Many nights in the Ramsey/Spees apartments pass in the following way: Cory grabs the remote or his laptop and chooses an obscure documentary or vintage television program to watch. When I say “vintage television program,” I’m not talking about The Andy Griffith Show or Gunsmoke (though old TV shows make an appearance from time to time). No, when Cory is in control of what’s playing on the screen, it can be anything from a four-hour compilation of 1980s toy commercials to the entirety of a 1993 NASCAR race of which he already knows the outcome and even what happens at each turn. Recently, we picked away at six-hour 1980 election coverage from NBC that he found on YouTube.
I’m not joking, but you can go ahead and laugh.
But sometimes, we actually watch something fairly interesting. Occasionally, including Monday night, we watched an old episode of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Carson’s last episode aired a few months before I turned 2 years old, so I never really met the King of Late Night. It’s been through these archived YouTube videos that I’ve gotten to know him.
The changing times have dictated how we like our entertainment (or is it the other way around?), and I notice the stark differences between The Tonight Show starring Carson and various other 2010s talk shows. The differences I see could apply to many talk shows of the ’70s and early ’80s compared to any of today’s talk shows, but I’ll hone in on Carson’s Tonight Show as the epitome of these differences.
Let me give an example: In 1982, Carson interviewed Dyan Cannon, who was promoting her movie Deathtrap. Their conversation had humor and lightheartedness, but it also had the following deep conversation…
Johnny: How’s life in general with you? Everything going well?
Dyan: It’s better than it’s ever been.
Johnny: Because I’ve seen you go through various phases in your life. When you’ve been up, and when you’ve been a bit down, and gone through, you know, various personal things.
Dyan: Well, it’s good. It’s a very good time for me now. It just seems that everything is all right. Now, I’m not saying that I still don’t have the valleys, but when I do, I just don’t stay there as long. The same things that used to really upset me don’t upset me for as long.
Johnny: Don’t you think you need a little bit of the hills and the valleys?
Dyan: I don’t need anymore hills and valleys.
Johnny: You can’t be up here all the time and eternally happy.
Dyan: Why not?
(Johnny pauses, looks around, Dyan and audience laugh)
Johnny: I think to be in a constant state of happiness…
Dyan: Have you ever tried it?
Dyan: Me either, but I think it would be really nice. I don’t think you have to feel bad to feel good anymore.
Johnny: No, I didn’t mean that. I guess what I’m saying is…
Dyan: Ups and downs?
Johnny: Yeah. Sometimes when you’re under pressure. Maybe that’s the word, pressure. When things are a little critical and you- and a little adrenaline starts to pump a little. If everything is just going so well, I always get the feeling that something bad is gonna happen. Is that wrong?
Dyan: Well, you’ve had pressure lately.
(Carson had recently been engaged in a feud, of sorts, with Wayne Newton, which climaxed with Newton threatening to beat up Carson.)
Nearly three years ago, Jennifer Lawrence appeared on Conan to promote American Hustle. The part of their conversation that went viral was about an embarrassing misunderstanding involving Lawrence’s hotel maid and a collection of sex toys her friends had given her as a joke.
How times have changed.
Now, that’s just an example. And don’t get me wrong, I love watching fellow Kentuckian Lawrence in movies and interviews, and I know Carson got by with some off-color jokes throughout his 30 years on The Tonight Show; and this is more than just an observation of evolving censorship and morality in America.
Carson really wanted to know how Cannon was doing. He cared, and he showed it on national television. That’s a common theme I’ve seen as Cory and I have watched more episodes. Equally notable, Cannon acknowledged an internal struggle, with “hills and valleys.” In 1982, two powerhouse celebrities of the time were bringing depression to the forefront, analyzing their own emotional ups and downs in front of millions of people.
It wasn’t just about laughs. It doesn’t seem like it was just about ratings. It was two people talking about things that anyone in the country could have been talking about, but were probably too afraid to. Things that people are still afraid to talk about in 2016.
I don’t think anyone can deny that, by and large, the American public likes its news and entertainment blended into one. We want to be shocked, hence a story about a celebrity’s sex toys getting millions of hits on YouTube. And if it’s trending on Facebook or Twitter, it’s news, right? More than that, perhaps, we want to feel disconnected. We don’t want anything to hit too close to home.
Most people would probably consider my thoughts on media antiquated and argue that “there’s no going back now” and “that’s just the way things are.” I won’t dispute that. But I will dispute quality. And while I enjoy what Jimmy Fallon has done with The Tonight Show, and I chuckle right along with other shows and hosts, it’s those moments of true quality – tributes to folks like Robin Williams and Glenn Frey come to mind – that remind me that it still exists.
And whether it’s a talk show host and a guest or two friends at a coffee shop, quality can start simply with a genuine, “How’s life in general with you?”