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.

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