Tag Archives: Ed Sullivan

Heeeeeere’s Johnny!

Nineteen years ago today, Johnny Carson said goodbye.

Retiring after thirty years at the age of 66, Carson walked away from a show that became part of the fabric of American pop culture. Much like Ed Sullivan’s variety show, unknown performers could become instant superstars just by nailing a single appearance. Carson didn’t start the Tonight Show (Steve Allen and Jack Paar preceded him), nor would he finish it, but his impact upon it and the late-night talk show design will forever be paramount.

Other talk shows of the day were warm and fuzzy (Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas) or a bit cerebral (Dick Cavett); Carson blended both with a parade of incredible guests and a willingness to be as serious or silly as the situation required. He let people be themselves. During his reign, the show’s title became secondary to the man; artists simply referred to “being on Carson“.

On his final night, Carson went out with grace and class:

And so it has come to this: I, uh… am one of the lucky people in the world; I found something I always wanted to do and I have enjoyed every single minute of it. I want to thank the gentlemen who’ve shared this stage with me for thirty years. Mr. Ed McMahon, Mr. Doc Severinsen, and you people watching. I can only tell you that it has been an honor and a privilege to come into your homes all these years and entertain you. And I hope when I find something that I want to do and I think you would like and come back that you’ll be as gracious in inviting me into your home as you have been. I bid you a very heartfelt good night.”

Video: Excerpts from the final show

Although he never came back into the public eye, his legacy lives on through everyone who speaks into a microphone from behind a desk, and the advent of cable television has allowed many students to co-exist in the form. While initially his replacement Jay Leno and his protegé David Letterman split the bulk of the audience, a flood of worthy children now occupy the night-time hours and will be worthy successors to their aging mentors.

Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher have taken the political end of the spectrum to new heights; Stewart is often singled out as the most trusted source of news on television, despite his consistent disclaimer that his is a comedy show. (Speaks volumes about the networks, doesn’t it?).

After holding slots previously occupied by both Leno and Letterman, Conan O’Brien’s new TBS effort proved that people will follow the man, not the show. The embarrassing NBC debacle was followed by the guerilla Team Coco movement, and Conan remains a strong brand and a unique personality.

After shaky starts, Jimmy Kimmel, Craig Ferguson and especially Jimmy Fallon have proven to have solid and consistent programs that attract first-rate guests and feature brilliant writing. Along with smaller network show hosts (Chelsea Handler, George Lopez, Mo’Nique, Graham Norton), the comedy/music/chat formula is in good hands.

But to a person, each will point a finger back at the master, Johnny Carson.

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T.G.I.F. – Ten Literary Laughs

“Looks like we got us a reader…”

Ever since a relative spoke that horrific (and ironic, considering the skull it was emanating from) comment about one of my young daughters, it stuck in my head like glue. I don’t know if it’s in the DNA or it’s just a nice skill to develop, but yeah, I raised a couple of “reeedurzwho will hopefully continue and enjoy the science of mental absorption until they take their final dirt nap.

Arguably, as an adult with a busy schedule, it is hard to find the time to plow through books; even my pop magazine consumption has fallen off the cliff. When I do get in the swing of it I tend to grab a few things with a common theme, be they historical recollections, humorous fiction or pop culture biographies. For example, a recent viewing of Public Enemies whetted my appetite for the golden age of FBI vs. bank robbers, so I grabbed a few books about crime during the Depression Era. Similar spontaneous tangents have seen me devour a few books at a time on political corruption, alien invasions and the birth of the television industry.

I am a Renaissance Man ready for my day on Jeopardy.

So I noticed that a gaggle of books by or about comedians was hitting the shelves and thought I’d pass along a few tips. I haven’t read most of them, but I’ve got a few in hand and some of the others seem to be no-brainers considering the source. I’m not sure why such a plethora of comic pulp has descended upon us in such fashion; maybe a certain relative wandered into a publishing house and dropped a famous observation in the lobby?

