Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Comedy Before Cancel Culture

 

Before I was born my parents went to see Johnny Carson perform in Las Vegas. Carson’s Vegas act, my parents would later inform me approvingly, was nothing like the material he performed for millions of Americans nightly over the source of thirty years on The Tonight Show. This wasn’t just Vegas – it was 1960s Vegas: a sophisticated playground for adults, not the inclusive, family-oriented bastion of “zany” comedy that prevails today. 

Carson’s versatility was laudable, notwithstanding the widespread notion that the mere ability to perform R-rated material is disqualifying. My parents, typical of their generation, ate it up: they had no intention of making the four- or five-hour drive through the desert to spend an evening with Johnny Carson only to hear him deliver FCC-approved jokes about the Buffalo blizzard of ’77. (“How cold was it?!”)

Carson, who by then was a national figure and host of The Tonight Show and therefore had a lot to lose, instead regaled his audience with hilarious stories from his childhood, such as his barely-controllable anticipation for the arrival of National Geographic and the fodder it provided for his teenage sexual fantasies. 

To be sure, there was a cancel culture in those days, though it had nothing to do with being guilty of WrongThink and everything to do with not delivering the goods. And what were the goods?

Laughs.

Like most of his cohort in Hollywood, Carson was a lifelong Democrat. That didn’t prevent him, though, from understanding that comedy that alienates half your audience will eventually cut your audience in half. Hence his nightly viewing audience of up to 9 million people. This is the lesson that today’s part-time comedians, full-time progressives have yet to learn. 

For all the talk about the so-called long tail created by the internet, Carson’s leave-your-politics-at-the-door approach to comedy was one of the reasons why he became a ratings bonanza. While today’s late night talkshow hosts scramble over one another for a leftover snack, Carson took home a meal. 

Think of what goes into producing funny five-minute monologue five nights a week for three decades. Tens of thousands of jokes. It’s hard to imagine him today succeeding on anything close to that scale without being disappeared for a politically incorrect gag or abandoned by sponsors for a decades-old liked tweet. 

Carson’s era was one of free-wheeling fun. It was a time when a sketch actress could be rightly admired for the skill required to play a dingbat blonde rather than condemned for it. Up-and-coming comedians like George Carlin then cut their teeth not in the alternative universe of today’s college campuses but in the hard world of gin joints

Like ours, Carson’s era was also one of us-verses-them tribalism. But it wasn’t Republicans versus Democrats or progressives versus Conservatives. It was The People versus the Political Class. 

Johnny Carson understood this and comedy was better for it. 

Published in Entertainment
This post was promoted to the Main Feed by a Ricochet Editor at the recommendation of Ricochet members. Like this post? Want to comment? Join Ricochet’s community of conservatives and be part of the conversation. Get your first month free.

There are 22 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. Percival Thatcher
    Percival Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    First and foremost, bring the funny.

    • #1
    • March 9, 2020, at 6:25 AM PDT
    • 9 likes
  2. James Gawron Thatcher
    James Gawron Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Dave,

    Actually having the integrity to believe in freedom is different than just wanting your gang to have the power. The left is obsessed with “now it’s my gang’s chance to be on top”. Freedom never had a thing to do with it. When we get back to having enough integrity to fight off the cancel culture idiots then we will get to laugh freely again. Then we will feel like we are all together again. Not because we believe in diversity but because we have enough integrity to protect each other’s back against those kinds of weasels.

    Regards,

    Jim 

    • #2
    • March 9, 2020, at 7:10 AM PDT
    • 7 likes
  3. Steven Seward Member

    Great observations, David! This reminded me immediately of a couple of interviews of Johnny Carson discussing why he doesn’t “do politics” that I had seen on the Internet.

    • #3
    • March 9, 2020, at 7:18 AM PDT
    • 10 likes
  4. Front Seat Cat Member

    When I was a little kid, I would have to go to bed after Lassie. Fast asleep, I would then be woken up by my family laughing their heads off at John Carson downstairs in the living room. And my family laughed loud. Our neighbors across the alleyway would drag their little TV out to the backyard on a warm summer night. They had seven kids, not to mention a howling beagle, chickens, and goldfish. They laughed loud too and the dog howled every night. Those were the days of all the great comedy acts and comedians.

