.
Unfortunately, there’s no end in sight to this predicament, which is not only a shame but a disappointment to those of us with fond memories of how good late-night TV used to be.
It was what we used to consider “must-see TV” — back when must-see TV was a term that REALLY applied. These days TV networks are more focused on reboots of classic shows, and it’s time for them to give reboots the boot (they’ve jumped the shark)!
Have You Heard The Mean-Spirited Joke About...
There’s never been anything wrong with a late-night host throwing some presidential jabs, or including a sprinkling of political jokes, throughout a monologue.
It was all in fun, right?
These days “jokes” (not to be confused with “lectures”) about politics or current affairs have become self-serving, even preachy, and filled with disdain — to the point that they have overtaken a show’s entertainment value, sacrificing it for the self-aggrandizement of its host.
Attention current late-night TV hosts: Do you have a funny, amusing take on the day’s events you’d like to share with your audience for a good laugh? Great, let’s hear it!
Do you have the urge to get YOUR political views across, even at the expense of the joke? Please don’t.
Mainstream audiences aren’t tuning in for that, nor have they ever asked for your opinion!
I have no doubt that some viewers don’t have an issue with the current state of late-night TV. But doesn’t having to listen to the same holier than thou approach to “joke-telling” get old and annoying after a while?
Here We Are Now…Entertain Us!
Why ostracize, alienate, and potentially insult some viewers by injecting unhinged political views into the show, especially when it ends up coming across as angry, condescending, and self-righteous? I’m not looking to take sides — this question applies to both sides of the political aisle.
Look at it this way: If you were to go to one of your favorite restaurants, you would look forward to the rewarding experience: the atmosphere, the comfort and familiarity, and, of course, the food. You’d know what you’re in for and that’s exactly what you’re going to get. How nice, right?
But let’s say there’s now a new restaurant manager. Well, okay, they still have the entrees and desserts you savor. Wait, there’s now a new chef too. Hmm, well the food is still tasty and there’s that comfy atmosphere.
Basically, you can still cope and make the best of the situation. That restaurant experience might not be as great as it used to be, but some positives still remain.
Wait, this just in: your favorite restaurant’s beloved server retired and has been replaced by someone who has a more unique take on how to do their job. For instance, if they have an issue with some current affair in the news the day you decide to dine there, well, they feel compelled to bring it up and lecture you about it. As a matter of fact, they’re convinced you should not only feel as outraged as they are but, well, you should feel pretty dumb if you disagree with their viewpoint.
Stop! What just happened!?
That’s not why you went to that restaurant.
Actually, it defeats the whole purpose of going to what used to be a nice escape.
The experience is no longer enjoyable, and now there’s no reason to return.
Regardless of whether or not you agreed with the new server, it’s not the purpose of your visit. Just like you wouldn’t expect to be giving them your opinion on anything else other than the food you went there to eat.
The same can apply to late-night television hosts these days. They have forgotten the main reason people were tuning in all along.
It Was All About The Joke…Not A Point The Host Was Trying To Make
Everyone used to be in on a joke. It was communal, nobody felt left out the experience. Most importantly, the joke didn’t end up being on THEM — directly or indirectly.
Sounds so simple: It was all about THE JOKE and making people laugh.
These days? It’s about THE POINT the host is trying to make…based around a joke.
Is there no longer a middle ground?
Is it a fear of boring audiences that produces this alternate approach?
If a monologue isn’t clicking with an audience these days, it’s completely different compared to when, say, a Johnny Carson “Tonight Show” monologue missed the mark. Why? Because Carson THRIVED in those situations. When his jokes weren’t winning over a studio audience, his charm and wit kicked into gear, which would usually result in an even funnier, entertaining experience.
Here’s just one Johnny Carson “Tonight Show” rough monologue example:
Viewers tuned in to classic late-night hosts like Johnny Carson and Jay Leno to laugh, not be talked down to or made to feel superior over anyone else who disagreed with their point of view.
I was never interested in Johnny Carson’s or Jay Leno’s political affiliations or preferences. I much preferred to not know and be left guessing. The same can apply to any other talk show host of the past — Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Merv Griffith, Joan Rivers, Arsenio Hall, and so on.
I still feel the same way today.
After all, why should a host let something like that not only define them but the show itself?
Leno Leans Which Way?
Over the years, Jay Leno has gone on the record (outside of “The Tonight Show”) to say he sides with the Democratic party, even considers himself a “social liberal.”
Fine by me.
It’s also safe to assume it’s not the reason why people decided to watch (or not watch) “The Tonight Show” when he hosted. Odds are many viewers had no idea or were mistaken about which way he leaned politically.