Of course, like the environment I created for my children, I had a loving mentor making sure I was exposed to the wonders of the written word from the moment I could pay attention. My Mom wasn’t a career woman, the word they had back in the day was housewife. Of course, we know now that a housewife not only cooked and cleaned and shopped and managed the household but also had the ultimate responsibility of talking these little lumps of flesh called kids and molding them into people. In my house, Mom was the moral compass who taught by example first and words second; how to be kind and unselfish, how to be confident without being boorish, how to develop an independent personality and find your voice in a world that was increasingly pushing vanilla.

And yes, how to read. By the time I entered first grade I could read at a middle school level, understood basic math and had a fairly voracious vocabulary. And although that description screams nerd, I wasn’t. That jump-start on my education provided an incalculable advantage for me throughout my life, even if I didn’t always seize the opportunities that came my way. She also had a great sense of humor, something that she encouraged me to nurture, and although our tastes in comedy would eventually veer off from the basics, she was the one who celebrated my attraction to the comics I would see on Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson (and hear during the first great wave of recorded comedy).

I drift off onto this tangent because today marks twenty-five years since my Mom died from cancer, far too young and far too suddenly. There’s so much that she never got to see, and it pains me that I never got to share so many events and accomplishments with her. But I am comforted that I carry her spirit in my heart every day, and I see her best qualities in my daughters , the ones she never got to meet. So as skeptical and confused as I am about life and religion and human condition, I know that whether you call it DNA or a soul, there’s a bit of her sweetness and greatness that is preserved beyond her time.

Twenty-five years? That sometimes seems like an eternity and other times like yesterday. Thanks for everything, Mom.

I doubt Mom would have read these books to me as a child. But here are Ten Literary Laughs – books by comedians for those of us who need a little diversion in a difficult world. The brain exercise is just a side benefit.

And yes, Mom, they’re in alphabetical order by author

(01) – Mike Birbiglia: Sleepwalk With Me

(02) – Jim Breuer: I’m Not High

(03) – Adam Carolla: In Fifty Years We’ll All be Chicks

(04) – David Cross: I Drink For A Reason

(05) – Tina Fey: Bossypants

(06) – Greg Fitzsimmons: Dear Mrs. Fitzsimmons

(07) – Gilbert Gottfried: Rubber Balls and Liquor

(08) – Paul Mooney: Black Is The New White

(09) – Patton Oswalt: Zombie Speceship Wasteland

(10) – Sarah Silverman: Bedwetter

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Rock’s Darkest Day?

July 3rd is the anniversary of the deaths of both Brian Jones and Jim Morrison. Ask rockers about Morrison and you’ll get a highly divided camp; some revere his poetic lyrics and unique artistic expression with The Doors, while others see him as a bloated, self-indulgent hipster who yammered nonsense and called it art. 

I was a Doors fan and still enjoy their music – there are a series of great singles and many of the deeper tracks on the album were pretty fascinating. I thought L.A. Woman was a tremendous album and am saddened that they never got to continue that journey. But the drunken escapades, the supposed incidents of exposure, the pretentiousness of it all…yeah, I could understand someone resisting their work because they can’t get past that. 

But I’ll wrestle you to the mat about Jones

Brian Jones was The Rolling Stones. Without him, there wouldn’t be a band, let alone a Sticky Fingers or an Exile on Main Street or a Let It Bleed. Because it was Jones the blues purist who set the course, charted the direction and marketed the band in the earliest days when everyone else was ready to fold the tent and quit

Mick Jagger would have graduated from the London School of Economics and been a prissy accountant. Charlie Watts would probably have joined a jazz band and would be famous to a whole other audience. Bill Wyman might have lived the suburban life he seemed to be drifting towards, playing in r&b bands on the weekend and still pulling birds half his age. 

