Learning from the Tonight Show

William Katz is a Power Line reader who has worked for diverse employers including the New York Times and the Tonight Show. I asked him if he had ever written about his work with these outfits. He hadn’t, but he has set about it in response to my inquiry. Here is his first installment on working at the Tonight Show:

So, how does someone go from the great gray New York Times to a TV show where the bandleader wears funny suits and the host’s most profound question is, “How cold is it?”
I was on The Times, editing the work of other writers, including some famous ones, and decided that this wasn’t for me. I wanted to do my own writing, and didn’t want to be restricted by journalism. So, I wrote a few comedy sketches, with Bob Newhart in mind. In my profound inexperience, I thought I could just send them to him and he’d buy them, and I’d be on my way. What amateurism, what a silly and childish idea. Except…that’s exactly what happened. I found out who Newhart’s agent was, sent the material, he took it, and I was signed by William Morris. The year was 1970.
My first stop was the old Merv Griffin Show, which, like all the late-night talk shows of the period, was done in New York. I was a talent coordinator, which meant I “pre-interviewed” guests who were scheduled to appear. Based on the pre-interview, I wrote the interview that the host used on the air. In addition, I searched for new talent to book for the show. It was enjoyable, but Merv eventually decided to take his production to California.
Fortunately, I was able to get a similar job on The Tonight Show. My responsibilities were the same, except that I sometimes warmed up the audience. (I found it was very hard to warm up an audience that got free tickets. They had no investment in me. It’s a rule of thumb in New York that the people who laugh hardest or applaud loudest are those who paid the most for their tickets. They want to ratify their choices.)
“Tonight” also had me handle musical guests. This was no honor. The newest talent coordinator always became the “music talent coordinator” because it involved the most tedium and detail. Dealing with musicians, singers, accompanists, instruments and rehearsal time was paperwork and psychiatry.
“Tonight” had a reputation as an unpleasant, cold place to work. That was accurate. The staff was competitive, and some of its members had personalities even their mothers would reject. Johnny Carson wasn’t particularly cold, but was distant. Staff morale was not his priority.
When people left the show, they found they’d made no friends. And yet, you could find wonderful moments with some of the guests, and in discovering new talent. It was important, however, to watch your back.
At the top was the producer, Fred DeCordova, a long-time film and TV director best known for directing Ronald Reagan in “Bedtime for Bonzo.” Fred had graduated from Northwestern and spent time at Harvard Law, although I don’t think he finished. Gregarious and laid back, although very Hollywood, he hated New York and campaigned to get the show to move to California permanently. As it was, we spent three weeks in L.A. every eight weeks, which was enough for me. There was something sad about a city defined by celebrity cemeteries and by “artists” who thought North Vietnam truly was a peoples’ republic.
On Johnny Carson: He had natural talent. As I said, he was distant, yet could make you laugh at a staff meeting. Among his gifts was remarkable self-discipline and a clear sense of who he was and what he wanted to do. Carson would tell us that “Tonight” wasn’t a talk show, but a variety show. And he was right. Every part of the show had to be strong, not just the chats.
In the middle of the afternoon, no matter what he was doing, Carson would get up and say, “I’ve got to do the monologue,” and return to his office. There he’d select the jokes submitted by his writers, write some of his own, and learn them. When the show went on the air, I would look at “the board,” a series of cue cards laid out left to right on a panel placed in front of him for the monologue. All it had on it were key words and phrases. Carson had essentially memorized the jokes. He did this every day. One of the many things I learned from Johnny Carson was the importance of memory in making presentations. Learn the material. Don’t depend on a written text.
Carson also taught, “Buy the premise, buy the bit.” It’s another good lesson, applicable to presidential candidates as well as comedians. If people don’t buy the premise of a comedy sketch, or a speech, or an immigration proposal, they’ll never buy the rest.
Many in the audience don’t know how difficult comedy is. It’s the most challenging form of writing. It’s far easier to make someone cry than laugh. In working with Carson I was reminded of the comment made by the great English actor Edmund Kean, presumably on his deathbed: “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.”
If there was a steady influence on The Tonight Show then, it was Jack Benny. Fred DeCordova had directed some of Jack’s shows, and Jack, in many ways, was Johnny’s mentor. Jack Benny was an extraordinarily sweet man, who could break you up just by looking at you. Once, when the show was visiting Los Angeles, DeCordova had a staff party and Jack came over. He related, in his style, how he’d just gotten a ticket for an illegal u-turn. He then turned to something he’d discovered — that you could make a phone call to a particular number, and hear sex talk. Of course, Jack was a little boy, so all this came out with a sense of wonder. He had the same devilish personality off-camera as on. At the party, by the way, he rushed around to get chairs for the women.
Jack taught Johnny a fundamental lesson – to be generous with guests, to make them look good. Jack would say, “I don’t care who gets the best lines. I just want people to stand around the water cooler the next morning and say, ‘Wasn’t the Jack Benny Show good last night.'” Johnny adopted that approach. It always worked.
Doc Severinsen is a sweet guy who ran one of the best bands in the business. You could not appreciate the Tonight Show Band through those tinny TV speakers, but in the studio it was spectacular. Just a few weeks ago we lost Tommy Newsom, the saxophonist who led the band in Doc’s absence. Johnny used him as a foil because of his bland personality. In truth, he was a highly regarded arranger and instrumentalist.
Most of my work was with the guests. In my next memo I’ll tell you some stories


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