    I read the autobiography of Andy Williams which I found at the grocery store the day he passed away. It’s a gem and describes in detail the Las Vegas 1960’s that you speak of, including the mobsters (which he said were very polite to him), and the many acts that performed out there – fascinating. I also read the autobiography years ago of Carson’s successor, Jay Leno – how he got started in comedy, and the Italian/Scottish family that he grew up in, how his car passion started etc.. It’s hilarious.

    It seems our current loss of humor in society reflects something much bigger. Making fun of Nazis like Mel Brooks, or racial stereo-types like All in the Family and the Jeffersons was a way to defuse it – take away the safe spaces and confront it head on.

    • #4
    • March 9, 2020, at 11:56 AM PDT
    • 9 likes
  5. OldPhil Coolidge

    Find the youtube video of Jonathan Winters and Robin Williams on the Tonight Show. You’ll laugh so hard your ribs will hurt.

    Also, drunk Dean Martin, Bob Hope and George Gobel on the couch together.

     

    • #5
    • March 9, 2020, at 12:28 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  6. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I saw a similar phenomenon with Dennis Miller, who hosted some of the “secret” Friends of Abe conservative parties in Hollywood. Miller’s routines weren’t obscene by any stretch of the imagination, but they were distinctly more “blue” than his TV material. He said a few words of explanation, not exactly an apology, knowing that this conservative audience was likely to be startled (BTW, there were no children present), but he is, after all, a professional comedian looking for laughs, not a role model, not a spiritual advisor. 

    I think Jay Leno deserves more credit than he ever got from TV critics. When they complained that he was “America’s safest comedian”, they were griping about what made him so good to the public; that apolitical quality that let Leno make jokes about Clinton and Bush alike. Leno wasn’t a conservative, but he was an honest liberal. 

    Jimmy Fallon tried to do the same, more or less. Fallon is a much sunnier personality than Conan O’ Brien’s, NBC’s first ill fated pick to replace Leno. Fallon is also the most musically gifted late night host since Steve Allen, 60 years ago. But in these more divisive times, it’s Colbert and Kimmel who are getting the kudos. The voting numbers prove there’s room for less politics and more comedic diversity, but alas, the TV ratings don’t back that up. 

    I sometimes wonder what might have happened if Dennis Miller, a much more famous name in 2000, had taken the host’s chair at The Daily Show instead of the then-obscure Jon Stewart. 

    • #6
    • March 9, 2020, at 12:31 PM PDT
    • 10 likes
  7. Stad Thatcher

    I have a bootleg copy of a Friars’ Roast of Don Rickles (two vinyl LPs). There’s lots of cussing on it (including Ed Sullivan dropping the f-bomb!), but by far the funniest rip into Rickles is from Johnny. He was a master, and knew how and when to make fun of a prominent member of either party.

    Heck, the same goes with Rickles. You can Google a video of Don doing a routine for President and Nancy Reagan where age is an issue. Good stuff!

    • #7
    • March 9, 2020, at 2:43 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  8. Percival Thatcher
    Percival Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Stad (View Comment):

    I have a bootleg copy of a Friars’ Roast of Don Rickles (two vinyl LPs). There’s lots of cussing on it (including Ed Sullivan dropping the f-bomb!), but by far the funniest rip into Rickles is from Johnny. He was a master, and knew how and when to make fun of a prominent member of either party.

    Heck, the same goes with Rickles. You can Google a video of Don doing a routine for President and Nancy Reagan where age is an issue. Good stuff!

    You mean this one?

    Watch at least through Emmanuel Lewis introducing Rickles.

    • #8
    • March 9, 2020, at 3:19 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  9. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Front Seat Cat (View Comment):
    I read the autobiography of Andy Williams which I found at the grocery store the day he passed away. It’s a gem and describes in detail the Las Vegas 1960’s that you speak of, including the mobsters (which he said were very polite to him), and the many acts that performed out there – fascinating.