And Keith Richards? He probably would have done the same damned thing – overindulge in life’s pleasures and play some of the most timeless riffs man has ever wrangled from an electric guitar. 

I remember being crushed when Jones died. I was just a kid – other iconic deaths like Buddy Holly either predated my awareness or (like Sam Cooke and Otis Redding) involved people I liked but was not fully invested in. But The Rolling Stones were my lifeblood, and this was like losing a brother.

You have to realize that at the time, lines were drawn between Beatles fans and Stones fans; peer pressure said you had to be one or the other, and you’d better choose. All the cute girls chose The Beatles, of course…and that was reason enough for me to side with the Stones

He was the first rock star in my world; looked (at the time) like a golden god, played any instrument you put into his hands, added flavor to Stones singles that other bands would later copy and seemed like the coolest guy on the planet. When I saw the Stones on Ed Sullivan I looked right past Jagger and was mesmerized by him. And I wasn’t the only one…five hundred miles north of my New York City house, Andy and Greg of The Chesterfield Kings were watching the same program and getting their minds blown as well. 

And then he died – murdered, I still believe – and what had been this picture perfect vision of music and peace and utopia started to crumble. Soon it would be Jimi, and Janis and Jimoddly connected…and finally the nail in the coffin,  Altamont

Don’t get me wrong – I love the Mick Taylor era of the band, and although he’s been underutilized in his tenure, Ronnie Wood is one of my all time favorite guitar players. But the London singles the early Stones cut? Pure magic

Listen to the magic!

Had the Stones broken up after Exile, they would have that same unfinished legacy that Buddy Holly, The Beatles and James Dean have – a permanent snapshot of genius in its prime.  No chance to stumble and fall, or go ages between artistic releases, or climb on stage long past their prime and sing about want and boredom and being unsatisfied…right before pocketing millions per gig and taking a private plane home. 

What would Brian Jones have done after he got over the heartbreak of being squeezed out of his own band? I can only wonder. But I can also revel in what he left behind, which is a brilliant anthology of classic music that is as powerful to me now as it was as the impressionable boy with a transistor radio and a dream. 

What a drag...it is getting old.

And Happy Birthday to (among others) Kurtwood Smith, Fontella Bass, Franz Kafka, George Sanders, Dave Barry, and the late, great Ken Ober.

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Happy Birthday Al Jaffee!

One of the longest ongoing relationships in my life is with a magazine. Now before sick thoughts start entering your mind, let me clarify – I have been reading Mad Magazine since I was a kid. Along with the stand-up comics who appeared on Ed Sullivan and other variety shows, it was one of my first comedy influences, and probably the first consistent exposure to satire I had.

As a child I devoured every issue, a period only briefly interrupted when a Catholic School nun told my cousin’s class that Mad was immoral and filthy. The idiot told his mother, who told mine. I had to read on the sly for a while; I was forbidden to bring Mad into the house. I remember a year or so later I was in the hospital and after surgery  she brought the newest issue to the recovery room to cheer me up. It was her wordless way of lifting the lifetime ban on something she discovered was just harmless fun. (Typical, classic Mom move.)

Reading Mad Magazine was an early primer in comic writing, and I became adept at dashing off humorous limericks and substituting comic lyrics for popular songs or commercial jingles. In high school, I wrote a mock version of the student newspaper (under several aliases as well as my own name) using some of Mad’s classic formats to poke fun at teachers, fellow students and the high school experience in general. A sympathetic teacher not only made the copies on an old mimeo machine but defended me to the irate and embarrassed principal, explaining that sometimes creativity gets started on the wrong foot.

But although I loved the writing in Mad, I was especially enamored by the cartoons. My immediate favorite was Don Martin, whose absurd creations were both imaginative and hilarious (it was a black day when his ongoing dispute with publisher William M. Gaines finally boiled over and he left Mad for Cracked). And soon after I started reading Mad, another cartoonist named Al Jaffee came on board with an inventive style and two great concepts.

