Johnny Carson

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Longreads has republished Suzanne Snider’s 2006 Tokion article about John Z. DeLorean, who remade the automotive industry, remade himself and eventually made a mess. The conclusion has a pretty prescient forecast from then-MPH Magazine editor Eddie Alterman, which reminds just how much the sector has changed in the eight years since this piece was printed. The following is an excerpt about the automaker’s surprising departure from GM and his friendship with former Tonight Show host Johnny Carson, who seems to have done the monologue every evening with a loaded handgun and a bag of coke stashed in his underpants:

“By 1973, he had the fame. The title. The money. At which point he promptly resigned.

‘They were celebrities.’ That’s how Eddie Alterman, a childhood friend of mine who is now an editor for car-centric MPH Magazine, remembers the Detroit-area car executives of that era. ‘But they were also like the Roman army: they were tall, goyish and had to inspire confidence in their troops.’ With a bit of sympathy, Alterman notes that ‘they all had huge egos,’ and in the case of DeLorean, his vanity drove his taste in cars, clothing and women. That last item on DeLorean’s list included three wives, plus reported dalliances with Ursula Andress, Candice Bergen and Raquel Welch. But the same ego that was necessary to excel at General Motors and every other car corporation may have been the very source of his downfall once he pulled apart to form his own corporate entity.

DeLorean’s departure from GM was controversial, to say the least. Where could he go from GM? Gossips floated conspiracy theories about his resignation. It might have come down to style—not fashion, strictly, but a more general personal manner. My father notes that, ‘In those days, the execs at General Motors were all dressed in white shirts. But DeLorean was into more flamboyant clothing. He was tall, good-looking, wore his hair long…’ And as my father discovered, ‘He had his shirts hand-made, with the collars cut extra-long.’

DeLorean founded the De Lorean Motor Company in 1975, with the express goal of creating a relatively affordable $25,000 sports car. The first factory didn’t open until 1981, however, and it opened in an unlikely location: Dunmurry, a suburb of Belfast in Northern Ireland. The prototype for the DMC-12 was completed somewhere between 1976 and 1978. What was DeLorean doing in the seven years in between? Ostensibly, he was raising money, tapping into a social network that included Hollywood, where he convinced Johnny Carson and Sammy Davis Jr. to invest in the De Lorean Motor Company. In fact, Johnny Carson’s dedication to the De Lorean business was memorialized when Carson was arrested for a DUI while driving in—what else—a De Lorean.”


“John Zachary DeLorean doesn’t smile very much”:

More DeLorean posts:

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Evel Knievel was introduced to America in 1967, and six years later he was schmoozing with Johnny Carson as one of the most famous athletes in the world, provided you liberally define “athlete.” The ultimate alchemist, he turned trash into gold. Like a latter-day Houdini–but with nothing up his sleeve–the motorcycle jumper sold the masses on the possibility of death, just as many reality stars and celebrities do today with dysfunction and drugs.

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An interesting (if audio-only) 1977 Tonight Show clip of Gore Vidal, who may have been Sandusky, trashing Jimmy Carter during the opening weeks of his Presidency, discussing income inequality and demonstrating a waterless toilet. As with all episodes of the program, Johnny Carson performed the monologue with a loaded gun and a bag of cocaine stashed in his underpants.

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The fiftieth anniversary of JFK’s assassination brought no closure to the many questions that have festered since that horrible day in Dallas. Here’s two clips of Jim Garrison (with lousy volume, unfortunately), the Orleans Parish District Attorney who was never satisfied with the Warren Report, speaking to Johnny Carson in 1968 about his personal investigation into the murder. Garrison was the anti-Vaughn Meader, shot to prominence in the wake of the shocking death and was ultimately portrayed by Kevin Costner in Oliver Stone’s hogwash. Johnny, however, was clearly disappointed by the conversation. 

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I don’t pay attention to a lot of celebrity news, but I believe a new book recently revealed that Johnny Carson used to do the Tonight Show monologue with a loaded gun stashed in his underpants. Good for him. In 1994, Johnny, now in retirement and a little heavier, made a wordless appearance with David Letterman (after a brief Larry “Bud” Melman fake-out). Carson would never turn up again on television, falling into a complete silence. Letterman still gave a crap at this point. I always try to pinpoint when he exactly stopped caring, and I think it was 1998 or thereabouts. Still a great interviewer, though.

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Goldfinger’s henchman Harold “Odd Job” Sakata destroys Johnny Carson’s New York-based Tonight Show set. Apparently the skit was inspired by a Vicks commercial, hence the “cough” comment.

