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tv   Johnny Carson Political Humor  CSPAN  April 2, 2021 10:47am-11:31am EDT

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history tv every weekend on cspan3. johnny carson hosted "the tonight show" from 1962 to 1992 with millions of americans tuning in each night. up next, stephen farnsworth exams his sense of political humor. this is part of the great lives lecture series presented by the university of mary washington, who also provided the video. dr. stephens farnsworth received a ba from university of kansas city, and dartmouth followed by ph.d. degrees at georgetown university. he's lectured widely on the news media, the presidents. a prolific scholar, he has written seven books including "presidential communication and character," "the nightly news
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nightmare," "spinner in chief," and his latest "late night with trump". he's also the author or co-author of dozens of articles on u.s. media, political opinion and virginia politics. his commentary has appealed to a wide range on the left, including "the washington post," the times. he's currently the director for leadership and studies at the university of mary washington. he's also taught courses in political science, journalism and political communication at georgetown university and george mason university. during his tenure at mary washington, dr. farnsworth has earned the reputation of being an outstanding teacher, as evidenced by winning the
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university's three most prestigious awards for excellence in teaching, being the 2017 recipient of the virginia outstanding faculty award from the council of higher education in virginia. he'll be recalled by great lodge regulars with previous presentations. it's truly a pleasure to introduce one of the most distinguished professors, dr. stephen farnsworth. there has never been anyone like johnny carson, and there never will be. from 1962 to 1992, more than 5,000 episodes over 30 years, johnny carson walked through the rainbow colored curtains as he
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hosted america's top late night show. he tucked americans in at night with his mix of gentle barbs directed at the leading lights of politics and culture and his lists of almost and he always had interesting guests. he offered a nonstop parade of the key personalities of the '60s and the '70s and the '80s and the '90s. they were the leading lights of film, books and politics and a few amazing animals and their trainers. he introduced many to the comedians on their way up and reminded many of people who were already at the top of their game. by every measure he was not only first but he was so far ahead that it did not matter who was second. careers would rise and fall on the basis of whether a performer would get a booking on "the
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tonight show." and if the set went well and the comic had a chance to sit next to the desk for a chat with the king of late night, then their careers were made. the list of people middle america discovered thanks to johnny carson is an immense one. it's hard to imagine some of these people were once upon a time unknowns, but they include barbra streisand, eddie murphy, ellen degeneres, chris rock and david letterman. carson also advanced the careers of emerging comics like steve mart is -- martin and joan rivers. there are really four ways to measure carson's success. first of all, of course, is tenure. 30 years at the head of the tonight show compared to 22 for
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jay leno and six for jimmy fallon so far. it started in 1954, the dawn of television. that's 66 years ago. even though he's long been off the air, the late night format still looks a lot the way carson built it. in terms of audience, the second measure, carson had an audience of 15 million people at its peak. that is an astonishing number for his time and for ours. jimmy fallon's tonight show, which ranks third at 11:30, has less than 2 million viewers a night on average. now, a lot of that has to do with the rise of cable and the rise of the internet where audiences have splintered, but make no mistake about it, it's an astonishing difference compared to the past. johnny carson was also a gold mine for nbc. at its peak, "the tonight show" was generating 17% of all the
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profit for nbc. that's an astonishing share of income for one 90-minute show after prime time. no show ever made more money. now, carson was well paid for his efforts, particularly in his later years, but nbc made a great deal of money off carson's approach. i also want to bring to your attention the fourth issue, i think, that really demonstrates the importance of john my carson as a political and cultural figure of the 20th century. this may be the most important aspect of carson's career but one that has drawn very little attention from his biographers. in the 1960s when segregation still dominated many parts of this country, the early carson quietly made "the tonight show" one of the most integrated places in america. his respectful treatment and promotion of a range of political and cultural voices normalized the changes america
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was about to make to end jim crow. carson smoothed over much of the conflict of the late 20th century by offering a refuge for the trouble of one's days even as his comedy and conversation subtly paved the way toward greater public misunderstanding of difference and of the political and cultural changes that roiled the nation for years during which he held court at 11:30. operating the environment with little competition, carson aimed for the great middle of the national audience. with monologues and guests that were generally comforting and offensive, but every now and then sort of pushing the envelope a little bit forward. as noted film director billy wilder put it, carson is the cream of middle class elegance. he has captivated the americans without ever offending the
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highbrows and he has never said anything that wasn't liberal or progressive. carson included political material in his monologues, but usually in a way that would not offend most viewers. that meant making fun of politicians who were embroiled in scandal, who had committed gaffes, and then carson would move on. his generally light touch when it came to politics left it to his various competitors to try to tap for more contentious, more idealogical or more partisan material. but carson lasted on the air much longer than any of them, including merv griffin and dick cavett who otherwise were pretty successful on television, but not when they went up against johnny carson. johnny carson was always one to say that you analyze a joke and you kill it. so he always thought that it was a wasted exercise to analyze shows. if it gets a laugh, it's funny.
