Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Johnny Carson's Poets


Last night I watched a documentary about Johnny Carson.  If you weren't there back when there were only three networks and  maybe (if you were lucky) a public television station, you have no idea what a Colossus the guy was.  He bestrode the earth.

My fantasy job is to be an archaeologist for his Tonight Show recordings.  I'd like to delve deep deep deep into the archives and put together compilation disks.  Because back when there were so few media outlets a man with a popular show like that could get anybody he wanted.  Not just entertainers.  Everyone.

Back then, before video recorders, to see one of the shows, you had to stay up late.  Probably you were lying in bed.  Sometimes it was after sex.  So it was an intimate experience.

Vividly, I remember when W. H. Auden appeared on the show.  Carson introduced him and the poet walked on stage to the most intimidated applause the show had ever heard.  "It's good to have you here, Wystan," Carson said.

"It's great to be here, Johnny," Auden replied, beaming.

"Have you brought any poetry with you to read?" Carson asked.

"Why, yes, I have."  Auden pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket.  There was a ghastly silence.  "This is from Academic Graffiti."  Then he read:

John Milton
Never stayed at the Hilton
Which was just as well.

A moment of absolute astonishment.  Then thunderous applause as the audience realized in abject relief that, "OhmygodigotitIgotithesnotgoingtohuimiliate us."

Avuncular, amused, Auden leaned back and was very very happy.

And the night before . . .

Believe it or not, Rod McKuen (back then emblematic of bad Hallmark-style poetry) appeared on the Carson Show one night before Auden did.  He was expansive.  He was happy.  Because Carson never played "gotcha."  But at the end of what must have been an extremely pleasant night for him, Carson posed the final question of the evening:  "W.H. Auden is going to be here tomorrow.  I wonder if you'd tell us what you think of him."

Looking like a deer caught in the headlights, McKuen said, "Ithinkhesaveryverygreatpoet."

So I conclude . . .

It would be great if somebody (not me; I don't need the money) would troll through the entirety of the Tonight Show and collect all the clips of significant poets being interviewed by Johnny.  It would be a fascinating document on the intersection of poetry and commerce.  And I think it would show that injecting money into the poetry biz would not be an entirely bad thing.



Ken Houghton said...

You're talking about around 30 years of shows--ballpark it at 6,000 shows, or 9,000 hours of tape.

Unless there are details on every show readily available, someone would have to spend around 1.5 minutes on each show (Ed McM. named the guests, and I believe the names were also printed in the opening credits) just to do culling. 9,000 minutes, or 150 hours--call it a month of f/t work, since some of the shows will have poets on them.

And then there are rights and permissions issues.

Come to think of it, it's probably doable. And you end up with something like the Jack Paar video that is beloved by many of us. (I believe Lawrence Kasdan's phrase--"a small, deeply demented following"--may apply here.)

Hmmm. Looking at that, it seems more possible than I would have guessed. Anyone with the bandwidth and contacts?

ukjarry said...

There are indeed details of every show Carson made. He was quite aware of his legacy. As the link below details every show has been cataloged and preserved. You have to register to search: