The Gold Standard
Johnny Carson won over Oscar viewers with perfect pitch—and a little help from his friends
Johnny Carson hosted the Academy Awards five times starting in 1979. Here’s how he opened his first awards show:
“Welcome to two hours of sparkling entertainment spread out over a four-hour show.”
A lot has changed since Johnny did the Oscars. Back then, people were allowed to make acceptance speeches that went on for days. There were none of those annoying musical playoffs after two minutes that cut into the generic “I’d like to thank my agent...” acceptance speeches. No one in those days would ever have asked, “Who are you wearing?” It would be more like, “What the hell are you wearing?” There were no stylists, and actors picked their own clothes. We’ve lost the cherished Oscar tradition of letting winners unabashedly make fools of themselves. That’s why I’ll always miss the good old days.
The Oscars has never been easy for comedians to host, because as the show goes on they’re playing to an audience of mostly disgruntled losers who are tired and want to go home. So as Rodney Dangerfield would say, pulling at the collar of his shirt, “Tough crowd.” Carson’s first hosting of the Oscars was controversial. The older Academy members were used to Bob Hope, who, at the very least, had done films. Johnny, on the other hand, was TV. But he soon made the show his own by doing it in his totally irreverent style:
“One of the nominated films is The Black Hole. A black hole is an empty void in which anything that enters is never seen again. Those of you in the business know it as the William Morris Agency.”
What Carson had was perfect pitch. He knew exactly how far to go with an audience and whether a line was right for them or not. He knew exactly how much the audience could take. One time when I was on The Tonight Show, I did a piece about Nixon selling his tapes. At the commercial break, Johnny said, “You know, you’re ahead of the audience with that.” I asked, “Does it bother you?” and he said, “No, not at all. It’s just that the audience isn’t ready to hear that yet.” As I drove home, I realized he was telling me that being ahead of or behind the audience is really the same thing. Where you need to be is right with them.
Johnny had two favorite writers. Mike Barrie and Jim Mulholland started with Johnny on The Tonight Show in 1968 and 1970, respectively, and wrote with him until the last week he was on the air in 1992. They worked on all five of his Oscar monologues and most of the awards show’s running jokes. They were backstage at the Oscars in case an accidental breast fell out of Raquel Welch’s gown, so they and Johnny could come up with a line or two about it on the spot. Barrie remembered well the first Oscar show they did. Seeing Johnny pacing up and down backstage, “It looked like he just wanted to get in his car and drive home. In all the years we had worked with Johnny, I had never seen him really nervous before a show. So this scared the hell out of both of us and turned us into total wrecks. Johnny’s attitude was that four hours is just too long for anything. He wanted to be edgy like he was when he hosted the Emmys, and he wanted to go as far as he could and not worry about what the old-timers would say.”
“I see a lot of new faces here, especially on the old faces.”
“Charlton Heston is the only actor besides Warren Beatty who all of Hollywood has known in the biblical sense...”
After getting big laughs through the entire monologue, Johnny walked offstage with a big smile on his face and said, “From here on in, it’s going to be a cakewalk.”
I asked Barrie and Mulholland what was the most difficult Oscar show they did, and Barrie said, “We prepared a lot of material on Ronald Reagan, and Johnny had as well. Half the monologue was Reagan jokes. I called Jim and said, ‘You better turn on your TV—President Reagan was shot, and he’s in the hospital.’ So right before the Oscars, the Academy was thinking of postponing the show. Then we heard that Reagan was okay. And we had no idea what Johnny was going to do. They decided to do a live feed from Reagan’s hospital bed.”
“Reagan cut $85 million from the arts and humanities. This is his biggest assault on the arts since he signed with Warner Brothers.”
And then Carson added:
“That should get him up and out of bed.”
It was a perfect example of knowing exactly what the audience could hear and when. Not ahead of them, not behind them—just with them. Everyone was glad Reagan lived. But no one was more concerned—besides the family, of course—than the two comedy writers who had written almost all of the Reagan jokes for the Oscar monologue. “It’s weird to say out loud, but that does go through your head,” Mulholland said.
When Barrie and Mulholland were doing the Oscars, they knew it was different from anything they had done, because they were wearing tuxedos and were there for the whole thing just in case they had to add a line or two for anything that happened spontaneously during the show. They worked in a closet-size room on the side of the stage that, in addition to the two writers, had a full-length mirror so people could see themselves before they went onstage. “It was a little hard to concentrate with Kim Novak and Natalie Wood coming in to check out their gowns,” recalled Barrie. But they remember Johnny telling them they had the best seats in the house.
To Johnny Carson, there was nothing funnier than his friends trying but not getting laughs while sitting next to him on The Tonight Show. In fact, he told Bob Newhart and me that the reason he had us on so much is he loved when we bombed as much as when we succeeded. Of course, he would always get the biggest laughs rescuing us.
On The Tonight Show, if a joke didn’t work with the audience, his amazing wit would kick in with a perfect ad-lib about the joke that just bombed, or he might break into a soft-shoe, or he’d pause, Jack Benny-like, and acknowledge right into the camera the joke’s failure. In the end, Johnny always made sure he got his laugh. That was the main thing—the audience should laugh. But he felt these “savers” weren’t appropriate for the formality of the Oscars.
Mulholland and Barrie remembered one runner—running joke—that started when a producer came to them during the show, all upset: “ ‘Alan Splet is not showing up tonight...he’s having car trouble.’ And Johnny said, ‘Who’s Alan Splet?’ ‘He’s getting a special award for sound editing,’ the producer said, and Johnny deadpanned, ‘There goes the show.’ So then we all started writing jokes about what happened to Mr. Splet and why he wasn’t going to show up. Johnny made it into a great gag all night.”
“It happens every year. One year it was George C. Scott, next year it was Marlon Brando not showing up. This year, it’s Alan Splet.”
Mulholland said Alan Splet was “gold” for them. Then a rumor started that he actually was going to show up. “We were thinking of sending some goons to take him to a hotel room and keep him, since we had all this material depending on him not showing up. Johnny would give Alan Splet updates throughout the show”:
“Not to worry folks, his car broke down in Barstow. He’s hitching a ride, and he’ll be here soon.”
It was one of the first of the running gags that have become a staple on awards shows to this day. What actually happened is that Splet had flown in from somewhere, was jet-lagged and fell asleep. When he woke up the next morning, he didn’t know it but he was a celebrity.
Well, there’s no other way to wrap this up but to say I’d like to thank Barrie and Mulholland, Johnny’s great writers, for their time, memories and leftover notes. They made this all possible. I’d also like to thank LA, Los Angeles Times Magazine for allowing me to write about two of my favorite subjects, humor and Johnny Carson; my wife, Robyn, who inspires me in more ways than I could ever admit; and my adorable daughters. And lastly, I’d like to thank Johnny Carson, the man who brought his patented elegance, remarkable wit and perfect pitch to everything he touched—in this case, the Oscars.
Here, from Mike Barrie and Jim Mulholland’s shoebox, are some favorite lines used throughout all five of their Oscar shows with Johnny:
“Bo Derek caused quite a sensation this year in the film 10. To show you how far back I go...I can remember movies in which they danced to ‘Bolero.’ ”
“Marlon Brando starred in The Formula, a searing indictment of the greed of oil companies. Mr. Brando was paid a million dollars for three days’ work.”
“Next year we can look forward to a fresh crop of new and original films: Superman 3, Death Wish 3, Rocky 4, Herpes 2...”
Johnny wrote this one: “My personal life has been exactly like this year’s Academy Awards. It started off with Terms of Endearment, I thought I had The Right Stuff, it cost a lot to Dresser, then came The Big Chill and for the last month I’ve been begging for Tender Mercies.”
“Some 50 years ago, Charlton Heston was discovered floating in a basket in Cecil B. DeMille’s pool...”
For the last 14 years, BARRIE and MULHOLLAND have been getting up at 4 a.m. in L.A. and sending lines to David Letterman for his monologue. DAVID STEINBERG was second only to Bob Hope in appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. He is currently directing Curb Your Enthusiasm.