The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
The comic roast is a tradition that still goes strong today, if not stronger. While many different organizations have put them on, sometimes for the public, other times just for intimate friends, there is no group more closely linked to the idea than The Friars’ Club of New York. The tradition began in 1950, and each year since then, a member of the Friar’s Club is roasted by their friends and contemporaries. While there have always been jokes that may have gone a little too far or cut a little too deep, the familiar slogan of the club’s tradition has always been “we only roast the ones we love.”
In 1968 the Friars’ Club decided it was Johnny Carson, host of The Tonight Show’s turn to be roasted. And luckily for the American public, the popular variety program Kraft Music Hall decided to broadcast it on NBC. The night was a veritable who’s who of the living comic legends of the late sixties there to roast their friend. The night began with John V. Lindsay, then the mayor of New York City where, during this time, The Tonight Show was still being recorded. My knowledge of past New York City mayors is limited to Ed Koch and Giuliani so I was surprised to see a vibrant, Robert Redford-type take the stage. For a politician he does well enough at the dais, listing the many things Johnny Carson has done for the state of New York. For example, he goes to Las Vegas several times a year (Get it? Because then he’d be out of New York!). Lindsay ends on a sincere note by saying there are many reasons for a New York mayor to lose sleep but Carson is the nicest one he can think of. He then sits down next to Carson, where he opens himself up to a billion jokes about corrupt cops, cars being towed, and the many labor strikes that happened under his tenure.
Our roastmaster for the evening is Alan King, who gets a surprising amount of play in these articles. He begins by reading some biographical information from NBC’s publicity release about Carson, and including his own little barbs as he goes. He talks about Johnny getting his start in magic as the Great Carsoni where “he built his own dummy which he affectionately called ‘Ed.’” Later he became the host of a TV game show called Earn Your Vacation… “and he did. He wasn’t on TV for another five years.” Having heard stories of how vicious and blue some of these Friar roasts could get, I can’t help but wonder if some of the roasters are holding back because they know this will be broadcast for television, or if they’re just nervous to go too hard on the King of Late Night.
“A very nice man, very talented man… Very proud of him. Dick Cavett!” Dick Cavett, who would later go on to great success as the host of his own talk show, is a former employee of Carson. Cavett was hired for The Tonight Show when it was being hosted by Jack Paar and stayed on once Carson assumed hosting duties. Cavett tells the crowd that he’s going to dispel some rumors about Johnny since he worked under him, and tell some truths that nobody talks about. The first secret that he gives: “Ed McMahon really thinks Johnny is that funny.” Over the years Johnny has volunteered for all sorts of telethons. Unfortunately “you don’t see him on many because the producers can’t meet his salary demands.” Familiar topics that will be heard all throughout the evening include Johnny’s lack of close friends, and his love of throwing his writers under the bus on television. Cavett closes by talking about how during the weekly meetings between the six or seven key staffers at the show, not a single Monday would go by in which he didn’t hear the phrase, “aren’t I lucky to be working for a guy like Johnny Carson?” “I heard that every Monday from over 270 people.” On the whole, Cavett is pretty gentle to Johnny, but probably has some of the cleverest material of the night, weaving intricate stories that pack just as many barbs as the other comedians’ one-liners.
Throughout comedy, the name Groucho Marx is used with all respect and admiration. “This means I’m gonna die up there,” quips Groucho, not even at the dais yet. The then 78 year old Groucho Marx is just as funny as he ever was during the roast, but wants to make it clear that he doesn’t really know Carson all that well. The three times he’s tried to watch The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson it was being guest hosted by Jerry Lewis, Henry Bellefonte and Groucho Marx, respectively. “We’re honoring a man who doesn’t show up for work!” Groucho fills his roast with many Groucho-style jokes, like the one about his dressing room at The Tonight Show with 12 sinks, and doesn’t let up. Whereas everyone else closes with a sincere remark for Johnny, Groucho doesn’t bother and just asks for the phone number of a young starlet of the day.