Leno was able to put aside his political beliefs and still entertain viewers. That’s not to say he didn’t target Republicans in his monologue — he most certainly did — but he didn’t just leave it at that or make it so one-sided.
Here’s a sampling of monologue jokes Leno told over the years. Again, keep in mind this is from someone who is a self-proclaimed Democrat:
Pretty tame, right?
Here’s are a collection of a few more monologue jokes from Leno:
“Congratulations to President Obama on being re-elected president of the United States. Turns out it is not all bad news for the Republicans. It seems that depression is covered by Obamacare.”
“One of President Obama’s winning points last night was about how sanctions against Iran are crippling their economy. And, believe me, if anyone knows how to cripple an economy, it’s President Obama.”
“As you may have heard, former President Bill Clinton says he’s coming here to California to help Governor Gray Davis in his recall election campaign. Which is ironic, isn’t it? When Clinton was president, he couldn’t recall anything.”
“Obama said if you are having trouble with the Obamacare website you can apply by mail. … Only the federal government would develop a website that is slower than mail.”
Like him or not, Leno had the number one late-night show on television, and he appealed to — and was never dismissive of — middle America’s viewers.
Here’s one example of that “broad” appeal to his humor, which you likely won’t hear on late-night TV these days:
“With hurricanes, tornadoes, fires out of control, mudslides, flooding, severe thunderstorms tearing up the country from one end to another, and with the threat of bird flu and terrorist attacks…Are you sure this is a good time to take ‘God’ out of the Pledge of Allegiance?”
Late-Night’s Most Edgy Host Is…Jay Leno?
Leno’s humor did go further though, which in hindsight is quite interesting. Why? First, because some topics he joked about are such hot-button issues today. Second, because Leno and his type of humor were often unfairly labeled bland, not edgy, and just plain safe (aka boring).
That being said, here are a couple more jokes from “non-edgy” Leno (don’t forget, a Democrat) that might now result in some double-takes:
“In a groundbreaking move, the Associated Press, the largest news-gathering organization in the world, will no longer use the term ‘illegal immigrant’. They will now use the phrase ‘undocumented Democrat’.”
“This government shutdown thing is getting old: the national parks are closed, the museums are closed, the Federal agencies are closed… But our borders — they’re WIDE OPEN!”
And another one:
My point isn’t whether these jokes are funny or not, though it is interesting how history sometimes shines a very different light on what some simply considered entertainment and accepted at face-value — from beloved cartoons to iconic movies.
With that said, the last round of Leno’s jokes above would never be told on any current late-night television show.
Some viewers would no doubt be outraged and offended to hear a late-night host tell jokes like that today. They would likely insist that a host keep that kind of divisive “vitriol” away from the program, which is ultimately supposed to entertain, not insult!
Well, can’t the same be said about the divisiveness heard on late-night television these days? Hmm.
Now, what if you were hit over the head with that kind of humor each time you tuned in? Not so fun, right?
At least Leno catered to his entire audience and took aim at both sides of the political aisle. There wasn’t only one target or a single narrative that he followed.
According to a study that was done near the end of Leno’s run hosting “The Tonight Show,” the politician targeted the most by his jokes was Bill Clinton — a whopping 4,600+ times! George W. Bush received over 3,200 jokes, followed by Al Gore (1,000+), Barack Obama (1,000+), Hillary Clinton (900+), and Dick Cheney (nearly 700).
Basically, it was fair game. Just the way it should be.
In this age of political correctness, and similar to classic television shows like “All in the Family,” some of the jokes Leno told — which many simply considered jokes back then — wouldn’t make it on-air anymore.
Can you imagine a Jimmy Kimmel or Stephen Colbert saying anything close to what Leno said? After all, it’s all in the name of comedy, like many of their own satirical “jokes,” right?
How about Seth Meyers or Conan O’Brien? Nope.
Jimmy Fallon would never say them. After all, he’s apologized for trying to entertain his audience without mixing politics into his show. He now regrets that.
At this point, if I could, I would gladly choose fictional talk show icons like Larry Sanders or Jerry Langford over any of today’s current crop of hosts. If only.
And for the record, I don’t believe Leno was “too mainstream.” Putting aside the late-night TV soap operas involving him with David Letterman and Conan O’Brien over the years, I thought he was unfairly targeted. I enjoyed his tenure as “Tonight Show” host and always thought of him as an all-around good guy — here’s just one memorable example that comes to mind.
Late-Night Quality vs. Late-Night Quantity
These days, clearly there are more options than ever before when it comes to late-night television. Unfortunately, it’s also become the norm that hosts will amplify social and geopolitical issues, to the point that it’s detrimental to the show’s overall entertainment quality.
Being righteous now wins out over being funny.
The diluted late-night landscape has resulted in all these shows mixing into one another. None of them stands out in terms of originality anymore.
You end up feeling like you’re watching the same show and hearing the same jokes — no matter the host.
To that point, I offer up another Jay Leno quote, when he was asked about his approach to hosting:
“I discovered that being a little bit different actually set you aside in show business; it makes you special. You always try to turn your negative into a positive.”
What a novel idea.
A Johnny Carson Tonight Show Represents The “King Of Late-Night” For A Reason
Hosts like Johnny Carson knew they were capable of being funny discussing current affairs, while never coming across as vindictive or preachy. That in itself took a talent that is sorely lacking today. And Carson’s jokes were still impactful. His monologues could still make politicians squirm, simply because he was shining a light on them…and inviting millions of viewers to join in on the laugh.
The best hosts were also smart enough to know they weren’t going to change viewers’ minds by repeatedly injecting their personal views or agendas into their shows. They were classy, consummate professionals, and knew it wasn’t their job.
But to be clear, a late-night host making fun of a particular political topic, politics in general, or a politician isn’t something that should ever be off-limits. It’s when hosts are adamant about getting their personal views across that it gets old very quickly, especially when it becomes a daily ritual.
Carson and Leno never apologized (like Fallon) for simply entertaining viewers, but they also didn’t feel the need to provoke them.
So why do some current late-night hosts insist on alienating half the country? Is it some lingering sense of self-importance where they feel obligated to help “educate” people…who never asked?
Don’t they realize those efforts produce the OPPOSITE result of what they’re trying to accomplish?
I recall back in the dark, depressing days after 9/11, there were rumors that NBC was trying to bring Carson back on the air for a short time to help soothe a grieving nation. Obviously, it never happened and may have just been wishful thinking. Nevertheless, I have no doubt I, along with millions of other people, would have tuned in to watch him, knowing the comfort and calming reassurance he would have brought as we tried to heal together.
That’s not to say late-night television after 9/11 wasn’t unforgettable either. Shows had their own special moments that will forever be remembered by many. David Letterman’s first show after 9/11 is one fine example.
But in terms of helping lift an entire nation off of its knees, I just can’t imagine any of today’s current slate of late-night hosts having that ability.
Carson was in a league of his own and had that type of unrivaled presence.
Did You See The Tweet About…
Social media is so prevalent and far-reaching. It’s created a whole new culture of self-importance, an unsolicited need to express one’s opinions about anything under the sun to anyone they can get to listen.
That kind of mindset — figuratively or literally being given a platform — has crossed over into and regrettably poisoned show business. Celebrities are now adamant about making their political views heard — if not from a smartphone or computer, then while walking on a red carpet, giving an acceptance speech, even during a late-night monologue. They automatically assume now that everyone cares to listen to what they have to say.
When you have a president who also uses social media, it’s the equivalent of lobbing a softball up to late-night hosts (among others) who are eagerly awaiting to take a great, big hack. Not to mention half their jokes are being written for them, requiring even less creativity on their part.
By the way, can you imagine what a late-night monologue would have been like decades ago if presidents like Reagan or Clinton were tweeting? It’s hard to fathom.
If Johnny Carson were alive today, do you think he would be tweeting his views on world affairs from his home in Malibu? Unlikely. Carson kept his personal life extremely private, which is such a rare concept these days, when you keep hearing about celebrities who are famous for, um, being famous.
To be fair, celebrities — and that includes late-night hosts — are exercising their right to express themselves. But they also missed a very important memo in the process: Many people never asked them for their opinion, nor care to hear it.
Johnny Carson “Tonight Show” Episodes Will Live On
After the final Johnny Carson “Tonight Show” episode, the host was barely seen or heard from again. There was a wonderful TV moment when he showed up for a surprise appearance that was much too short (not counting the 90-second standing ovation he received from a shocked audience) on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” but ultimately Carson was reclusive.
He had no interest in remaining in or being the news. When the spotlight shined on “The Tonight Show” stage, Carson was on. And when that spotlight turned off, so did he.
“The Tonight Show” was an entertainment venue, an institution, and not something exploited for personal or political interests.
The same can be said about Leno during the years he hosted the show. He knew there was a time and a place, and what purpose “The Tonight Show” served.
Carson famously wiped away a heartfelt tear during his final “Tonight Show” episode. I wonder how much grief he’d feel about today’s much darker late-night landscape.
Unfortunately, wannabe late-night viewers must continue to sit on the sidelines — and let’s not get into whether kneeling should be involved, because I guarantee you today’s late-night hosts will insist on telling you if your opinion is right.
So it’s no surprise the end result for many now is to not tune in. They have no interest in being served an angry, bitter form of “entertainment.” And who can blame them when they merely were in search of a temporary escape, with no desire whatsoever to have their beliefs questioned or invalidated?