Like any of the “usual gang of idiots” at Mad Magazine (a term coined decades prior to Johnny Damon’s recent famous reference to the Boston Red Sox), Jaffee sought to create a hook that could be used as a consistent platform to write from, like The Lighter Side of… and Spy vs. Spy. He nailed two. Snappy Answers To Stupid Questions was a veritable cheat sheet for anyone seeking a quick comeback when someone asks an absurdly obvious question; Jaffee provided the cartoon, the question and three possible quips. This feature was an immediate success and spawned several collections.

Even more creative was The Mad Fold-In, a feature that started in 1964 and continues to this day. A full page cartoon with a paragraph of text could be folded in half and then that half folded out again, basically overlaying the outside quarter of the page with the inside quarter – the middle of the page was now hidden. The payoff was that the art and the text would now form a different picture and statement, usually an answer to the question posed on the full page. Jaffee reportedly came up with the concept as an alternative to the fold-outs popular magazines were employing as their gimmick, most notably Playboy. What better concept for a notoriously frugal magazine to invent than something that folded in?

This NY Times feature animates a few famous fold-ins

Being as anal about the condition of my Mad Magazines as I was about my singles and albums, I quickly became adept and folding the cover over gingerly so as not to make an actual crease; I could figure out the text from the flat page without a problem. Jaffee was fearless in his subject matter, though, taking shots at politics and organized religion along with celebrities and other pop culture events of the times. I found it amazing that Jaffee drew all of them while imagining how the folded-in art would match up since he didn’t have the tools we have today.

As I got older, the changes in Mad Magazine affected my previously voracious consumption of its contents. National Lampoon became a far more sophisticated tool for satirical writing, and today we have everything from The Onion to the faux newscasts of John Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Even the look of the magazine is different; although they have done so for several years I still can’t get used to real advertisements among its pages. Today I subscribe more out of brand loyalty than visceral excitement.

But the comic skill of Al Jaffee is something that has made an indelible mark on me, true artistry that is timeless. And that’s not just my opinion; in 2008 – at 87 years young – the National Cartoonists Society named him the Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year.

Happy 89th Birthday, Al. Thanks for everything!

 

Al Jaffee and Mad Fold In wiki sites.

Link to a 2008 interview with NY1.

Mad Magazine and their wiki page

Doug Gilford’s Mad Magazine Cover site.

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Celebretards or Great Music?

It’s that time again. The over-hyped commencement of the biggest train-wreck on television. Yep, like clockwork, millions of people have started fawning over that self-flagellating, uber-participatory mash-up of The Ed Sullivan Show, Ted Mack’s Variety Hour and Jerry SpringerAmerican Idol.

Crying all the way to the bank

Crying all the way to the bank

I won’t bore you with a long dissertation about why I hate reality television (classic oxymoron, yes?) but I just wanted to remind you that this is the one time each year when two completely opposite comets cross paths. (“What’s your vector, Victor?”)

x axis: American Idol is starting to weed through candidates to present us with their Ultimate Cash Cow for 2009.

y axis: I, on the other hand, am sifting through over 150 releases to finalize my “Best of 2008” music list.

Yes, I already locked in my top ten for The Village Voice and submitted a tentative top twenty to my favorite online poll, Audities. But my deadline is, has always been, and always will be Super Bowl Sunday. Saving you the long story, it’s the occasion when I first started sharing lists with my friends and it’s a tradition that continues to this day. So over the next two weeks, I’ll start lifting the veil on my favorite music from 2008, album by album, plus I’ll be peppering in a ton of worthy albums that you need to at least give a listen to. No two people’s lists should coincide exactly, but I’ll bet you find several keepers in the bunch.

So the battle lines are drawn, and now it’s up to you to choose:  good music recommendations or a television filled with celebretards.

I can only take you so far, grasshopper. Take the pebble if you can.

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