One of the great late night talk show guests of all time was Charles Grodin. Who else was cocky enough to slump down next to Johnny Carson and ask if he cared at all about any of his guests? (As he does in the above clip from 1990.)
The studio audience and viewers at home watched nervously. Was it a put on? Was he really insulting the King of Late Night? That Carson could smite any comic who cut a little too close to the bone kept others in check. Grodin went where others feared to tread and in doing so created an unforgettable character.
It was, of course, all a put on. Grodin, who passed away Tuesday at 86, helped invent an awkward style of comedy that would be exploited later by everyone from Garry Shandling to Louie CK to Sacha Baron Cohen.
He also knew enough to take as well as give. Watch the above clip and see how much fun Carson is really having by being nasty back. Here was a guest who set himself up as the bad guy, allowing Carson the rare, cathartic thrill of skewing an actor in front of millions of viewers.
How prized was he as a guest? Grodin made 36 talk show appearances opposite Carson and another 40 with David Letterman. In the ’90s, he leaned into social and political causes on his own series, The Charles Grodin Show, on CNBC.
As author and former New York Times columnist Bill Carter points out in Part II of our podcasts on The Story of Late Night, Grodin allowed Carson to share the comedian’s role instead of playing straight man to other comics.
“Because Grodin was not a comic, it wasn’t like Johnny saying — as he would to Rickles or others — I’ll give you the straight line. This was just, we’re going to pick on each other, pitch barbs at each other, and it was priceless.”
On television, Grodin’s career stretched back to the late ’50s/early ’60s with roles on The Defenders, The Young Marrieds, My Mother the Car and Captain Nice. He was also an early, and memorable, guest host on Saturday Night Live in 1977, wrecking sketches by pretending to not know that the series was actually live.
By the ’70s he enjoyed a string of feature film hits such as “Catch 22,” “The Heartbreak Kid” and “King Kong” that put him on a higher pay bracket as well as on Johnny Carson’s couch. He was great in “Heaven Can Wait” and later turned up in a bomb that seems more appreciated today, “Ishtar” (1987).
Grodin also had the ability to play opposite De Niro one year (“Midnight Run”) and a St. Bernard the next (“Beethoven”). He was as at home with Muppets (1991’s “The Great Muppet Caper”) as he was with “Rosemary’s Baby.”
One of his final roles was that of the chippy MD Dr. Bigelow on Louis where he appeared on several episodes. While that series is hard to find (and sometimes to watch) today, Grodin was the perfect comedy foil and mentor on that series.
The book Grodin was supposely promoting on that Tonight Show clip was his autobiography, titled, “It Would be so Nice if You Weren’t Here: My Journey Through Show Business.” It would, of course, be so much nicer if he was still here, or at least funnier. He went on to write more autobiographies, including one titled, “We’re Ready for You, Mr. Grodin: Behind the Scenes at Talk Shows, Movies and Elsewhere.”
Condolences to his friends and family.