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that's the vision that carson had. now, when we talk about political humor in american culture, we have to appreciate two things. first of all, america is a very iconoclastic class. we do not like people putting too much airs on themselves. mocking authorities is a part of the american national pastime. and nobody did it better than johnny carson. but it wasn't just an american dynamic, even though we can look to will rogers and mark twain before carson. it's also a global reality. you can look back to the ancient egyptians and the romans and they, too, mocked the authorities of the day. it is a key way of perhaps lifting the burdens of daily life. like the gestures or fools of
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european courts, late night comics have some license to speak truth to power in a way that other political figures would find difficult to do. there is a space of play that allows for the exaggerations to create an environment where you can remind people that you were only kidding if the joke seemed to go too far. but if you look across the 30 years of johnny carson's career, rarely did he go too far for his audience, largely because he knew it so well. societies relish the opportunity to cut political leaders down to size. a joke, even a sharp one, can reduce the arrogance and perhaps the creeping authoritarianism that is at risk in modern, centralized, powerful government with the capacity to build standing armies, the capacity to
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add a discord domination from the national leadership. the more arrogant the leader, the larger the target that leader represents. political comedy in carson's time and in our own reflects this harsher nature of politics of the modern age where political insult and ridicule are key tools of political discourse in attack ads and elsewhere. in many ways, late night comedy is a mirror of american society as much as it may be shaping the discourse. if you go too far for your audience, you don't have an audience anymore, and johnny carson understood that better than anyone. one of the things that really spoke to carson's success as an entertainer was his modesty. if you look at carson's preparation for his show, he wrote many of the jokes himself, and for those that he didn't, he
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often tinkered with them. he was always extraordinarily well prepared. if a guest wrote a book, carson read it. he didn't just look at some notes scribbled by a producer. if they were starring in a film, carson saw it. he knew what questions to ask. he made his guests look good. he played the straight man to the comics and the interviewer to the other guests. everyone, even the most odd and uncomfortable late night guests, were made to feel welcome and sound compelling. they said his show was the best on television. carson said they forgot about "romper room." his jokes sure seemed tame
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compared to today's political humor. what you see in carson is a person with political power regardless of their political persuasion. he followed that maxim, good humor punches up. he always made fun of the people at the top of power and culture. and, in addition to his mockery of political figures, carson also enjoyed attacking elites in the private sector, out of touch corporate executives, arrogant tax evaders, bombastic lawyers, celebrities who got off too easily and celebrities who didn't behave. the list of targets deies easy idealogical or partisan categorization, and that's the way carson wanted it. carson was a bipartisan political critic, but a critic would bite. in the 1988 democratic
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presidential campaign, there was a fellow named gary hart. his campaign ran aground because of a sex scandal and because of carson's subsequent mockery of gary hart. carson quipped, it's hard to be funnier than what's happening sometimes. a few years later, carson turned to another name on the 1988 ballot, republican dan quayle who was elected vice president. carson's barbs shaped the narrative of the vice president as something of an unprepared half-wit. and they received attention across the land as over and over the mockery continued. and this shaped the public's identity in many ways of vice president quale because vice presidents don't get a lot to do and they don't get a lot of
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media attention. and the area where the impact for framing is the greatest is where there is less known about a person. now, in all honesty, quale did not help his attempts at coming across as a serious political figure when he criticized murphy brown, a fictional character on television on a powerful sitcom for contributing to the moral decline of the united states. carson quipped, you get the feeling that dan quayle's golf bag doesn't have a full set of irons. when he retired in may of 1992, johnny carson used his final monologue to thank quale for providing him with so much comedic material, and especially including the spat with that fictional tv character. people were wondering what carson was going to do next once
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he left "the tonight show," and on his last weeks on performing, he told them. i've made a decision. i'm going to join the cast of "murphy brown." i'm going to become a surrogate father to that kid. the kid was born out of wedlock. this is what quale found unacceptable. during the run of the show, "the tonight show," there have been seven united states presidents, and thankfully for comedy, there have been eight vice presidents. i know i've made some jokes at the expense of dan quayle, but i want to thank him for making the final week so fruitful. again, the contrast between the way that carson talked about political figures and the comedians that followed him was really quite dramatic. a study of jokes on "the tonight show" and "the late show" from july of 1989 to september 1991
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found that dan quayle was the subject of 741 jokes. he ran number one during that period as a source of comedic merryment. george bush was the subject of 331 jokes during that period of time. but that volume of humor really represents nothing more than an appetizer for the way that political figures were treated by comics in the years that followed. as i describe in my new book, "late night with trump: political humor in the presidency," my coworker identified 241 jokes on president trump during his first year in office on those same two programs. it is a much, much more relentless focus on politics today. carson's treatment, by the way, of quayle had one other impact that was lasting and really shaped the growing importance of
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late night to political discourse in american politics. starting with carson's attacks on quayle, news organizations increasingly turned to comedy clips and used them as a way to shape their own news reports. this increases the linkage between news and entertainment and help make late night comedy a key source of political discourse, and even, polls show, political learning by viewers. now, i think one issue that i think is important to touch on as we talk about johnny carson and his impact on late night comedy and on the political culture of the united states is to talk a little bit about how his background helps explain his success. in many ways, carson was ideally suited to become a late night host. he was born in a small town in iowa in 1925 to a father who worked for an electric company and a very extroverted mother.
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so carson's family moved from small town to small town across his early years as a student, and as his father was transferred from one electric company station to another. and young johnny, as he was making new friends, found he had a talenamusing them. at the age of 12, he was making comedy shows for his friends. on sunday nights, he would sit in front of the radio and make notes of the comedic style of jack benny. benny would later become a model and a mentor for carson. johnny carson, like many people of his generation, graduated from high school and was immediately shipped off to world war ii. he trained as a navy ensign and
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spent the final year on the u.s.s. pennsylvania. while on board he often entertained his shipmates with jokes and card tricks. he credits his early years in the navy as understanding his broad appeal as a comic. military service, after all, provided a window to the very diverse regional cultures of the united states like no other experience for no other young man. after the war, carson enrolled at the university of nebraska where he wrote a senior thesis on comedy writing and worked for radio stations in lincoln while in college and then moved to omaha after graduation in 1949. with two years' experience on television and on the radio in omaha, carson left behind his 15-minute humor show, the very forgettable show called "the squirrel's test" and got a job as an announcer on a television
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show in los angeles. he convinced the station to give him a dead saturday afternoon time slot where he could put together "carson's cellar" which talked about celebrities and mocked commercials. after he made a joke about red skelton on the set, skelton hired him as a comedy writer. carson's big break came when skelton injured himself during a rehearsal. skelton said carson had to replace him on the show that night, and carson's one-night star turn convinced cbs to establish "the carson show." you may not have heard of this because it only lasted 39 weeks. carson always complained that the show failed because he didn't have enough control over his show's content, and he made sure when he took control of "the tonight show" that he had that control. in the years leading up to "the
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tonight show," carson was host of a game show "who do you trust" with his ability to make witty comments on the fly. when johnny carson decided to leave the show, he was selected as the replacement. what you saw in johnny carson's rise to "the tonight show" is what you see on "the tonight show." his witty banter formed between what he needed to say during the small acts of the magic show and tuning in to the radio show helped him become a success. one time a tarantula was brought on the show, and he was told,
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don't worry, because they're not as poisonous as they're made out to be. and carson shot back, so i won't be that dead. carson started on "the tonight show" when he was 36 in october of 1962, and he stayed until may of 1992 when he was 66. the real secret to his success, according to ed mcmahon said johnny knew who he was and he stayed true to it. unlike some comics, he never really imagined himself a star in the movies or even on a sitcom. he was actually offered the role of rob petry made fame under the circumstances -- famous by cbs's second choice, dick van dyke.
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they wanted him to be in "blazing saddles." carson said, no, thanks. success never cooled that anger that was at the core of the man. one journalist said that talking with carson was like addressing an elaborately wired security system. now, carson carried himself as a midwestern prot -- protestant everyman and less hollywood than hollywood and less nebraska than nebraska. he conveyed an earner's charm. he shared many world experiences with the people of his generation. his personal foibles, including his marital troubles, his feuds with his bosses on nbc were
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discussed on the show. these very common human experiences, trouble in the marriage, trouble with a utility company, a bad boss made him human. he also made jokes about what everyone can lament to, a bad day at the office. but for us a bad day does not involve millions of viewers. as i mentioned at the start of the talk, i think carson's efforts to expand the discourse during the turbulent 1960s really arguably deserves far more attention than provided biographers. the carson decades were really a rough time in american politics. vietnam war, civil rights, civil unrest, violence, recessions and immense change roiled the nation. who better to guide us through these uncertain, troubling and unfamiliar times than the voice of middle america, johnny
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carson. in his subtle way, carson very carefully expanded the understanding of his audience. i want to give you some examples from the pivotal year of 1968 to demonstrate just how much carson's death touch and his talent for covering controversial ground with minimal controversy helped pave the way for greater understanding in the united states. during five nights of february 1968, carson turned over his show to harry bellefonte, a superstar singer and actor. he brought in newsmakers and their white allies. in a single week you saw diane morwick, aretha franklin, martin luther king, bobby kennedy,
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diane carey and bill cosby. carson created an astonishing moment where african-americans could burst forward in a cultural identity of their own and created an astonishing moment of opening white america's eyes to black culture and black politics on a show and on a time slot that was generally treated as a light-hearted prelude to bedtime. it seems to me only carson had the wisdom to appreciate how important that week was and the modesty to understand that he shouldn't be hosting the show when this message was being provided. years later, whoopie goldberg viewed that programming as one of the key wake-up calls for white america. what she said that show said,
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those weeks of programming shows, we're here, we're americans, we're part of this country. we're not going anywhere. for those interested in this week, there is an nbc documentary called "the sit-in" that i would recommend. now, carson didn't stop there. 1968 was about to get much, much worse. and carson adjusted his programming in response to the tragic developments. martin luther king was slain in 1968 in april, and carson the next night canceled the monologue and gave a tribute to the slain civil rights leader. two years later, bobby kennedy was slain, and he brought in those to lament the death of bobby kennedy that would have
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been honored if he had not been murdered. the '60s were not raising consciousness, far from it. one of the highest rated show of the '60s for carson was actually the wedding of an iconic figure of the 1960s known as tiny tim. tiny tim was famous for his falsetto rendition of "tiptoe through the tulips." when he tied the knot, 58 million people tuned in to the special wedding show of "the tonight show." now, johnny carson loved his work. he was really not all that happy when he wasn't working. he was a perfectionist and invested huge amounts of planning and energy into making the show look as spontaneous and as effortless as it seemed through the television. he was not comfortable away from
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a camera, even with family. as johnny carson said after the failure of his third marriage, if i had put the work into my marriage that i put into my show, they might have been successful. carson was friendly with his guests, but it was more than that. he was a fundamentally curious person. he really was interested in what they were doing and what they had to say. that's one of the things that the most successful late night hosts often struggle to do, appear interested no matter who you're talking to. but carson loved to explore. and so there was a built-in level of interest that he conveyed regardless of who he was talking to, and that, of course, made the guests more interesting, perhaps, than they had a right to be on the carson show. now, carson, of course, had a reputation of being very aloof
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away from "the tonight show." he was never one for the celebrity circuit in new york or l.a. he rarely entertained with a circle of friends. when he traveled, he and the mrs. carson of the moment traveled with another couple or two. they traveled sometimes with ed mcmahon and his wife. or henry bushkin, carson's long-time lawyer, known as the bombastic bushkin that launch add i thousand monologues. carson denied that he was aloof, he just said that he was shy. as ed mcmahon once put it, carson was just uncomfortable with people he did not know well, and he knew very few people all that well. as one frequent guest said of carson's shyness, johnny comes a alive when the camera comes on. why are we still talking about johnny carson and "the tonight
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show" decades after his final performance? i think part of it is that a lot of people look at his humor and think of carson as the golden age of comedy. you'll get no argument from me. before the internet, carson shaped the next day of conversation. it shaped television careers, the careers of comics for good or for ill. with today's fragmented audience, no one will ever match carson's reach. and those who look back on carson's time also note that he was a kind figure compared to many of the late night hosts who followed him. here's an example. there was a scandal that was very humor ready that occurred in 1974. the chair of the house ways and means committee, a fellow by the name of wilburn mills, was driving in washington and he was stopped by police.
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he didn't have his headlights on. the police suddenly find that the congressman was in the company of fanny fox who was a professional stripper from argentina. in an effort to police, fanny fox jumps into the tidal basin on the washington mall. this was not a successful way9éo avoid the police, and it was certainly not a successful way to stay off the monologue on "the tonight show." so carson started a regular routine of attacking wilbur mills for his -- well, shall we say, conduct on becoming a congressman, although i'm not sure where that bar actually is. it becomes clear, though, that mills was actually suffering from alcoholism, and as soon as this became publicly known, carson stopped making jokes about the man, even as other comics continued to do so. alcoholism should not be spoofed, carson told an interviewer. carson always worried that being too political would drive away
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half his audience. if you sounded liberal, the conservatives would tune out, and if you sounded conservative, the liberals would tune out. in some ways, that's what more or less happened after he left the scene. jay leno, his successor on "the tonight show" retained his conservative viewers, where the liberal viewers moved to david letterman's higher ratings fo cbs. that trend has continued to the current day. stephen colbert consistently sees the ratings of "tonight show"'s jimmy fallon who focuses on humor. he is famous for a hair-tousling interview with donald trump before the 2016 election which critics called as a promotion for trump. but i think it's fair to say that for all of these positive accolades about johnny carson's
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program, it's important to remember that it also had its flaws. there are certain things that a modern viewer would not find all that funny today. he had a character of aunt blabby who was about an elderly woman who, shall we say, did not age gracefully. he had another character that he played, art fern, a leering parody of a sleazy television host that objectified women from the start to the end of the act. no modern comedian would resooif -- revive such a character today. in his youth he was a heavy drinker, and he could often become a mean drunk. his extramarital affairs were legendary and frequent, even by the standards of the celebrity circles in which carson moved. he had three sons from his first
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marriage and did not have good relations with any of them, particularly after he divorced his first wife, his college sweetheart. and perhaps you have heard more than once in this series, the definition of a great life does not necessarily mean a great personal life or a personal life path that one should emulate. ultimately, though, the fact that he seemed like a decent guy on television made him a comforting presence in america's living rooms and bedrooms night after night. that part wasn't an act. one little known fact about carson is that -- and one that he always tried to hide was how generous he was. he gave millions of dollars to his alma mater, the university of nebraska, and if you heard about people faing rough times, he would write a check. in the days when "the tonight show" was based in new york city fell on hard times. even though carson had long ago moved to los angeles, he gave the guy a six-figure check.