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Posting an interview earlier with Peter Bogdanovich reminded me of “Death of a Playmate,” Teresa Carpenter’s searing, Pulitzer Prize-winning Village Voice article, which not only excoriated the estranged husband of Dorothy Stratten, who brutally murdered the Playboy centerfold and actress in 1980, but also pilloried Bogdanovich and Hugh Hefner for the objectification and commodification of the young woman. Of course, Carpenter, who later sold the rights to her article to Bob Fosse to serve as the basis of Star 80, could be accused of the latter herself. The piece’s opening:

It is shortly past four in the afternoon and Hugh Hefner glides wordlessly into the library of his Playboy Mansion West. He is wearing pajamas and looking somber in green silk. The incongruous spectacle of a sybarite in mourning. To date, his public profession of grief has been contained in a press release: “The death of Dorothy Stratten comes as a shock to us all. . . . As Playboy’s Playmate of the Year with a film and television career of increasing importance, her professional future was a bright one. But equally sad to us is the fact that her loss takes from us all a very special member of the Playboy family.”

That’s all. A dispassionate eulogy from which one might conclude that Miss Stratten died in her sleep of pneumonia. One, certainly, which masked the turmoil her death created within the Organization. During the morning hours after Stratten was found nude in a West Los Angeles apartment, her face blasted away by 12-gauge buckshot, editors scrambled to pull her photos from the upcoming October issue. It could not be done. The issues were already run. So they pulled her ethereal blond image from the cover of the 1981 Playmate Calendar and promptly scrapped a Christmas promotion featuring her posed in the buff with Hefner. Other playmates, of course, have expired violently. Wilhelmina Rietveld took a massive overdose of barbiturates in 1973. Claudia Jennings, known as ‘Queen of the B-Movies,’ was crushed to death last fall in her Volkswagen convertible. Both caused grief and chagrin to the self-serious “family” of playmates whose aura does not admit the possibility of shaving nicks and bladder infections, let alone death.

But the loss of Dorothy Stratten sent Hefner and his family into seclusion, at least from the press. For one thing, Playboy has been earnestly trying to avoid any bad national publicity that might threaten its application for a casino license in Atlantic City. But beyond that, Dorothy Stratten was a corporate treasure. She was not just any playmate but the ‘Eighties’ first Playmate of the Year’ who, as Playboy trumpeted in June, was on her way to becoming “one of the few emerging film goddesses of the new decade.”

She gave rise to extravagant comparisons with Marilyn Monroe, although unlike Monroe, she was no cripple. She was delighted with her success and wanted more of it. Far from being brutalized by Hollywood, she was coddled by it. . . . “Playboy has not really had a star,” says Stratten’s erstwhile agent David Wilder. “They thought she was going to be the biggest thing they ever had.”

No wonder Hefner grieves.

“The major reason that I’m . . . that we’re both sittin’ here,” says Hefner, “that I wanted to talk about it, is because there is still a great tendency . . . for this thing to fall into the classic cliche of ‘small-town girl comes to Playboy, comes to Hollywood, life in the fast lane, and that somehow was related to her death. And that is not what really happened. A very sick guy saw his meal ticket and his connection to power, whatever, etc. slipping away. And it was that that made him kill her.”

The “very sick guy” is Paul Snider, Dorothy Stratten’s husband, the man who became her mentor. He is the one who plucked her from a Dairy Queen in Vancouver, British Columbia, and pushed her into the path of Playboy during the Great Playmate Hunt in 1978. Later, as she moved out of his class, he became a millstone, and Stratten’s prickliest problem was not coping with celebrity but discarding a husband she had outgrown. When Paul Snider balked at being discarded, he became her nemesis. And on August 14 of this year he apparently took her life and his own with a 12-gauge shotgun.•


Dorothy Stratten visits Johnny Carson in 1980, four months before her murder:

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Bill Clinton’s masterful speech this year at the DNC was hailed by friends and foes alike as cinching the deal for President Obama, though 44 was also a superior candidate with a superior tech team. But Clinton wasn’t always such a great communicator. The 1988 introduction of then-Governor Clinton on a national stage was a fiasco as he droned on and on while nominating Michael Dukakis at the DNC. He did damage control with a full-on charm offensive during a subsequent chat with Johnny Carson.

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Wow, I had never watched this before. Paul Ryan’s favorite pro-choice atheist, Ayn Rand, interviewed by Johnny Carson in 1967. Her theories would turn the free market’s greatness into something deranged, but she did oppose the Vietnam War. The segment ran long and Buster Crabbe got bumped.

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Harpo Marx, who was plugging his new book, appeared on I’ve Got a Secret, 1961. Johnny Carson on the panel.

From the 1983 New York Times obituary of Mildred Dilling, who taught Harpo how to play his musical instrument and was profiled in the New Yorker in 1940 (subscription required):

Mildred Dilling, a concert harpist who performed for five Presidents, taught Harpo Marx and owned the world’s largest private collection of harps, died in her Manhattan home last Thursday. She was 88 years old.

