Examining Johnny Carson’s Humble Beginnings in the Cellar

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 150,000 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.)

In his new biography called simply Johnny Carson, the titular talk show hosts’ long-time lawyer, Henry Bushkin, describes the ins and outs of Johnny’s life: from the sordid personal stuff to the show business drama. You’ll read about Johnny packing heat while looking for evidence of his wife’s infidelities with Frank Gifford and you’ll read about Frank Sinatra strong-arming Carson into performing at the Reagan Inauguration. Unfortunately, what you won’t read about is anything that took place outside of 1970-1988, the years in which Bushkin was brought in to work from Carson to the time at which he was abruptly dismissed. For those of us looking for information about Carson’s rise to The Tonight Show, we’ll have to look elsewhere. So, I went to the Paley Center.

The earliest Carson-related program I could find in the archives was a show called Carson’s Cellar, the first show he hosted after moving to Los Angeles. The program aired on the LA CBS affiliate KNXT. The sole episode found in the Paley library aired in 1953, and while there is no exact date given, based on the mentions of football and turkey, it’s a safe bet to assume it aired some time in November. The show was performed live in front of a studio audience, and while it is pretty slick looking for a local show, Carson’s Cellar is still very clearly not a high-budget, nationally syndicated program.

It begins with a self-effacing opening as the announcer exclaims, “KNXT Cautiously Presents: Carson’s Cellar!” The set is made to look as though it really is being broadcast from Johnny’s basement, if there was room for a studio audience down there. It’s like in the Wayne’s World movie when their little show moves onto the big TV studio. A forced rustic look pervades the entire experience. A laundry line, with a few clothes hanging to dry, is attached in the corner next to an impossible stack of paint cans. If this actually is Carson’s cellar, he really likes to keep an open floor to display his random assortment of basement objects.

Young Johnny steps out, and once again the modern viewer (in this case, me) is surprised to see Carson with jet-black hair. One assumes (me again) that he’s like Steve Martin, the eternal silver fox, but instead we see this tall, incredibly svelte young man in blazer and collared shirt (no tie) stride out to center stage, musing about how cold it is. Carson mentions the fact that there’s an audience there, and that one young lady told him she was there that evening because it was so cold outside. However, if there really is an audience there for the show, they’re either very poorly mic-ed, or they do not care for Johnny’s monologue.

To be fair, it’s a far cry from the much-lauded monologues he would perform night after night on The Tonight Show. Presumably, Johnny was the sole writer for this program (the only credit given at the end is for director Bob Lehman), but the frigid audience doesn’t even seem to give him points for trying. Johnny talks about betting at a football game and goes on to describe the two kinds of guys there are who pay their bookie after they lose a bet. The first is amiable, and pays readily. “Well, you sure called it this time. Five dollars? You bet. Well, maybe next year.” The other guy turns up his collar, and quickly gets defensive. “Sure, you want me to pay now. If I’da won, I’d expect you to pay. We did bet, after all. Did we bet, Fred? When did we bet? … Got any witnesses? Sure, I’m going to pay it. Maybe you were drunk, I don’t know. If I made the bet, I’ll pay it. I thought we were kidding anyway.” At this point, Carson unbuttons his shirt, removes it, and tosses it to the bookie. Basically silent through the rest of the performance, finally the crowd applauds.

Today when people think back on Carson’s comedy they remember him bantering with guests, getting peed on by animals, the monologues, etc. But people sometimes forget that a major part of The Tonight Show were the characters. There was Carnac the soothsayer, who you might know, who would hold the envelopes to his enormous turban and would predict the punchline before opening the envelope and giving the setup, but there were also characters like Aunt Blabby, Art Fern, Floyd R. Turbo, and others. It wasn’t his strongest skill, but Carson could act when he needed to. We see the early shades of this talent in the next two sketches.

The basic game of the first sketch is that Carson, as a game show host, is very obnoxious. Simple enough. He constantly goads the audience into applauding for his terrible jokes. As a contestant struggles to guess the correct explorer, he prompts her “try DeSoto,” which turns out to be a wrong answer. Every other sentence out of his mouth is “are we having fun out there audience? I know we are!” One of the contestants tries to use the opportunity to hawk the cookbook he’s written and after he keeps bringing it up, Carson flings it over his shoulder, against the wall. While the sketch isn’t stellar, what surprised me most is the pacing. A lot of material from this time had a tendency to go on and on, retreading bits and meandering. This sketch is chock full of angles on the obnoxious talk show host and moves at a breakneck pace. Johnny’s character has a lot to do, but he also gives his contestants a lot to do as well. The pair of them has a few different unique comedic qualities to play with, whether it is selling that cookbook, talking very quietly, then screaming when told to speak up, or having an enormous temper tantrum when told they’re wrong. If one didn’t particularly care for the quality sketch, at least there was a high quantity of attempts at jokes to be found.

The final sketch of the evening was also simple and targets some very simple premises, but is still enjoyable enough. Carson plays a Julia Child-like cooking show host, so, immediate laugh from the audience when he steps out in drag. Rather than a wig, he wears an enormous bonnet with a veil in the front, and a floral patterned dress. Rather than go for an accurate woman, he looks more like when John Cleese would dress in drag for Python: a big burly man, crammed into a dress. The host states that one should try to keep the kitchen clean and to be careful, so obviously the premise is going to be that a giant mess is going to be made. Bread is haphazardly torn up; an onion is cleaved and thrown carelessly into a bowl, and Carson thrusts his fistful of stuffing into the bird so hard that his hand becomes stuck within the turkey. It’s a very simple sketch, but it is fun to watch Johnny do physical comedy and the studio audience goes crazy for it.

In the recent PBS American Masters special on Johnny, Dan Gingold, Stage Manager for Carson’s Cellar, describes the young Carson thusly: “He was not a comfortable guy in the beginning. He was what I called stiff-necked. He just seemed not to be able to relax easily.” And while this seems to be an accurate representation of the man, the popular comedian Red Skelton became a fan of him through the program, enough to hire him as a writer, which ultimately put him on the path to becoming the household name that he still is today. Carson’s Cellar was a truly humble beginning for Johnny, but the signs of future greatness are still visible beneath the surface.

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

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