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The Tonight Show Starring Donald Trump

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The Freedom Forum

Boy, did Trump put on a bad show last night or what? Since my last post, the country has become a poorer, sicker and dumber place than at any time since Donald Trump took office, however a small side benefit to the Coronavirus outbreak is that I’ve had an enormous amount of free time to catch up on old TV shows on YouTube, so lately I’ve been binge watching Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman; Maude; Wolfman Jack’s Midnight Special and especially Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show. I’ve never been so happy to ignore reality because after watching TV or reading Twitter or the local news,  I tend to get selfish, angry and mean and I don’t want that to define who I am during this crisis. It’s terribly frustrating to see our government work like it’s run by an amateur and it highlights just how terrible our president* has become. If Hillary Clinton was elected instead of Donald Trump in 2016 and was the President of the United States right now, (as THREE MILLION more people voted for her than the other guy) I would be preparing to watch the Boston Red Sox play a baseball game against the Chicago White Sox, possibly rained out at Fenway but nonetheless, that ain’t happening now. The reality is that our imbecilic president has allowed this awful tragedy to happen to our great country because — at this point — the only logical explanation that I have left is that Donald Trump isn’t just a misogynist (he obviously hates women) but he’s also a psychopath. He hates people. After all, his parents were just awful human beings and I have a first-person account of how Fred Trump was basically a Nazi sympathizer. Being the son or daughter of a Nazi sympathizer and a cold and distant mother would be a challenge for most normal people and Donald Trump is certainly not a normal human being. He’s totally fucking abnormal. Interesting fact: the first toilet paper panic was caused by an offhand joke by Johnny Carson in 1974 when he said there were shortages of everything in California during the Watergate scandal and gas shortage. The joke became a rumor, which became a fact, resulting in a run on toilet paper and also a very funny example of how humans can panic and act irrational, even in the best of times. Here’s a typical zinger from the show:

I hear that whenever someone in the White House tells a lie, Nixon gets a royalty.

When I was growing up, staying up late enough to watch The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson meant that I was being naughty and when I was an 8-year old I was apparently very naughty, staying up most nights to watch the legend be cool. In the 60s and early 70s, Carson was the definition of cool, well dressed and well spoken, he was funny and he connected instinctually to almost all age groups, a unique thing, because he was boyish yet could also be an occasional bully. I liked that combination I guess, considering I had two sisters to contend with in the mornings over the use of the one bathroom that we all enjoyed (at the  same time) in our childhood home. Johnny Carson was born in Corning, Iowa on October 23 in 1925 and would grow up in Norfolk, Nebraska with his brother and sister, then serving in World War II in the Navy as an ensign before attending the University of Nebraska in 1947. He received a BA in radio and speech with a minor in physics(!) in 1949 and his senior thesis, titled How to Write Comedy for Radio, is pretty informative and not very funny, yet it reveals that he knew how to be a TV show host before he could legally drink beer and after that it was Katie bar-the-door in the Rat Pack (drunken) cool of the late 1950s and early 60s. Following school, Carson worked at WOW-TV in Omaha, Nebraska and after that he moved to LA and hosted the semi-legendary Carson’s Cellar live from Hollywood, then went on to host a game show called Earn Your Vacation which then led to Who Do You Trust? where Johnny met the Boston Irish sidekick from heaven, the easily amused Ed McMahon (booted out of BC for streaking before it became a fad in the 1970s) Carson filled in for Jack Paar on the original Tonight Show in 1958 and won the gig after Steve Allen and Jack Paar quit in disgust because of sponsor meddling and other censorship. On October 1, 1962, Johnny Carson began his tenure as the longest serving TV host in American history, retiring on the top of his game (close enough anyway) and on May 22, 1992 after more than 4,000 shows  — night in and night out — for 30 solid years, he retired the comic’s comic, a professional host who always wanted his guests to shine in the spotlight and do their best on the world’s biggest stage. Trump, on the other hand, is a real estate developer.

We should just cancel the election and just give it to Trump.

