(Excerpt from Marshall Brickman interview)
How did you get the job writing for The Tonight Show?
My friend Dick Cavett, who was a writer on the show at this time, the early sixties, was leaving to try his hand at stand-up. And I was bouncing around after Candid Camera. So I said to Dick, “Let me see what your stuff looks like when you hand it in to Johnny.” I had this idea that if Carson saw material submitted to him in the form that he was used to, he would think I had already worked for him. Or deserved to work for him. Anyhow, he hired me.
That’s the key to life, isn’t it? Acting as if you belong where you want to end up.
“Assume a virtue if you have it not,” as Shakespeare wrote.
How did you become the head writer for the show?
I didn’t have an office when I started, just a rolling typewriter stand with an old Royal on it. And I would push my stand to an empty part of the office and write my jokes. Walter Kempley, who later wrote for Happy Days, was then the head writer. He had a disagreement with the producer over a raise, and he left. Walter called me into his office and said, “Congratulations, kid. You’re the head writer.” He gave me half a box of cigars and his joke file. I got his office—a nice office with a window—and a backlog of four or five years of jokes.
How long had you been on the show?
A month or two.
You skipped over all the other writers to become head writer?
The other writers didn’t want the job. They were smart. The monologue writers, like David Lloyd, who later wrote for The Mary Tyler Moore show and Cheers and Frasier, merely had to deliver a monologue to Carson every day by three o’clock. I shouldn’t say “merely,” because writing a daily monologue can be a terrifying task. But the head writer, in addition to running the writing department, had to write all the sketches, the little interview pieces, the comedy spots.
Such as Carnac the Magnificent, Aunt Blabby, and “The Tea Time Movie”?
All that shit. I have piles of it, cubic feet of it, stored somewhere.
They were very vaudevillian, those sketches.
Johnny loved to do characters. And the advantage we had was, as a nightly show, the material didn’t have to be timeless—or even very funny. But if you had timely references, it usually worked. And Johnny was quite skillful. The audiences loved him.
TV’s a monster. It just eats up material.
It’s impossible to be continuously good. That’s why I’m amazed when I see a TV show that’s good consistently, night after night, week after week.
One of the things that I’ll go to my grave having to apologize for is having invented the Carnac Saver.
Which was what?
Every time Johnny’s character Carnac the Magnificent told a joke that bombed, he would have a line that would save him. Like a “heckler-stopper.” And we would give Johnny a page of these jokes: “May the Great Camel of Giza leave you a present in your undershorts.” I can’t believe we were paid for this.
What are your feelings about Carson? What was he like to work with?
He was an avuncular figure to me, even though he was probably only forty when I started on the show.
He had a reputation for being difficult to write for, very aloof.
Aloof, I guess. He wasn’t a touchy-feely type of guy. But appreciative and loyal. And a good boss.
What were his strengths, from a writer’s standpoint?
He knew how to deliver a joke. He was a good reactor. He was perfect for television. He never gave a whole lot away. But in terms of delivering comic material, he had that glint.
He knew exactly what would work for him.
He had a good arena instinct, a solid sense of what the audience would accept from him. Not only in terms of the kind of jokes, but how far he was willing to push it politically. He was a kind of barometer. When he finally did a joke about Johnson or Nixon or whomever, then it became okay to think about those things in a different way. I’ve always thought that television exists for the audience as a kind of parental entity. If it’s on TV, then it’s been certified by someone, somewhere. And if Johnny did a joke about Nixon or the mayor or whomever—then it became okay to do jokes about that person.
We were constantly trying to push Johnny—by we, I mean Jewish, liberal-left-wing writers. We would always try to have him do jokes that were a little stronger than what he wanted to do. But every once in a while he’d sense when the time was right. That was his strength, really. He was like a tuning fork. He would vibrate with what he perceived was the mood for the country….
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