Monday, August 22, 2016

Concert Review: "Weird Al" Yankovic at the State Theatre

Promotional image for "Weird Al" Yankovic's Mandatory World Tour, 2016.

On Friday night “Weird Al” Yankovic brought his accordion and his “Mandatory World Tour” to the State Theatre in Minneapolis for nearly two hours of musical parodies. Since Weird Al released his first album in 1983, he’s carved out a unique career as America’s favorite writer of musical parodies, and ironically enough, his career has outlasted some of the artists that he’s parodied. 

As a child of the 1980’s, I’ve been aware of Weird Al’s music for a long time, but it’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve seriously listened to him. What impresses me the most is the cleverness of Yankovic’s lyrics. One of his most brilliant songs is 2014’s “Word Crimes,” a parody of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” which details the many grammar errors that people make. 

In concert, Weird Al puts on a great show, with many costume changes and a projection screen that shows clips from his career. Unfortunately, our seats were on the side, so I couldn’t actually see the entire projection screen, so some of that was lost on me. Oh well, note to self for next time. 

The energy that Weird Al puts into his performances was felt by everyone in the State Theatre, and it was extremely fun to be a part of a crowd that is as fanatical as Weird Al’s audience is. The crowd was really into the show, and Weird Al sometimes made them a part of the show, as when he made his entrance through the crowd singing “Tacky,” his parody of “Happy.” 

The setlist encompassed Yankovic’s entire career, from his early 1980’s hits like “Beat It” and “I Love Rocky Road" to many songs from 2014’s Number One album Mandatory Fun, like “Foil” and “Lame Claim to Fame.” 

One of the great things about Weird Al is that his humor is family friendly, and I saw lots of little kids in the audience, which means yet another generation of listeners will appreciate Weird Al’s witty songs. From everything I’ve ever read or heard about Weird Al, it sounds like he’s really one of the nicest people in show business, and it’s great to see the success he’s had over the last few years. 

Even if you’re only a casual fan of Weird Al, you should really go and see him in concert. He’s a lot of fun, as expected.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Book Review: Johnny Tonight! by Craig Tennis (1980)

Paperback cover of Johnny Tonight! by Craig Tennis, 1980. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor.)

An early 1970's ad for Johnny Carson Apparel. The white pants Johnny's wearing on the right look pretty cool.
Craig Tennis was the head talent coordinator on The Tonight Show for eight years, from 1968 until 1976. After leaving the show, he wrote the 1980 book Johnny Tonight! It’s a peek at the backstage world of The Tonight Show, and while it’s an interesting book, it’s not full of dramatic revelations. 

In my reading of numerous books and articles this summer about Johnny Carson, I’ve been a little disappointed that most of them focus on Carson’s off screen personality at the expense of his on air personality. Very few of the books and articles I’ve read go into much detail about Carson’s duties hosting The Tonight Show. Carson balanced a number of difficult tasks in hosting the show. In order to be a successful late night talk show host, you need to be good at stand-up comedy, but you also need to be a good interviewer and be able to interact with the numerous different kinds of guests who will be on the show. Carson excelled at all of these skills, and he was also a good enough actor to create very different characters for the show. If you need proof of Carson’s acting ability, just watch him as Floyd R. Turbo, American, the right-wing reactionary who was always getting upset about something. As Floyd, Carson delivered his lines stiffly, and never quite knew where the camera was. Floyd was the exact opposite on screen of Johnny Carson, who was a consummate pro. It takes skill to pull that off successfully. Kenneth Tynan, in his New Yorker profile of Carson from 1978, probably has the most insight about the Johnny Carson that viewers saw on screen, and what made Carson so successful as a host.

Tennis doesn’t pull any punches in writing about Johnny Carson’s personality, and like many others who have written about Carson, he finds him to be an enigma. Tennis wrote, “This may sound eerie, but I firmly believe that no one-including Johnny’s own family-really knows him intimately.” (p.206) That’s probably a very true statement. By the time Tennis wrote Johnny Tonight! he had already moved on from The Tonight Show, which allowed him to candidly assess Carson. I wonder what Johnny Carson thought of Johnny Tonight! or if he ever read it. 

