Sep 1, 2014

Here's Johnny: The Gay Snark of the Tonight Show

One night when I was 10 or 11 years old, I woke up to the sound of the tv in the other room.  I looked at the clock by my bedside -- 11:30!  What could my parents be watching?  There was nothing on tv that late but an emptiness of test patterns and static snow.

I walked out into the living room.  On the tv set, I saw a guy sitting behind a little desk, talking to a row of people in chairs.

"What are you doing up?  Did you have a bad dream?" Mom asked.

"I heard noise.  What are you watching?"

"The Tonight Show."

The people were just sitting around.

"But what is it? What's it about?"  TV shows were always about something: detectives, witches, spies, seven stranded castaways.

"It's not about anything.  It's a talk show."

"You mean....people just sit around talking?  That's dumb!"

"That's why it's on late at night," Dad said. "It's not for kids. Now get back to bed."

A few years later, when I was a teenager, I could stay up until midnight if I wanted to, but I was always in bed or had other things to do.

A few years after that, when I lived in West Hollywood, I could stay up until 1:00 am if I wanted, but I was always in bed or had other things to do.

So to this day I have seen only one episode of  The Tonight Show.  Johnny Carson was supposed to be interviewing a literature scholar who believed that Shakespeare didn't write the plays attributed to him, so I waited through an hour and twenty minutes of boring interviews to hear his five-minute spiel.

To be fair, it wasn't all boring interviews.  There were musical guests, and sometimes Johnny performed in comedic sketches like "Carnak the Magnificent."

Gay content was minimal.  Johnny Carson (1925-2005) had a trim physique and a bulge (always hidden behind that desk).  But he displayed a rather snarky twist on the rampant homophobia of the 1960s and 1970s.

His ongoing "sissy jokes" against singer Wayne Newton ended only when Newton burst into his office and asked "Which of your children have I deserve such treatment"?  (Equating being gay to killing a child?  Really?).

But in real life Carson had gay friends, including gay icon Truman Capote.

In those days gay people often put up with snark.

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