Robert Mitchum on the Tonight Show, June of ‘ 78. Turns out he lived in Santa Barbara when I did. Oddly enough, we never ran into each other. He’s wearing shades indoors, I assume so we can’t see his dilated pupils. You hate being on TV, Johnny says. I hate being in Hollywood, Mitchum says. Even if Hollywood is Burbank. Johnny Carson is way coked out and edgy. Ann Margaret has been so high on something she was talking in a whisper, terrified, and walked off stage in the wrong direction. Weird bit with a guy in a kangaroo suit, from some completely forgotten waste of celluloid Mitchum did with Elliott Gould. The guy does an incredibly good kangaroo. Mitchum makes sure to mention the name of the guy in the suit, twice. Interview over, the ersatz kangaroo goes stage left, Bob Mitchum departs, stage right, and even after patting the fake kangaroo, he comes off an ineffably cool motherfucker.
A comic now, no idea who, talking incredibly fast. The last guest, incredibly, is a judge. A real judge. Imagine the band hiding the drugs. Johnny is talking carefully. The comic is completely silent. Damn, the seventies.
Saw a Tonight Show late last night from the late seventies. My god look at those ties my wife said. Johnny Carson was uptight, mildly paranoid, his timing off, the monologue died in a series of unfunny Jimmy Carter jokes. It was hot today he said. How hot was it shouted an audience member. Shut up! Johnny yelled back. Ed was laughing hysterically as each flop followed the other. Carnac the Magnificent began with Johnny fluffing the trip schtick so he nearly fell and then blowing the delivery of the lines. Again, Ed laughed all the harder. Out came the first guest, Tony Curtis, is a flaming white disco outfit and so buzzed he radiated paranoia. He stood, frozen, as the audience applauded and unable to think of what to do he nearly saluted. He walked over stiffly, introduced himself to Johnny with a formal handshake, then to Ed, and sat down and gave an interview so coke freaked it was uncomfortable to watch. Johnny wasn’t much better. Tony was not exactly at the peak of his career in 1978 and was promoting The Bad News Bears Go To Japan. One got the impression he did not like children. The clip shown was Tony explaining to a five year old why people get naked when having sex. These were obviously the pre-McMartin preschool days.
Next guest was Steve Landesberg. He comes out supercharged, rubbing his nose, and delivers a rapid fire series of jokes and random ethnic accents at an adenoidal high volume shout, and looking coke dazed each time the audience laughed. Then he strutted over to his chair where he and a slightly more relaxed Johnny and Tony began a strange conversation that veered back and forth, everyone stepping on each others lines, Landesberg doing assorted foreign accents way too loud, and all having a very excited good time. Next up was Bess Armstrong, very cute and a little too chemically edgy and funny but not quite as high strung as Tony or Steve. She said she was from Baltimore. BALLIMER!!! shouts Steve. Tony makes an unannounced trip backstage. Returned very excited. All four were having a grand old time talking and joking and laughing way too loud at the wrong time. Oddly, though, even with the combination of coked out Tony Curtis and Steve Landesberg and a pretty young single actress it never got dirty. Not even a little bit. Not even after that Bad News Bear clip. Then came the very charming and witty eighty-nine year old Merie Earle. No wonder it never got dirty. Grandma was in the house. Tony, Steve and Bess froze, completely silent. Not a peep till Johnny winds up her interview (which was the only coherent part of the night) and Steve shouts out something random in a loud Puerto Rican accent. As the credits rolled, Pete Christlieb (probably, from the tone anyway) took off on a gorgeous saxophone solo.
Ya gotta love the seventies.
I went to the Tonight Show once. 1975 or 1976. Johnny Carson, of course, took the night off. John Davidson was the host. I was so disappointed. Then they announced Davidson couldn’t make it. A surprise host would be filling in. Out comes Steve Allen. He brings out Tom Poston, then Louie Nye, then Bill Daily. It was the original Tonight Show all over again. Sheer anarchy. At one point they’re all doing an out of control Chinese Fire Drill around the desk. Half the jokes were off camera. No guests got on. They kept going right through the commercial breaks, like they couldn’t stop. It was one of the funniest things I ever saw in my life. Later that night, watching on television I realized that only a fraction of what was going could be seen, let alone understood, by the TV audience, which made it even funnier. That was the only time I ever saw the Tonight Show in person. Never did see Johnny Carson, to my infinite regret, but I saw Steve Allen doing it old school, like it was live television all over again. Beautiful.
Steve Allen at rehearsal, 1954. A great photo from the Associated Press, no idea who took it.