Johnny Tonight! doesn’t dish much dirt about the celebrities who appeared on the show, which is probably smart, since Tennis wanted to keep working in show business, but we do get to learn some small tidbits about stars of the 1970’s. For example, Craig Tennis had a great time doing the pre-interview for Raquel Welch, and he always wonders what would have happened between them if they had more time to talk. Charles Bronson answered his own phone. And it took Tennis quite a while to convince the producers of The Tonight Show that McLean Stevenson would make a good guest. (Stevenson became a frequent guest host for Carson in the mid-1970’s.) 

Johnny Tonight! is not the definitive book about Johnny Carson, but I’d recommend it if you’re interested in learning more about the behind the scenes world of The Tonight Show.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Book Review: King of the Night: The Life of Johnny Carson, by Laurence Leamer (1989)

The paperback cover of King of the Night, by Laurence Leamer. King of the Night was originally published in 1989. This is the updated edition, published in 2005, that contains a short afterword covering Carson's life from 1989 until his death in 2005. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor.)

Johnny Carson doing what he loved best, sometime during the 1970's.
In my summer-long quest to learn everything about Johnny Carson, I read Laurence Leamer’s 1989 biography of Carson, King of the Night: The Life of Johnny Carson. Even though it was published more than 25 years ago, Leamer’s book is the definitive biography of Carson. Leamer did his homework on Carson, as he interviewed hundreds of people who knew him. 

King of the Night gives the reader a fascinating portrait of Johnny Carson, a man who was able to connect with millions of Americans every night as the host of The Tonight Show, but who found it difficult to connect with people in his private life. Carson was married four times, had difficult relationships with his three sons, and had very few longtime friends. 

Leamer dissects Carson’s life in detail, and the reader is fully immersed, for better or worse, in the various investments and lawsuits that Carson was embroiled in. King of the Night makes an interesting counterpoint to Henry Bushkin’s 2013 memoir, Johnny Carson, which I reviewed here. Bushkin, who was Carson’s lawyer for many years, also handled many of Carson’s investments, and according the Bushkin, those investments were quite successful. However, Leamer paints a different picture, and after reading King of the Night it sounds like Bushkin’s investments were not very successful at all. Now I wonder how much of Bushkin’s book was an attempt to change his image from King of the Night. 

Honestly, reading King of the Night made me a little sad for Johnny Carson. I hope he was a happy man, and yet I have the feeling, from all that I’ve read about him, that it was a challenge for him to find happiness. He brought such joy to so many people for so many years, and yet, like so many entertainers, it seems as though he had a difficult time finding a similar joy in his private life. Also, like so many entertainers, Carson was happy and fulfilled when he was doing The Tonight Show, but the other hours of the day were more difficult for him to fill.

Carson was brutally honest in a 1986 interview in which he said, “If I had given as much to marriage as I gave to The Tonight Show, I’d probably have a hell of a marriage. But the fact is I haven’t given that, and there you have the simple reason for the failure of my marriages. I put the energy into the show.” (p.352) 

One of the most insightful quotes from King of the Night comes from Jeanne Prior, who was Carson’s secretary in the 1960’s. She told Leamer, “Except for the beginning years of his life, I don’t think Johnny has ever been rejected. Just think of the fact of going around for thirty years and never being rejected by almost anybody, not waiters, not anybody. What do you think would be easier to live with, his life or the life most of us live? There is a cost, and that’s why he insulates himself.” (p.160) I think that gives the reader some idea of what it would have been like to be Johnny Carson, and why success can be so difficult to deal with. 

Whatever he was like off the screen, on screen Johnny Carson projected warmth and a likability that came through the television set. Shelly Schultz, a talent coordinator for The Tonight Show in the 1960’s, said of Carson, “I think that he is one of those rare phenomenal people who understood the medium.” (p.143) That’s very true, and Carson’s understanding of television served him well during his long career.