    I’ve heard Bob Newhart talk (not in great detail though) about how great Vegas was back when “the boys” were running things instead of the corporations.

     

    • #9
    • March 9, 2020, at 3:53 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  10. Percival Thatcher
    Percival Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    Front Seat Cat (View Comment):
    I read the autobiography of Andy Williams which I found at the grocery store the day he passed away. It’s a gem and describes in detail the Las Vegas 1960’s that you speak of, including the mobsters (which he said were very polite to him), and the many acts that performed out there – fascinating.

    I’ve heard Bob Newhart talk (not in great detail though) about how great Vegas was back when “the boys” were running things instead of the corporations.

     

    The boys knew how to throw a party. They also knew how to dig holes in the desert and fill them with annoying people. It’s a give and take.

    • #10
    • March 9, 2020, at 4:09 PM PDT
    • 9 likes
  11. Hoyacon Member

    Percival (View Comment):

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    Front Seat Cat (View Comment):
    I read the autobiography of Andy Williams which I found at the grocery store the day he passed away. It’s a gem and describes in detail the Las Vegas 1960’s that you speak of, including the mobsters (which he said were very polite to him), and the many acts that performed out there – fascinating.

    I’ve heard Bob Newhart talk (not in great detail though) about how great Vegas was back when “the boys” were running things instead of the corporations.

     

    The boys knew how to throw a party. They also knew how to dig holes in the desert and fill them with annoying people. It’s a give and take.

    If I had to spend three hours with Scorsese and DeNiro, this is why it would be with Casino and not The Irishman 

     

    • #11
    • March 9, 2020, at 5:46 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  12. Lockdowns are Precious Inactive
    Lockdowns are Precious Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Percival (View Comment):

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    Front Seat Cat (View Comment):
    I read the autobiography of Andy Williams which I found at the grocery store the day he passed away. It’s a gem and describes in detail the Las Vegas 1960’s that you speak of, including the mobsters (which he said were very polite to him), and the many acts that performed out there – fascinating.

    I’ve heard Bob Newhart talk (not in great detail though) about how great Vegas was back when “the boys” were running things instead of the corporations.

     

    The boys knew how to throw a party. They also knew how to dig holes in the desert and fill them with annoying people. It’s a give and take.

    They had their own Code of Conduct, Moderators and Lifetime Bans.

    • #12
    • March 9, 2020, at 6:16 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  13. Stad Thatcher

    Percival (View Comment):
    You mean this one?

    Yes!!! I had to watch it again. Could you imagine any modern lefty comedian doing a routine for Trump, then saying “God bless” at the end?

    • #13
    • March 10, 2020, at 7:19 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  14. Percival Thatcher
    Percival Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Stad (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):
    You mean this one?

    Yes!!! I had to watch it again. Could you imagine any modern lefty comedian doing a routine for Trump, then saying “God bless” at the end?

    To Charlton Heston: If you were Moses, I was a Mau-Mau fighter pilot.

    • #14
    • March 10, 2020, at 2:45 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  15. Jim Kearney Contributor

    Cool, inviting, and apolitical, Johnny Carson had the perfect personality for television.

    Rush Limbaugh, hot, commanding, and very political, is the greatest radio voice of all time.

    Each succeeded above all others for being perfectly matched to their media and audiences.

    • #15
    • March 10, 2020, at 2:50 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  16. Al Sparks Thatcher

    I’m a fan of Johnny Carson, and first heard him on Armed Forces Radio in Germany when I was a boy. I didn’t actually see him on television until a year later when we came back to the States.

    He was a staple of my life growing up — I lived in Central Time so I at least caught the monologue before going to bed. As I grew into an adult there would be periods when I wouldn’t watch television at all, and other periods where I would return to watch him.

    I’d tune in from time to time, and I made sure to watch his last show when it aired.

    I think that Johnny Carson would have been successful in any post World War II era, as he would have adapted to that era. But it’s important to keep in mind that the reason Johnny had so many viewers was the limited amount of television channels, with the viewing public less fragmented.

