Sunday, July 10, 2016

Book Review: And Now...Here's Johnny! by Nora Ephron (1968)

My well-worn paperback copy of And Now...Here's Johnny!, by Nora Ephron, 1968. This is my "Hollywood" bookshelf. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor.)

Ed McMahon and Johnny Carson during the early years of The Tonight Show.

A dapper Johnny Carson, circa late 1960's.

Nora Ephron, probably circa 1975.
Johnny Carson was one of the most famous American entertainers of his era, hosting The Tonight Show from 1962 until 1992, and yet despite Carson’s constant presence in America’s living rooms, he has remained something of an enigma. Nora Ephron wrote the first book about Johnny Carson, And Now…Here’s Johnny!, published in October of 1968. At the time Ephron was a reporter for The New York Post. She would later go on to great acclaim as the screenwriter of When Harry Met Sally…, and the screenwriter and director of Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. Ephron wrote several articles for the Post about Carson that were published in 1967, and those articles formed the basis for And Now…Here’s Johnny! 

Ephron interviewed Carson for the book, and she found him to be a somewhat difficult subject. She writes of Carson, “He worries that his interviewer will go away thinking he is hostile or conceited. ‘That’s the way it’s been ever since I was in high school,’ he said. ‘It’s so easy to confuse shyness and conceit.’” (p.22) Carson deflected most of Ephron’s questions about his personal life. “He will not discuss his ideas or his habits. Or his thinking. Or his opinions. He would prefer it if you did not print the brand name of the cigarette he smokes.” (p.23) The irony of Johnny Carson was that even though he served as America’s favorite party host for nearly thirty years, he was not an avid party goer in his private life.

Despite Carson’s reticence, Ephron was still able to paint a vivid portrait of Carson in all of his contradictions and complexity. Ephron traces Carson’s life and career, from his childhood in Nebraska to his early years on television. When Carson took over The Tonight Show from the volatile and emotional Jack Paar, he also decided to distance himself from Paar’s style. As Ephron writes, “There was to be no controversy; there were to be no emotional outbursts; there was to be no universal involvement with the Carson family; there were to be as few opinions from Carson as possible.” (p.39) Carson’s coolness on screen kept viewers coming back for more, and he didn’t burn himself out the way Paar did. (Paar hosted The Tonight Show for less than five years.) Carson also greatly expanded the audience of The Tonight Show. According to the figures in And Now…Here’s Johnny, by 1968 Carson was averaging around 7 million viewers a night, and he was consistently getting higher ratings than Paar ever had, except for some of the shows around the time of Paar’s famous on screen resignation in 1960. In 1971, Carson averaged 11 million viewers a night, and by 1978 the number had increased to 17 million. By comparison, Jimmy Fallon, the current host of The Tonight Show, averaged 4 million viewers during the fourth quarter of 2015. 

Ephron clearly did her homework for And Now…Here’s Johnny!, and the book is full of fun tidbits like this: “His memory is so prodigious, {cue Ed McMahon: ‘How prodigious is it?’} partly as a result of a self-taught memory course, that he once memorized the names of all ninety-eight contestants in a Miss Universe contest he once emceed.” (p.57) Ephron also got some good quotations from her interviews with Carson, as when he said of people who criticized the show, “When people tell me they don’t like something on the show or the commercials, I say, ‘Go read a book,’ or ‘learn to play chess.’” (p.188) 

And Now…Here’s Johnny also reveals some of the battles that took place between Carson and NBC during the early years of The Tonight Show. In February of 1965, very few television stations carried Carson’s monologue, instead they started broadcasting The Tonight Show at 11:30, 15 minutes into the show. Incredibly enough, not even New York City carried the first 15 minutes of the show. So Carson stopped showing up for the first 15 minutes of the show, letting Ed McMahon fill the time instead. After about a week of this, NBC saw things Carson’s way, and let him begin his monologue at 11:30. A bigger battle between Carson and NBC occurred in April of 1967, as production on The Tonight Show was shut down by an American Federation of Television and Radio Artists strike. Carson, as a member of AFTRA, walked out, and when NBC ran reruns of The Tonight Show, he announced that NBC was in breach of his contract by showing reruns, and promptly quit The Tonight Show. After much negotiating with NBC, which raised his salary to $20,000 a week, Carson returned to The Tonight Show three weeks later. Carson also fired Art Stark, who had been his producer for eleven years, dating back to when Carson hosted Who Do You Trust? 

Ephron presented a portrait of Carson’s home life as well, as she interviewed Carson’s second wife, Joanne, for the book. Presciently, the photo section of the book identifies Joanne Carson as Johnny’s “present wife.” (Carson would marry two more times after his divorce from Joanne in 1972.) The interview with Joanne Carson is more than a little odd. Here’s how she describes Johnny: “He is a unique individual. He is so unique that you have nothing to relate him to. If I put an object on this table and you had no idea what it was, you would have nothing else to compare it to. You can’t compare him to anyone in the world. He is unique in his own likeness.” (p.205) Okay, well, whatever that means. She’s obviously nuts about Johnny. We also learn that Joanne Carson doesn’t know how many days are in a month: “In thirty-two days of the month, we eat at home maybe thirty.” (p.207-8) Huh? Maybe that was a simple verbal gaffe that wasn’t corrected by an editor, but it makes her sound out of touch. Another fun fact is that Joanne Carson makes snowball candles to give out as Christmas gifts: “At Christmas anyone can give money but I like them to think that I care and Johnny cares. Each of these candles takes one hour to make. So that’s what I give at Christmas. My time. Just to let people know we care.” (p.215) Excuse me, but I just threw up in my mouth a little bit. 

One of the reasons why And Now…Here’s Johnny! is a valuable book is because it paints a picture of The Tonight Show during an era that we can’t recapture, as most of the episodes of The Tonight Show before 1972 were taped over by NBC. And Now...Here’s Johnny! is a fascinating look at a television icon at a time when he was still a relative newcomer. For that reason alone, it’s worth reading if you’re a fan of Johnny Carson.

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