Miss Dilling performed throughout North and South America, the Orient and Europe. At the peak of her career, she gave 85 concerts and traveled 30,000 miles a year. In her early 80’s, Miss Dilling was still performing 10 concerts a year. She also conducted harp workshops at colleges and universities, giving master classes at the University of California, Los Angeles.”

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A year after Woody Allen interviewed Billy Graham, he guest hosted a 1971 Tonight Show for Johnny Carson. No monologue but  Ed McMahon is there as well as guests Bob Hope and James Coco. Hope was Allen’s favorite comic. The final part of the show doesn’t seem to be online.

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Very experimental, neurology-centric Jim Henson bit from the Tonight Show in 1974. Johnny, who may have had a few belts before the show, introduces his guest as “Jim Jenson.” Jack Benny is seated next to Henson in the latter part of the video.

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To mark tomorrow’s release of the Planet of the Apes origin story.

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Singer-songwriter John Denver, who was always seeking, never quite finding, was a proponent of the controversial self-help movement, the Erhard Seminar Training. When Denver substituted for vacationing host Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show in 1973, it was natural that he would invite the man behind the verbally abusive est workshops, Werner Erhard.

The footage is shaky and black-and-white, but worth watching. Oh, and that’s puppeteer Shari Lewis of Lamb Chop fame to Erhard’s right.

Suzanne Snider recalls the origins of est in a 2003 Believer magazine:

“Born John Paul Rosenberg in 1935, Werner Erhard changed his name in 1960 and left his wife and three children in Philadelphia to fly West with his mistress June Bryde. The two cobbled together a conspicuously Teutonic moniker for the nice Jewish boy from Pennsylvania (inspired by two different people—German finance minister Ludwig Erhard and atomic scientist Werner Heisenberg—both mentioned in an in-flight article on Germany’s economic recovery). Erhard resumed his career in sales when he reached San Francisco, working for Encyclopedia Britannica, Parents magazine, and Great Books, while experiencing a wide range of what the Human Potential Movement had to offer: Gestalt therapy, Zen Buddhism, Mind Dynamics, Dale Carnegie, Scientology, and a book by Napoleon Hill called Think and Grow Rich. In 1971, Erhard had his infamous epiphany while driving over the Golden Gate Bridge. He said in his biography, ‘…after I realized that I knew nothing—I realized that I knew everything… everything was just the way that it is, and that I was already all right… I realized I was not my motions or thoughts. I was not my ideas, my intellect, my perceptions, my beliefs…I became Self.’ His revelation became the basis for est workshops, his shrewdest business scheme to date.

Erhard’s new view on life, which treads a fine line between Zen Buddhism and mild psychosis, would appear a hard sell. It wasn’t lucid on an intellectual level, if at all, and other parties would have to comprehend it through means, admittedly, other than reason and logic. Nonetheless, est (which stands for Erhard Seminars Training, and also means ‘it is’ in Latin) began in the ballroom of the Jack Tar Hotel in San Francisco, and became the singularly most influential group to emerge from the Human Potential Movement. Understandably, this strange new program, consisting of heady imagery, emotional confessions, est-specific jargon (‘racket,’ ‘asshole,’ ‘barrier’) and aphorisms (‘I know that you know that I love you, what I want you to know is that I know you love me’ or ‘If God told you exactly what it was you were to do, you would be happy doing it no matter what it was. What you’re doing is what God wants you to do. Be happy.’), captured the imagination of men and women across the United States. Between 1971 and 1984, 700,000 people enrolled in the est workshop to ‘get it.’ Participants who approached their est workshops and the elusive ‘it’ with good sense and literalism were rebuffed. One est trainer responded to a participant’s thoughts with ‘Don’t give me your goddamn belief system, you dumb motherfucker.'”

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My chin grows when I lie.

Jay Leno is probably no more insincere and greedy than anyone else in show business. But he tries so hard to prove he’s a solid working-class American who’s above the fray that he comes across as passive-aggressive and manipulative. His recent speech about the late-night talk show wars is a good example of his bullshit. The following is a decoded version of the least-honest moments of Leno’s address.

Jay Leno: I said, Well, I’ve been No. 1 for 12 years. They said, We know that, but we don’t think you can sustain that. I said, Okay. How about until I fall to No. 2, then you fire me? No, we made this decision.

Decoder: I actually hadn’t been number one for all 12 years. I struggled mightily during my first couple of years. Thankfully, Johnny Carson wasn’t hovering over me every second, campaigning to get his job back. Especially since he was pushed out of the job in favor of me while he was still number one in the ratings.