    Today’s late night television is fragmented and that means each show does not have a broad audience with a diversity of views.

    So these hosts are also narrower in how they entertain their audiences, and some do include politics in their act. A young Johnny Carson, if he chose to go into the same format today that he was successful in in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, would also deal with those same limitations. And no doubt would have a much different act today than he did then.

    • #16
    • March 12, 2020, at 2:50 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  17. Al Sparks Thatcher

    As I posted above, I’m a fan of Johnny Carson. But like most Hollywood celebrities, then as now, he was not a nice man. There’s a reason he had 4 wives.

    Yet, night after night, he could also fake niceness.

    As fans, it was our gain. But it was his loss, and the loss of people close to him.

    • #17
    • March 12, 2020, at 2:57 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  18. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Al Sparks (View Comment):

    As I posted above, I’m a fan of Johnny Carson. But like most Hollywood celebrities, then as now, he was not a nice man. There’s a reason he had 4 wives.

    Yet, night after night, he could also fake niceness.

    As fans, it was our gain. But it was his loss, and the loss of people close to him.

    Take a look at Henry Bushkin’s bio of him. It’s good. People have accused him of disloyalty, but I disagree. Carson had been off the air for twenty years, and dead for seven years before the book came out.

    There isn’t much that’s new about Johnny’s personal unpleasantness, but it puts it in context; the context of the generation of men he was part of, the world of celebrity in that era, the fact that forty-fifty years ago, bosses in every industry, not just show business, were unabashedly treated like God compared to today. 

    • #18
    • March 12, 2020, at 3:12 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  19. Lockdowns are Precious Inactive
    Lockdowns are Precious Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Al Sparks (View Comment):

    As I posted above, I’m a fan of Johnny Carson. But like most Hollywood celebrities, then as now, he was not a nice man. There’s a reason he had 4 wives.

    Yet, night after night, he could also fake niceness.

    As fans, it was our gain. But it was his loss, and the loss of people close to him.

    Joe Namath has a video where he says “Carson was a mean drunk”. 

    • #19
    • March 12, 2020, at 3:42 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  20. Al Sparks Thatcher

    Ultron Will Inject You Now (View Comment):

    Al Sparks (View Comment):

    As I posted above, I’m a fan of Johnny Carson. But like most Hollywood celebrities, then as now, he was not a nice man. There’s a reason he had 4 wives.

    Yet, night after night, he could also fake niceness.

    As fans, it was our gain. But it was his loss, and the loss of people close to him.

    Joe Namath has a video where he says “Carson was a mean drunk”.

    The pot calling the kettle black?

    • #20
    • March 12, 2020, at 4:25 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  21. Al Sparks Thatcher

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Take a look at Henry Bushkin’s bio of him. It’s good. People have accused him of disloyalty, but I disagree. Carson had been off the air for twenty years, and dead for seven years before the book came out.

    There isn’t much that’s new about Johnny’s personal unpleasantness, but it puts it in context; the context of the generation of men he was part of, the world of celebrity in that era, the fact that forty-fifty years ago, bosses in every industry, not just show business, were unabashedly treated like God compared to today. 

    I read the book, though his was not the first bio I read of Johnny.

    It does take a person who is very centered to not let that kind of success go to his head. If you want to find out what a person is really like, give him everything he wants.

    • #21
    • March 12, 2020, at 4:32 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  22. Hoyacon Member

    Al Sparks (View Comment):

    Ultron Will Inject You Now (View Comment):

    Al Sparks (View Comment):

    As I posted above, I’m a fan of Johnny Carson. But like most Hollywood celebrities, then as now, he was not a nice man. There’s a reason he had 4 wives.

    Yet, night after night, he could also fake niceness.

    As fans, it was our gain. But it was his loss, and the loss of people close to him.

    Joe Namath has a video where he says “Carson was a mean drunk”.

    The pot calling the kettle black?

    The Suzy Kolber incident made him out to be a stupid drunk, if that was ever in doubt.

    • #22
    • March 12, 2020, at 4:58 PM PDT
    • 1 like
    • This comment has been edited.