Listen as Johnny Carson Presents the Best in Comedy from NBC’s First 50 Years

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.)

(Please note that this article was written under the mistaken impression that this article was the fiftieth edition of “From the Archives.” I have since recounted and realized that this was the forty-ninth edition. I apologize for any inconvenience.)

Fifty, count ‘em, fifty articles in the From the Archives series! What a fantastic run we’ve had! Over the past fifty installments we’ve looked at some of television history’s brightest and funniest stars, and together we’ve had a lot of laughs (and learned a few things) on no less than fifty separate occasions! Fifty!

Well in honor of that magical number, today we’re going to be looking at a comedy special from a form of media that I’ve neglected lo, these fifty articles. Before it was known as The Paley Center for Media it was The Museum of Television and Radio, and so far, we haven’t talked about that second category all that much. Well today, that’s going to change as we examine a radio special from the Paley Archives entitled A Half-Century of NBC Comedy. And as an added bonus, I’ve tracked down a copy of the file for you to listen along with.

(link to episode here)

On Thanksgiving Day of 1982, NBC produced a radio show to highlight their greatest comedy moments over the last fifty years on both television and radio. And who better to host it than the biggest cog in the NBC comedy empire, Mr. Johnny Carson? (Answer: No one.)

The special runs two hours, so as you can imagine there are a ton of clips within, and while there are a lot of classic moments to be found in the broadcast, there are also a number of deeper cuts of more obscure material as well. Obviously I won’t be recapping two hours worth of material here, but what I will do is point out some of the highlights.

The first clip comes from one of Carson’s biggest influences, Jack Benny. Throughout his long radio and television career, Jack and his stable of characters developed a number of classic bits and catch phrases, but there’s one moment that remains as one of the funniest he ever did. Jack’s character on the show was incredibly cheap, and as he walked home one evening a mugger approaches him and demands, “your money or your life!” All we hear is silence. Finally, after a tense moment, the robber repeats his command, and Jack tells him, “I’m thinking it over!”

Later in the broadcast there’s a clip from an episode of a brand new show that premiered that year by the name of Late Night with David Letterman. In the clip we hear a segment called “Calls You Don’t Want to Make” in which David offers to make uncomfortable phone calls for members of the audience. On this particular evening he finds a woman who needs to tell her daughter that she won’t be attending her wedding. As you can imagine Dave has an awful lot of fun interviewing this woman and then breaking the news, only to hand it back over to mom when it gets a little too awkward for him.

You get to hear the 1932 clip that got Mae West banned from NBC radio. In it, Mae West hits on the ventriloquist dummy, Charlie McCarthy. The puppeteer asks Mae if she’s ever met the one man that she could really be in love with and she replies, “sure, plenty of times.” Later, Charlie asks Mae to not be so rough. “To me, love is peace and quiet,” says the wooden boy in a suit. “That ain’t love; that’s sleep!” responds Mae. The public outcry was so great that she was banned from NBC for 15 years, and for 10 of those years, her name wasn’t mentioned on the air.

The final hour of the show is devoted to a few different themes, look at how comedy has dealt with history over the years by examining such diverse works as Stan Freberg’s take on Christopher Columbus, Abbot and Costello’s classic “Who’s on First?” bit, and a song about King Tut. We get to hear some TV show parodies from Ernie Kovacs and Johnny Carson. There’s so much more, though. This thing goes from Will Rogers to Mae West to Steve Martin to Goldie Hawn to WC Fields to good old Groucho and everybody in between. If I could put together a prerequisites list for this series of articles, it’d sound an awful lot like this special.

Johnny introduces the first clip of the show by saying, “Basically people laugh today at the same things they laughed at fifty years ago. Tastes of changed, of course, and the limits of humor have expanded, but if something was really funny once, it probably still is.” If I didn’t agree with that sentiment, then I wouldn’t have been here over the last fifty articles, researching and recapping these classic comedy programs and trying to share them with all of you out there. In most other forms of media, music, books, and movies, there’s an accepted canon of classics that you’re expected to know, but the world of television is so vast and so constant that so much of its history gets washed away. To those of you that have been with me for the last fifty articles I thank you, and I look forward to the next fifty. (Again, this is just the forty-ninth article. Really sorry about the confusion, and for the fact that I only had enough time to write these disclaimers but not enough time to edit out all the 50 references. See you next week.)

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, the head writer of his website, a podcaster and a guy on Twitter.

Listen as Johnny Carson Presents the Best in Comedy […]