The number two man. Ladies and gentlemen, Big Ed McMahon. Johnny’s long-time sidekick on the show, Ed McMahon had a reputation for being a man who loved to drink, as we hear many times throughout the evening. The material that Ed prepared himself falls pretty flat in front of the crowd. However, some of the biggest laughs of the night come when the other comedians begin to chime in. My personal favorite comes as Ed is setting up a joke. “This is our tenth year working together and in all that time we’ve never had an argument…” at which point Groucho shouts out, “Or a laugh!”
Flip Wilson was discovered on the Johnny Carson show. Came on at the right time. When the show was in dire need of comedy. Flip was the only non-old white guy on the dais that evening (well, Dick Cavett was young, but he was definitely the whitest guy up there) and he also does the most interesting thing with his time. He tells the story of how he was “discovered” by Johnny, and while it didn’t have a ton of punch lines, it still did the trick. If you want to know the secret, all you’ve got to do is take the headshot of a pretty young girl in a miniskirt and sign it “Flip Wilson” and you’ll get booked by Johnny personally when he calls you at four in the morning.
Okay, so you know how on the Comedy Central Roasts there’s always one roaster that’s supposed to be a surprise that they can be funny? Your Betty Whites, your Maureen McCormicks, your Cloris Leachmans. Well, in 1968 they had Ed Sullivan. Sullivan, who looked stiff when he was in his prime, looks positively wooden here. He was never a comedian and unfortunately it shows here, but thankfully a young Don Rickles who sarcastically hoots and slaps the table after every punch line saves the bit. When Ed tells a joke about how he taught Johnny how to properly host, Rickles screams with laughter, recapping the joke: “This klutz is teachin’ him! The guy that was supposed to be here got sick!”
Steve-a-rino himself, Steve Allen! The original host of The Tonight Show takes the stage with the classic line, “we’ve had a lot of laughs… not tonight, of course,” before going on to talk about his experience of watching Johnny host the show he started. “I feel toward Johnny the way you feel about a guy who marries your first wife. Especially if your first wife was a hit.” Steve talks about how much he enjoyed hosting the show, and how he’ll occasionally go up into his projection room and watch some of his original routines. “Or if I don’t have time I watch Johnny do them at 11:30.” Steve then goes into the crowd and does his classic man on the street bit, interviewing Carson’s wife, secretary and barber in what is clearly an unplanned bit that Steve clearly wants to bail on as soon as it begins.
Don Rickles is a man who will go down in history with such names as Heinrich Himmler and Attila the Hun. The last roaster of the evening is Don Rickles, and as you’d expect, he crushes it. All things considered, he doesn’t really spend much time on Johnny, instead going after the mayor, and throwing in a few more “Ed Sullivan is practically dead” jokes for good measure. Thankfully, some kind soul has posted the full Rickles bit, which I imagine will be much more fun to watch than to have me transcribe. Stay tuned for Rickles sincere turn towards the end which is probably the most touching of the night.
To show you how much we really care about Johnny Carson, we’re going to let him follow Don Rickles. And finally, it’s Johnny’s turn. All things considered, he’s fairly gentle, but gets a few good barbs in on each of his friends. “Steve Allen, I’ve never seen you better than tonight, and that’s a damn shame.” He talks about how he’s always supported Rickles and has always been a big fan of “his one joke.”
But in the end, Carson seems sincere in his thank yous to his friends. There are no hurt feelings. No one went too far. Nobody was cut off as a result of the evening. And that seems to be the key difference between the roasts of yesteryear and the Comedy Central roasts of today: friendship. Often times the dais at the modern roasts feels more like an episode of Premium Blend than a group of friends there to honor the celebrity. In 1968, the comedians were pulling just as many punches (if not more as a few of them decide to go after Joanne, Carson’s second of four wives) but it was clear that behind all of it was a lot of respect and love.