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so, too, did he write a six-figure check to the wife of a producer who died suddenly. when one of his friends from college showed up in los angeles driving a car past its prime, carson went out and bought him a new buick. but this was not part of the story about johnny carson that he wanted to tell. he was private for the things that he did that was positive and private for other matters that most anyone would want to keep private. one of the things that you have to appreciate when you think about political humor is that it is very much a reflection of the times in which it occurred. if johnny carson had sounded like stephen colbert back in the 1970s, i'm not sure that would have gone over very well at all. carson, who died in 2005 at the age of 79, provided humor that seemed very well suited to the less partisan times in which marked his decades on the air.
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his political attacks generally were bipartisan and very much expressed without meanness. so republicans could laugh with him as he joked about nixon or ford or reagan, and democratic loyalists could laugh at the jokes making fun of the carter family or lyndon johnson or john f. kennedy. as tom shales, the "washington post" critic observed, anyone looking at "the tonight show" a hundred years from now will probably have no trouble understanding what made carson so popular and provided him longevity. he was affable, professional, funny and charming. the kind of guy you would welcome into your home. now, carson worried not only that partisanship would hurt the show, he also worried that nastiness would hurt the show.
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in a "60 minutes" interview, he told mike wallace that people weren't tuning in to "the tonight show" for an ernest debate over certain matters. why do people think just because you have "the tonight show" you must deal in serious issues? that's a real danger. once you start that, you get the feeling you say has great import. you could use that as a forum, but i don't think you should as an entertainer. in other words, carson really didn't want to go as far as stephen colbert or trevor noah routinely do so today. what would carson do with president trump? well, we have some sense. trump was prominent as a new york business leader during
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carson's time at "the tonight show" and johnny carson did make a few jokes at trump's expense. in 1989 he ripped about trump's short-lived entirely failed game show called "trump card." quote, he's on everything. he's got his name on buildings, he's got his name on boats, and this show apparently is a lot like "wheel of fortune," but instead of van na white, leona helmsley comes out and flips a homeless person in the street. one of the parts of this show is called "eviction of the week." trump stands there with a bullhorn and yells, come on down. carson also jokingly tied trump to the gennifer flowers scandal. don't worry about gennifer
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flowers, he said. she's got a new job as trump's back-up mistress. now, if carson were performing today, i think he would be very critical of trump, that he would have moved to some extent with the audience as the harsher political times allow political comedians to go a more critical direction. still, you would never expect something fully comparable to what you see today. carson was never one to use a battleax in his humor. he used a stiletto. one thing you almost certainly would have seen with carson, who was an extremely gifted mimic, would have been an imitation of president trump that, in all likelihood, would have been much stronger than an alec baldwin imitation. i also imagine we would have seen a lot more of a character of a favorite carson foil, i fellow named floyd r. turbo, a
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flannel coat-wearing rube that carson portrayed and he was famous for offering up values in sentence fragments and misstatements. anyone who talks about johnny carson struggles because it's simply impossible for me, at least, to create the same kind of timing, the same kind of melan, the same kind of witty remarks that marked the carson years. i would encourage you to go online. you can see carson even now on late night cable television in reruns and on social media. and with an opportunity to look at youtube or the late night cable offerings of johnny carson 30 years after the fact, you can see how that political humor is so different from the partisan
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narratives that we sometimes hear on late night comedy tonight. weeknights this month, we're featuring american history tv programs as a preview of what's available every weekend on c-span3. tonight a program about the fifth president, james monroe. we talk about the relationship with george washington. while the two forged a bond during the war, the politics drove a wedge between them. scott harris explains where things went wrong. watch tonight beginning at 8:00 p.m. eastern and enjoy american history tv every weekend on c-span3. each week american archives takes pictures to sites across the country. the american


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