In my youth I was a big fan of the Tonight Show, and watched Carson most nights. Then one day something strange happened – a new show appeared after Carson, with a new guy doing a new kind of show. The show was raw and unpolished compared to Johnny’s show, as was the host, a laconic smart-ass from Indiana called David Letterman.
But the show was funny. Laugh-out-loud funny, back in the day before LOL was a tingling on anyone’s typing fingertips. So my routine changed – whereas I used to stay up to at least see Johnny’s monologue, I started making sure I stayed up to see yours, which in many (if not most) cases led to me watching a good portion of the rest of your show.
And your show struck a chord with me. I mean, hit the nail right on the head. I love absurd humor. I don’t hold celebrities in reverence, and prefer to see jerks and idiots treated as such, as long as they are willing participants. Your show became the double-edged sword of entertainment – anybody who was anybody needed to go on your show, because it was good business. But, they got no guarantees that they would be treated to softball questions or fawning segments, but instead got pulled off-script and into who knows what.
And it was great television. One segment that was particularly memorable for me, and which I think illustrates the kind of thing I loved most about your show, is your visit to the GE headquarters with a fruit basket to say ‘hello’ after they purchased your employer, NBC:
It was kind of a dick move on your part to show up in the GE lobby unannounced with cameras and a fruit basket, but it was also genius. And the message it sent to everyone (stars, agents, guests, executives) was that the show was first and foremost about being entertaining, and that everyone involved with or participating in the show needed to understand that the guy in the host chair had no hesitation to publicly piss off his new bosses, who sign his paycheck, so imagine how little he’s going to care about fluffing your ego when you’re in the guest chair.
Interestingly, over the years I derived a certain set of manners that you exhibited on the show, that belied your reputation:
You were unfailingly nice to children and did your best to make them feel successful and comfortable
You were unfailingly acerbic to jerks and idiots and did your best to make them feel ill at ease and unsuccessful
A guest’s reputation as a human being, not as a ‘star’, dictated your treatment of the guest
You treated your audience as if they were intelligent beings, and did not pander to a least-common-denominator that might improve ratings at the cost of toning down the show
Sometimes…well, sometimes you were just a jerk, but aren’t we all, sometimes?
In short, the ethos embodied