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To Those Who Would Be Johnny

by Craig Nickels

Johnny Carson's recent demise has brought out many a paean to the "king of late-night." Listen to the eulogies and you'll hear odes to Carson's greatness. But greatness is a relative term. Who is great others aren't average? What are the Harlem Globetrotters without the Washington Generals?

In that spirit, we look to the many competitors of Johnny Carson. Who were they? What were their shows like? And were they any good? Here's a brief look at the men (and woman) who would be Johnny.

The Joey Bishop Show, ABC, 1967 - 1969

The Rat Packer was the first of Carson's guest hosts to compete against Carson in "The Tonight Show's" time slot. While Joey Bishop played a straight-man in most of the Rat Pack routines, he reportedly wrote most of the material.

But his star never burned as brightly as those of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin or Sammy Davis Jr. Despite the presence of a young Regis Philbin as his sidekick, "The Joey Bishop Show" show failed to overtake "The Tonight Show" and Bishop was replaced by Dick Cavett.

The Dick Cavett Show, ABC, 1969 - 1974

Cavett's show might have been the most enigmatic challenger to Carson. Cavett was intelligent and his show dove headfirst into the counter-culture of the '60s and early '70s. And -- much like "The Daily Show" today -- it did not shy away from politically-minded guests.

Cavett's show garnered critical acclaim and won several Emmys. However, Cavett fought a losing battle against Carson. NPR and Slate critic David Edelstien summed it up, "Because Cavett had the best and the brightest on his show, he often looked inadequate beside them -- slower, less intellectually agile, even, on occasion, impotent."

The Merv Griffin Show, CBS, 1969 - 1972

A successful daytime talk show host and creator of "Jeopardy" (and later "Wheel of Fortune"), Griffin perfected the archetypical "concerned-yet-probing" persona so common on talk shows today. But daytime success didn't translate into nighttime ratings for Griffin, who returned to his daytime gig after several uneventful late-night years.

Thicke of the Night (hosted by Alan Thicke) syndicated, 1983 - 1984

Up to this point, Alan Thicke was a successful producer, writer, composer (he wrote the themes to "Diff'rent Strokes" and "Facts of Life"), and daytime talk show host (in Canada).

Thicke's show garnered mixed reviews -- John J. O'Connor of The New York Times called Thicke "bright and shrewdly disarming," while Tom Shales of The Washington Post suggested, "Perhaps it's time to increase security along the Canadian border" -- but it never seriously challenged Carson's reign.

The show also suffered the embarrassment of scoring a zero Neilson rating in the Philadelphia market shortly before cancellation.

After this show failed, Thicke found fame as father-extraordinaire Jason Seaver on "Growing Pains."

The Dick Cavett Show / Jimmy Breslin's People, ABC, 1986 - 1987

ABC, perhaps already knowing that neither show could hold the time-slot on its own, alternated the shows, running two of each per week. Cavett was returning to ABC after a stint on public television. Jimmy Breslin was a New York newspaper columnist and author who filmed his show as more of a reporter than a talk-show host.

Breslin's show scored well with critics, but ultimately neither show caught on and Breslin eventually "fired the network" (via an ad on the front page of The New York Times) over a scheduling dispute.

The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers, Fox, 1986 - 1987

Rivers was a regular guest host for Carson when Fox swept her up for her own show. She didn't tell Carson about the move, which sparked a feud between them.

At the time (prior to her stint as official Hollywood fashion police), Rivers was well respected. She had a dark, bawdy sense of humor and was one of the first women to break through the old boys club of late-night comedy.

However, her humor and persona quickly turned grating in larger doses. Shales wrote: "Although the word 'bitch' was used repeatedly [Rivers joined Elton John on the chorus of his song "The Bitch is Back" opening night], Rivers' celebrated bitchiness was not much in evidence. She all but drooled in sycophantic appreciation of her guests' great gifts."

Nightlife (with David Brenner), syndicated, 1986 - 1987

David Brenner was a successful stand-up comic and a frequent guest (and guest host) of "The Tonight Show." Brenner avoided the feud between Rivers and Carson and tried to play the role of an urban everyman.

Despite positive reviews and the presence of Billy Preston as bandleader, the show failed to find an audience.

The Pat Sajak Show, CBS, 1989 - 1990

CBS relentlessly hyped the show, which turned out to be a carbon copy of Carson's "Tonight Show." Like Carson, Sajak was quick-witted, sly and polite, and the tone of the show was genial.

The show -- thanks to the hype -- bested Carson for its first two nights on the air. It fell to earth quickly after that as Sajak refused to take any risks. Shales' review might best sum it up: "(Sajak) has a quick wit and a deft way with a quip. If he has a personality, however, he's yet to impose it on the show."

The Arsenio Hall Show (or Arsenio), syndicated, 1989 - 1994

Arsenio Hall's show was one of the few to put a dent in Carson's popularity. Hall's show directly targeted youth and minority viewers at just about the same time people started to wonder if Carson was old and tired.

The show made a big splash in its first two years, but fell quickly. Hall sold out on '80s fashions and when Grunge swept the nation, Hall looked out of step. Audiences also tired of the show's over-the-top approach. As Shales described it: "The show is a punishing orgy of overkill. It's loud and shrill, and its studio audience is hyped to the frothing point ... The crowd ... applauds everything but the exit signs."

After Carson's retirement, Hall lost visibility to the "late night wars" that arose between Jay Leno and David Letterman. And as Grunge swept the nation, the youth audience that Hall courted swept him under the rug.

Posted by Mac Slocum on February 15, 2005 1:44 PM
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