Over the weekend, as part of a summer-long attempt to share some classic movies and television with my teenage daughter, I showed her some of the first season of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” from 1970 (yes, 40 years ago!).
I haven’t seen most of these since they first aired, except for “spunky” clips of the debut episode, and I was struck by how the pacing was so different from modern sitcoms. On “MTM,” the creators took their time to develop storylines and characters (Rhoda, Phyllis, Lou, Murray, Ted), sometimes letting a couple of minutes go by without going for a laugh. That would practically be heresy today, when the writing is so dense in primetime that you rarely go more than a few seconds without a setup and punchline. I’m sure that in later seasons, once the main characters were fully ingrained in the audience’s mind, “MTM” fell into a similarly predictable pattern, but it wasn’t there at the beginning.
My daughter also dug out my collection of Johnny Carson “Tonight Show” DVDs after seeing some “Carson Comedy Classics” on Reelz Channel and laughing out loud every time Carnac used the work “yak” (as in “may a diseased yak leave a deposit on your sister”). One of the discs we watched showcased comedians making their national television debuts, including Jerry Seinfeld, Garry Shandling, Roseanne Barr, Steven Wright, and Drew Carey. The latter two not only got the career-making “OK” hand sign from the master, but were called over to the guest chair, the highest honor a comic could get on that show — one that had the immediate impact of designating that performer as a star, boosting their salary fifty-fold overnight.
The DVD also includes this performance by Rodney Dangerfield, a regular Carson favorite. Whenever Dangerfield did “The Tonight Show,” he always did a few minutes of standup at the monologue position and then came over to sit with Johnny, who proceeded to play straight man for Rodney as he did several more minutes from the chair. You can tell that Carson was obviously thrilled to have a money-in-the-bank guest like Dangerfield, and had no problem yielding the spotlight to him.
As I’ve written in the past, I borrowed this attitude from Carson whenever I had good guests on my radio shows. The concept is simple. If you can deliver by entertaining my audience, enthralling them with a story or spitting out a series of jokes, it can only accrue to my benefit.
The morning after one of these appearances, people would ask each other at work, “Did you see Rodney with Johnny last night?” Both men were given credit, even though one of them pounded out the comedy while the other threw in an occasional “Really?” or “You don’t say!” or “I didn’t know that.” Even the audience gets in on the act, knowing when it’s their cue to ask, “How fat was she?” Those are the circumstances under which you can create something special.
The other part of this appearance from February 3, 1981, that always amuses me is when Dangerfield realizes he has run through all of his prepared material. He turns to Carson and asks, “Well, what do you wanna do now?”, eliciting a howl of recognition from the host.
Speaking of the “Tonight Show” host, The Smoking Gun got its hands on documents from the John W. Carson Foundation, detailing its endowment of over $150,000,000, which it uses to support many charities — including the James Randi Educational Foundation.