When I asked reader William Katz if he’d ever written about his work for employers including the New York Times and the Tonight Show, he responded that he hadn’t — but that he would. Now he writes with the second installment of his reflections on working for the Carson-era Tonight Show:
Aside from Johnny Carson’s obvious talent, it was the strength of the guests that made The Tonight Show. The main effort of the staff was aimed at selecting guests, then working with them to make sure their segment clicked.
Working with them? You mean, it wasn’t all spontaneous? Nah.
The Tonight Show was planned spontaneity. Carson didn’t “go with the flow.” He created it. He swore by the show business adage that the best ad libs are planned. And, like a good lawyer, he rarely asked a question unless he already knew the answer.
Every guest booked on the show was pre-interviewed by a talent coordinator. This was done in our office, in a guest’s home or hotel, or by phone. The pre-interview was designed to get from guests the best material they could use on the show. The talent coordinator then wrote a proposed on-air interview, which included not only questions, but the answers. This went to the writers, who would type in, in red, zingers that Carson could use to reply.
Carson studied this material, and modified it. He’d add comebacks of his own, which were usually stellar. The writers, by the way, also gave him “savers,” lines Carson could throw in if something bombed. Example: The audience won’t laugh at a joke. Carson shoots back a cold stare and says, “May a diseased camel leave a gift in your Christmas stocking.”
So, when he went on the air, Carson was well prepared. I don’t, however, mean to suggest that he rigidly followed a formula. He was bright, and sharp. There were indeed spontaneous moments, and comments from guests that surprised us. Carson had the sense to move with what was working. But, bottom line, there was always a prepared structure.
Here’s professionalism: One thing you’d never see was Johnny Carson studying notes during commercial breaks. He knew it was rude, left the guests sitting near him dangling, and broke the spell of the show. He’d talk to the guests, put them at ease, and make some comments to the audience. He might glance down at his notes to review for a moment, but that was it. He’d learned the stuff.
My most memorable pre-interview was with Jane Wyman, who’d been married, of course, to Ronald Reagan. Reagan was governor at the time, and Jane’s only stipulation was that he not be discussed. I spoke with her by phone for an hour. What came through was her wonderful, musical voice