A Classy Host Always Outshines An Angry Host
I no longer look forward to new episodes of “The Tonight Show” or any other late-night show, regardless of the many options available.
I much prefer to watch classic Johnny Carson “Tonight Show” episodes. (Thanks again Antenna TV!) At least I know I’m in for a good time, not just hope for one and ultimately be disappointed…over and over.
Johnny Carson “Tonight Show” episodes featured political topics being DISCUSSED, not shoved down your throat, no matter your affiliation. They may be outdated, but they’re still fun to look back on and prove it’s possible to have TWO-WAY conversations. Yes, hard to believe there was such a thing as respectful civil discourse.
It’s just not appealing otherwise.
Don’t take my word for it, Carson said it best himself during an interview with Barbara Walters in 1984.
Walters asked him, “When you come out and do your monologues, which are really based on what you’ve read, do you go home and worry about things, do you worry about this country, are there things that really bug you that you can’t say on the air?“
His response can easily apply to the current state of late-night television:
“I think one of the dangers if you are a comedian, which basically I am, if you start to take yourself too seriously and start to comment on social issues, your sense of humor suffers somewhere. I’ve seen other people whose names I won’t mention do humor, and then somewhere along the line they start to want to make their views known.”
“I try to do it humorously. And we’ve had some criticism on the show, some critics over the years say, well, the show has no great sociological value, it’s not controversial, it’s not deep…”
Carson then summed things up perfectly:
“‘The Tonight Show,’ basically, is to amuse people. To make them laugh.”
When did that simple concept become so unappealing or difficult to comprehend?
Jay Leno had his own take back in 2011 on why “The Tonight Show” was so popular. He was nearing the end of his run as host and was already seeing a change coming, where shows like “The Tonight Show” and its multi-generational appeal were becoming extinct, especially as more shows (at the time) like “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report” were catering to specific, niche audiences.
Here’s the difference Leno saw between his show and others:
“You have a lot of performers now that just appeal to “this” audience or “that” audience or “this” audience and no one else. So the trick is to try and appeal to as wide a group as you can. That’s kind of what television is — I mean, it’s a mass audience whereas these other fields, even though there are a lot of people involved, they’re somewhat specialized. If that makes any sense.”
Well, what was once a niche has become the mainstream. The norm is now to not even attempt to appeal to that mass audience Leno was talking about. It’s about catering to specific audiences.
More recently, The Hollywood Reporter interviewed Leno in 2017 and he talked about how “much darker” late-night television had become:
“I think it has a debilitating effect on people. People are just, ‘Oh, gosh, I don’t wanna watch TV anymore. This is just the same thing every night.”
Is It The Johnny Carson Tonight Show? Oh, Never Mind…
Both Carson and Leno ended their final “Tonight Show” broadcast with these words: “I bid you a very heartfelt goodnight.”
Sadly, I didn’t realize at the time that their farewells also applied to quality late-night television programs.
Nowadays many have accepted the fact that current late-night shows will never meet prior gold standards. Not even close.
Carson remains one of TV’s most beloved icons for a reason. Generations of Johnny Carson “Tonight Show” viewers will never forget his welcoming, yet powerful, presence behind that desk. He’ll forever be the king of the late-night throne; other late-night hosts pale in comparison, as if they’re keeping his seat warm.
A guest appearance on a Johnny Carson “Tonight Show” episode could create a showbiz career overnight, simply because they appeared on his show. A wave of his hand, motioning to a new stand-up comic to come sit on the couch put them on a path towards immediate stardom.
Carson’s most memorable TV moments are too many to count — animal segments with Joan Embery, to Carnac the Magnificent, to any one of the thousands of interviews we enjoyed sitting in on.
It’s easy to come up with a list of favorites episodes and reminisce about which ones were the funniest. Odds are there would be some differing opinions about which “Tonight Show” moments were the best, but that only demonstrates the show’s impact and broad, universal appeal.
That’s the kind of influence Carson had and the legacy he left us with.
What legacies will today’s late-night hosts leave behind? Only time will tell.
Fortunately, Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” episodes can still be thoroughly enjoyed in a FANTASTIC collectible DVD box set. (By the way, if you’re looking for a listing of MANY classic TV shows available on DVD, Blu-ray, and digital, you’ll want to check out this article.)
Until current late-night shows start focusing on solely entertaining viewers once again, I’ll continue to tune out. I don’t mind.
I also don’t mind watching classic reruns of “Seinfeld” in late-night syndication instead of catching a new monologue or late-night show. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
Go figure, tonight’s “Seinfeld” episode is the one where Jerry is booked to perform stand-up on “The Tonight Show.” You know, back when “The Tonight Show” used to mean so much more.
Those were the days.