Carson in the ’60s on the New York set of The Tonight Show

If you’re a late night talk show fan, you’re not going to want to miss a second of The Story of Late Night. The six-part docuseries premieres Sunday night on CNN.

As executive producer of the series, author and former New York Times TV columnist Bill Carter takes a deep dive into the genre, one he has mastered before in a couple of bestselling books. Me and Bill get into the making of the series on the latest episode of the podcast; you can listen to that spirited conversation here.

Episode One goes back to the roots of the genre. It started with Steve Allen hosting and co-creating Tonight, first locally in New York and then nationally in 1954. Jack Paar came later in ’57, but there were other players who danced around the fringes back when network TV was little more than Howdy Doody, I Love Lucy, Uncle Miltie, roller derby and wrestling.

As revealed on The Story of Late Night, Broadway Open House was a crude forerunner of Tonight. The informal, late-night variety series premiered in 1950 on NBC. It featured future Dick Van Dyke Show player Morey Amsterdam and later Jerry Lester and statuesque Dagmar, along with Milton Delugg – later of Gong Show fame – on accordion.

The great Ernie Kovacs also added late night to his list of TV experiments before puffing away on other projects.

Johnny Carson, who took over Tonight in 1962, changed everything. I attended a taping of Carson’s Tonight Show in 1986, in “beautiful downtown Burbank,” and witnessed his incredible star power as he came through that curtain. During the commercial breaks, he was strikingly aloof, ignoring his guests.


Over the years I have picked up great insights on Carson from a diverse group of showbiz people. One was Dave Thomas, the former SCTV star best remembered as one half of the Bob and Doug Mackenzie duo. If you don’t remember them, Take off!

SCTV ace Dave Thomas. In recent years, the former hosehead has written for crime dramas such as Bones and The Blacklist

Thomas once told me that, a few years after Carson retired from Tonight, he lucked into having lunch with the man. The St. Catherine’s, Ont., native was co-starring opposite Brett Butler on Grace Under Fire at the time.

A guy who wrote jokes for Carson, Bob Smith, also worked on Grace Under Fire. That series was shot on the Radford Studios lot in the Valley north of Hollywood. Carson’s nephew Jeff Sotzing, who ran Carson Productions, happened to be on the lot and started chatting and eventually laughing with Thomas and Smith. That’s when, as Thomas tells it, Carson, who was at his office about an hour away in Venice Beach, called his nephew and asked what all the laughing was about.

And he said, ‘I’m standing here with Dave Thomas and Bob Smith having a few laughs,’ and Johnny  said, ’What? Well, get them down here. Ask them if they want to come to lunch.’  He didn’t want to be the only guy not having any laughs.

So Jeff said,’ Do you want to go have lunch with Johnny? ‘And we said yeah sure, so we went down there. I had lunch with him two or three times, three times… and it was like, it was just great. You know, I’d been on his show as a guest, so he knew me. He loved my Bob Hope impersonation.

And he just, he loved funny stories, he loved comedy and he loved making people laugh and, this was after he had retired and it was just fantastic to sit with the guy. The guy was an icon; he was my hero you know.

When I was growing up, the idea of being on The Tonight Show, there was nothing bigger in show biz. It was the biggest of big and when I went on that show I was really determined. I thought, I gotta make Johnny laugh and I went on there and I was sitting between Johnny and Buddy Hackett and made them both laugh. I was so proud of myself but the other thing I really felt was that, when you were in that room if you made Johnny laugh, and I mean the kind of laugh where he did that cackle and bent forward over the desk, then you owned the room. Because the audience, once they saw that Johnny had endorsed you by laughing, you could do no wrong.

And then it’s like, no comic ever -it’s like, a surfer on a wave. Once you get that, you can ride. You can tell jokes and it really, it lights you up. It empowers you, it makes you think of stuff that you didn’t even think you could do, you know, because you just want to keep that laugh going.”

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