Johnny Carson presided over a media landscape that is totally different from 2016. King of the Night opens in 1987, as Carson is celebrating the 25th anniversary of his hosting The Tonight Show. Yet even then, as Leamer writes, “The networks had begun to decline, viewers lost to cable networks and video recorders. It was unlikely that any other performer would ever have the same hold over the American night.” (p.2) Of course that’s even more true now, as no one on late night television has the same reach that Johnny Carson did. Carson’s career is unique in late night television history, and it will remain so. Johnny Carson is the man who set the standard; he is the late night host that all others are measured against. 

Johnny Carson was one of television’s biggest stars, and King of the Night allows us a look at his private and professional life. If you’re interested in Johnny Carson, King of the Night is the book that paints the most complete picture of Carson’s life.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Johnny Carson, the Rolling Stone Interview, March 1979

Johnny Carson on the cover of Rolling Stone, March 22, 1979. This is the best quality image I could find of the cover.

Johnny looking sharp in a 1970's ad for Johnny Carson Apparel.
Along with Johnny Carson’s 1967 interview with Alex Haley for Playboy, Carson’s 1979 interview for Rolling Stone was one of the most revealing he ever gave. Timothy White interviewed Carson for the March 22, 1979 issue, and while it doesn’t touch on as many social issues as Carson’s Playboy interview, it is quite illuminating about Carson’s personality. You can read the whole 20,000 word interview online here.

White attempted to get to the bottom of Carson's appeal, asking him "Why do you think people feel so comfortable with you?"

Carson responded: “I can't analyze that. I really can't. I just do what I do. People ask me, ‘How do you analyze that you've stayed on 17 years and the competition has dropped off?’ See, either way you answer that, you end up sounding like a schmuck. If you say, ‘Well, obviously I do a much better job than they do,’ or say, ‘I'm more talented,’ then people say, ‘You egotistical bastard!’ If, on the other hand, you play Harry Humble and say, ‘Gee, I don't know,’ then that sounds idiotic, too. So no matter what you say, people say, ‘Aw, come on now.’ I don't try to shoot for an average audience. I do the things I like to do, and I think I've learned what people will accept from me. That's just an intuitive thing.”

Carson bluntly summed up the contradiction between his public and private persona by saying, “I'm an extrovert when I work. I'm an introvert when I don't.” That might be the best distillation of any of the attempts made by writers to analyze Carson’s personality.

In Rolling Stone Carson expressed his annoyance with the ignorance of the American public, saying:

“I read a survey last week, and it said that a large percentage of the American public had not read a book since they got out of high school. They read magazines, periodicals, but not a book. To read about what Bianca Jagger is doing is not high on my list of priorities. I could not give a shit what Bianca Jagger is doing, or what Jackie O is doing, but those are the people you constantly read about.”

Carson also revealed that the reason The Tonight Show moved from New York City to Los Angeles was actually pretty simple: 

“I lived in New York 17 years; I like the idea, as corny as it sounds, of a yard and a house. Maybe that's the old Midwestern values, but I like being able to walk outside in the morning and sit around; you can't do that in New York. That's the only reason.”

There are other interesting parts to Carson’s Rolling Stone interview, and it’s an essential read for anyone interested in the complex personality of Johnny Carson.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Alex Haley Interviews Johnny Carson, Playboy magazine, December 1967

Author Alex Haley appears on The Tonight Show on February 2, 1977, to promote his book Roots. Haley handed Johnny Carson a hefty tome that contained his family's genealogy going back hundreds of years. This show is discussed in Kenneth Tynan's 1978 article about Carson, "Fifteen Years of the Salto Mortale."
Johnny Carson, 1960's.

One of the most revealing interviews Johnny Carson ever gave was to journalist Alex Haley, published in the December 1967 issue of Playboy. While Carson was cautious about sharing any of his private beliefs on The Tonight Show, in the pages of Playboy he was much more honest and forthcoming. You can read the entire interview online here.

At the beginning of the piece, Haley writes, “Out of the camera's range, however, Carson maintains a passionately private life that has earned him an unenviable reputation as an uptight, lonely misanthrope.” It’s interesting that even as early as 1967 this was already the standard description of Johnny Carson. 

