NEW YORK — Here’s one of countless punch lines at NBC’s expense: On returning from vacation, our “Tonight” show host tells of being warmly greeted at the airport by the network boss — “just before he put my shackles back on.”
Sound familiar? Well, this wisecrack was lobbed by Johnny Carson in a monologue that aired nearly 50 years ago.
Compare it to one of the multitude of jokes from current host Jay Leno mocking NBC as it reportedly tries not to shackle him but, rather, send him packing:
“T-Mobile announced they’re doing away with contracts,” he declared in a monologue last week. “Apparently they got the idea from NBC.”
I hate to add to the tonnage of words speculating on Jimmy Fallon as the post-Leno host of a “Tonight” show relocating to New York. But I can’t help recalling my early devotion to “Tonight” back when it, and Carson, called New York home — and how, before Johnny took it West, I attended a taping at Manhattan’s 30 Rock.
I was just a kid, up with my parents to see the 1965 New York World’s Fair. Its wonders included the chance to pass in front of a camera at the RCA Pavilion and see yourself on color TV. But nothing at the fair could match the thrill of seeing Johnny in person.
I was a Carson fanatic. In my bedroom in Georgia, I had disconnected the speaker of my Philco TV set (surely risking electrocution) so I could watch Johnny on the sly, my headphones in place, long after my bedtime had come and gone. In conversation with my like-minded pal, Jim, I routinely spoke of Johnny as “J.C.”
Warming up for the show that afternoon, I with my parents had gone on the NBC studio tour. In Studio 8H (a decade before “Saturday Night Live”), we caught a glimpse of the NBC Space Center being readied for covering the launch a few days later of Gemini 5 astronauts Gordon Cooper and Pete Conrad.
Then, excitedly, I spied well-known correspondent Edwin Newman in the flesh through the window of the NBC News offices.
That evening we were back at what was then known as the RCA Building for the “Tonight” taping. I was too young to be part of the studio audience, with its minimum age of 18, but my father heroically had pulled some strings. We were seated in a back row safely out of sight so I wouldn’t be visible when the camera panned the grinning, waving crowd before each station break. But Studio 6B (the same studio Fallon airs from today) was, and is, pretty cozy. I could see fine.
The taping began. In those quaint days, the “Tonight” show lasted an hour and 45 minutes. The first 15 minutes, meant to air starting at 11:15 p.m., were fed as filler for any NBC affiliates whose late newscast was only 15 minutes long. (By 1967, the first 15 minutes was dropped. Then, in 1980, “Tonight” shed another 30 minutes, establishing the hour format nearly every talk show follows to this day.)
Not much happened in those first 15 minutes. Announcer Ed McMahon and band leader Skitch Henderson (predecessor of Doc Severinsen and gone a year later) killed time rapping with the audience and goofing around with the band.
Then, at 11:30 p.m., the show started for real. Carson, at last, made his entrance.
On this Monday in August, he was returning from several weeks’ vacation (how narrowly I missed some substitute host!), and the greeting he received was thunderous.
During his monologue, he showed ancient footage of Wright Brothers-era planes that was supposed to document his no-frills flight getting back to New York. Then came that joke, the one joke I remember. It was aimed at none other than General David Sarnoff, the legendary ruler of then-NBC parent RCA.
“When I landed at the airport,” Carson said, “General Sarnoff was there to welcome me — just before he put my shackles back on.” (“What are shackles?” I asked my mother, then laughed uproariously when she told me.)
But General Sarnoff (or his broadcast-standards minions?) had even less of a sense of humor than current NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt has displayed in the face of Leno’s recent jabs. Back in our hotel at 11:30 when the show went on the air, I was startled that Carson’s reference to Sarnoff was bleeped out. Apparently no one, even Johnny, could take the General’s name in vain.
By the time I reached high school, the “Tonight” show struck me as somehow too phony, too Establishment. My ardor had cooled. But as a child, I loved it, not just for Carson, but also for the version of New York it signified: glamorous, witty, grown-up and, especially, nocturnal (even after I knew it was taped around sundown).
And now? As a bona fide New Yorker for a quarter-century, I am cheered by the prospect that, after four decades, “Tonight” is coming home. (And wondering: Can the Dodgers be far behind?)
I don’t delude myself that there is much about “Tonight”-After-Carson that resembles Johnny’s reign as the King of Late Night. So much has changed about the show and New York and the world they occupy! But it will be good to have any program known as “Tonight” back at 30 Rock in what nowadays goes by the name “the GE Building.”
Meanwhile, as we await official word of a “Tonight” show to be hosted by Jimmy Fallon in cushy new digs, I think of him in recent years in 6B, adding to that studio’s grand legacy.
When I have been there in the audience to see him hosting “Late Night,” I can’t help myself: I still look for the ghost of Johnny Carson in the house, and of myself there years ago as a child.