Jay Leno: Don’t blame Conan O’Brien. Nice guy, good family guy, great guy.

Decoder: I’m the one everyone is blaming, so I am going to pivot and pretend Conan is somehow the object of scorn. Then I will absolve him of the fictional blame to make myself look magnanimous. Also: I am the kind of solid American who can judge the family values of others. Didn’t you notice my American flag lapel pin?

Jay Leno: I said, All right, can I keep my staff? There are 175 people that work here.

Decoder: It’s not about my ego. It’s about me keeping my staff employed during these difficult economic times. I am very thoughtful that way.

Jay Leno: Conan’s show during the summer…we’re not on…was not doing well.

Decoder: My historically poor lead-in is not responsible for Conan trailing David Letterman. I also trailed Letterman during my first couple of years as Tonight Show host, so I speak from experience.

Jay Leno: They said, Well, look, how about you do a half-hour show at 11:30? Now, where I come from, when your boss gives you a job and you don’t do it, well…

Decoder: I am just a working stiff like Joe Lunchpail. A working stiff with hundreds of millions of dollars and hundreds of vintage cars, but I’ve still got to punch the clock and support my wife because I’m a good family man.

Jay Leno: I said okay. Shake hands, that’s it. I don’t have a manager, I don’t have an agent, that’s my handshake deal.

Decoder: I’m a regular guy like you, not one off these show biz phonies with managers and agents. At one point, I did have a manager and she worked tirelessly to get Carson pushed out of the Tonight Show so I could have the job, even though Johnny was number one in the ratings.

Jay Leno: Yeah, I’ll take the show back. If that’s what he wants to do. This way, we keep our people working, fine.

Decoder: Again, it’s about my staff keeping their jobs, not about my ambitions.

Jay Leno: But through all of this, Conan O’Brien has been a gentleman. He’s a good guy. I have no animosity towards him.

Decoder: In a couple of days, I will make a joke about what an overrated millionaire Conan is. He’s not a working class hero like me.

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I need the "Tonight Show" job to support my wife and chin.

In 2004, Jay Leno announced he would be stepping aside as Tonight Show host in favor of Conan O’Brien: “When I signed my new contract,” Leno said in a press release, “I felt that the timing was right to plan for my successor, and there is no one more qualified than Conan.” He discussed it further on the show, saying he didn’t want there to be an unpleasant transition like there was when he and David Letterman ended their longtime friendship over the awkward struggle to replace Johnny Carson.

When the time came for the baton to be passed, however, Leno was less sanguine about the transfer of late-night power. He still dominated Letterman in the ratings and didn’t want to abdicate the throne. Leno could have done several things. He could have refused the initial overtures in 2004 to step down from his post while he was still on top. He could have gone to another network in 2009 and beaten NBC at its own game. Or he could have tried to do a 10pm show the way he did.

But one thing he shouldn’t have done was to openly campaign to replace Conan just five months after O’Brien took over the Tonight Show. But that’s exactly what Leno did, in passive-aggressive mode, in a November 2 interview with Broadcasting & Cable. An excerpt:

“B&C: Do you want to go back to 11:35?

Jay Leno: If it were offered to me, would I take it? If that’s what they wanted to do, sure. That would be fine if they wanted to.”

During this whole public fiasco, Leno has maintained that no show has ever been cancelled when it was rated number one like his Tonight Show was. Actually it has happened before. It was in 1992, when Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, which was rated number one, was cancelled when Leno’s manager got NBC brass to push Carson out of the job. Leno, eternally innocent, knew nothing about these machinations. He decided to not immediately relinquish the host’s chair when he found out about the back-room dealings. And even though Leno struggled mightily both creatively and ratings-wise at first, Carson never campaigned to get his job back.

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Carson had his own clothing line, which was sold by Sears in 1984-1985.

Carson had his own clothing line, which was sold by Sears in 1984-1985.

Rolling Stone still had a paper cover in 1979  and resembled the average alt-weekly in its materials and design. Janet Maslin gave a favorable review to Elvis Costello’s new album, Armed Forces. And Graham Nash was “making a concerted effort to stop nuclear power.” (Thanks for handling that one, Graham.) Johnny Carson had another 13 years to go in his reign as the “King of Late Night.” He touched on one of the reasons for his enduring popularity:

“I like to work with elderly people and children. I don’t know why I respect older people. I like working with kids. Maybe it’s the vulnerability of them. There’s a charm about older people that sometimes is childlike, and I enjoy them, first of all, because they can say anything they want to, which is just great. Age gives you a leg up on what you can say because you don’t have to account to anybody. You’ve lived and learned your right to sound off. They’ll just say. ‘Oh, well, screw that. I don’t like that, that’s a lot of shit.’ And they lay it right out.”

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