Carson tells Haley of the meetings he has with random strangers, saying, “Everybody I meet in public seems to want to audition for me.” That would have been fatiguing for anyone, and I can imagine it would have been hellish for Carson, who deeply cherished his privacy. 

As someone who writes about pop culture, I spend a decent amount of time thinking about celebrity and fame, and how it affects the people who gain it. I found Johnny Carson’s opinion to be very interesting. Carson said:

“I don't think it's you that changes with success—it's the people around you who change. Because of your new status, they change in relation to you. Let me give you an example. I loved the towns I grew up in as a boy, and after I became a celebrity, I went back several times. I would have had the time of my life seeing the old places and the old faces again, but the attitude of those same people was, ‘I guess you're so big we bore you now.’ What was I supposed to say to that? Agree with them? They'd be furious. But if I said I was enjoying myself, they'd say I was being condescending. You see what I mean?”

Carson makes an interesting point: that people change in relation to a celebrity. I’ve thought about this quote as I’ve been reading Laurence Leamer’s biography of Carson, King of the Night. Leamer interviewed many, many people who knew Johnny Carson. Some of them have great memories of him; some of them have terrible memories of him. But their memories of Carson remain fresh in their minds because of his celebrity, not necessarily because what Carson did was interesting or noteworthy. In the 1982 TV special Johnny Goes Home, which followed Carson back to Norfolk, Nebraska, the town where he spent much of his youth, Carson attended his high school reunion. During his speech, he read a letter from a schoolmate named Georgine who remembered that back in second grade, during an activity where teams were being chosen, young Johnny shouted out, “Don’t pick Georgine, she runs like a duck.” Georgine also wrote to Carson, “I never watch your show…in my opinion, you were a spoiled brat.” While Carson took it in good humor, it shows that people remembered even the most mundane encounters they had with Carson. Despite having never watched The Tonight Show, Georgine probably told people that story about young Johnny Carson a million times.

While Carson’s comedy may seem tame to 2016 audiences, it’s important to remember that during the 1960’s he was constantly pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable to say on national television. Carson told Haley:

“But nearly anything you say, you can't help offending somebody out there. If I say ‘naked,’ if I use the word ‘pregnant,’ I'll get probably 500 letters complaining that I'm hastening national immorality. A lot of them are from nuts—you can tell that—but many are from perfectly sincere people who happen to think that practically anything is immoral.”

In Playboy, Carson wasn’t shy about his opinions on the pressing issues of the day. He had this to say about race in America:

“Too many whites are in favor of integration and equality only so long as it never touches them, only until some Negro makes a move to buy into their block, until they find themselves competing with Negroes for the same jobs. This isn't to say that there hasn't been some progress in the past decade; but it's been too little and too slow—just enough to give Negroes a taste of freedom and equality, but not enough to make either a reality. So the discontent and frustration erupt into violence. It's understandable, but we all know it's not going to solve anything.”

Carson also criticized the government for not giving the public more information about what was happening in Vietnam. While Henry Bushkin described Carson as an “Eisenhower Republican” in his 2013 memoir, most other writers have described Carson as an unapologetic liberal. Carson’s political views also influenced the creation of his character Floyd R. Turbo in 1977. Floyd was a knee-jerk conservative who always dressed in a plaid hunting jacket and delivered editorials in opposition to many liberal ideas. One of Floyd’s famous lines was, “If God didn’t want us to hunt, He wouldn’t have given us plaid shirts.”

In a 1970 article in Life magazine, Carson explained some of his liberal views:

"In my living room I would argue for liberalization of abortion laws, divorce laws, and there are times when I would like to express a view on the air. I would love to have taken on Billy Graham. But I'm on TV five nights a week; I have nothing to gain by it and everything to lose. I don’t care what the critics say about the show’s blandness.”

It’s interesting to me that Carson was so upfront and honest about his opinions in a major magazine. Obviously he wasn’t too worried about anybody being offended by what he said. That’s one reason why his 1967 interview in Playboy is so compelling, as Carson comes across as not an inscrutable loner, but rather a man who had very definite views on many different subjects.