Just before the 2016 election, on September 15, Donald Trump visited the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy tousled Trump’s hair and was apparently a big hit. Trump’s big hit game show, The Apprentice, is where most Americans originally got to know ‘The Donald’ and his popularity catapulted him into the White House (with a little help from Saudi Arabia and Russia, more to come). I’d always liked Jimmy Fallon before that, I thought he was an ultra talented host and performer and even though his boyish charm didn’t quite match the conversational wit of the great Johnny Carson, David Letterman or even Conan O’Brien, Jimmy is a funny and connectable host that has kept the Tonight Show franchise a going concern for over six years, no small feat. His pick for a house band of the Roots was an inspired choice and early expectations were raised for a show worthy of Carson, yet Stephen Colbert is the only one to come close to the greatest of them all, IMHO. Seth Meyers, with Fallon an alum of the SNL Weekend Update desk, took the chair occupied by Dick Cavett as our generation’s thoughtful late-night representative, or perhaps somewhere between Cavett and the cigarette smoke-filled banter of Tom Snyder, all of these late night hosts are sidekicks to the host with the most (nuclear weaponry): Donald J. Trump, also serving as our Commander in Chief. Donald Trump’s daily show, rated highly and watched by millions, isn’t very good in my humble opinion because he’s stupid and also not very funny, especially during a pandemic, and he should just step aside for this crisis and let someone like US Army General Russel L. Honoré, the former commander of Joint Task Force Katrina or Dr. Anthony Fauci handle it from here. Trump is clearly no good at this. He’s crass and only mildly humorous in the put-down, Don Rickles vein of comedy (but not nearly as sharp-witted and hilarious as ‘Mr. Warmth’) and Mr. Trump’s put down act is just not for me. Not now. Here’s a typical example:

Like, I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay? It’s, like, incredible.

This isn’t, like, a joke really, is it? It’s just a stupid boast, but these are the sorts of ‘jokes’ that Trump is known for — just outrageous, stupid boasts and putdowns. Like, we’re all standing on Fifth Avenue now, right? Hilarious! Stand up comedian Andrew Dice Clay, a former contestant on Trump’s game show, was also known as ‘The Diceman,’ and was once given a shot a talk-show on Showtime, however it was cancelled in 2018, yet he’s still working (I think) and the last time I saw him on TV, he played himself (in a parallel Universe) in Woody Allen’s excellent Blue Jasmine (2013). Just before the COVID-19 outbreak, our standup comedian/president* said at one of his insipid rallies in South Carolina (no one was allowed on the South Carolina Primary ballot to run against him, so he didn’t need to campaign there in the first place, but who has time to govern when you have a nightly show to put on?) that the recent outbreak of the deadly Coronavirus is a Democratic hoax, then announced travel restrictions from Iran and Mexico (Carona beer is brewed in Mexico, so bazinga!) but not from the country of Canada, where many more cases of the illness were reported, which is also on the border of Washington State, the first US State to report a death due to the effects of the COVID-19 disease, and not from Europe, the travel ban was hastily announced in ‘America First’ style in that night’s poorly-reviewed episode. Oh yeah, in that hastily-scheduled news conference the president* misidentified (expired) patient zero as a wonderful elderly woman, even though the victim was a man in his 50s. Donald Trump is not to be taken seriously, until of course he is — and for the past four years he’s performed, on average, about one stand-up gig a day. These gigs are otherwise known as a ‘news conference’ or before the pandemic, a ‘Trump Rally’ that’s really just one part rally, whatever the hell that entails, and one part so-called ‘entertainment,’ supported by daily Tweets and sound bites.

If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously. OK? Just knock the hell—I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees.

Of course, everybody wonders what Marshall McLuhan would say about all this, he was actually a funny man with a knack for pattern recognition, McLuhan famously watched the Nixon/Kennedy debate in 1960 and said that Nixon came across like “The railway lawyer who signs leases that are not in the best interests of the folks in the little town.” McLuhan, a conservative cut from the old cloth of intelligent and thoughtful contrarians, most gone now, who used effective and proven tools to promote their ideas. McLuhan himself was a promotion, a product to amplify his message (the media is everything, more later), hyped by a consortium of admen and intellectuals in the early ’50s who recognized the enormous power behind his ideas, especially the influence of the media in shaping thought. In 1972 McLuhan gave a wide-ranging interview with MacLean’s magazine in which he all but predicted Apple, Microsoft, Twitter and Facebook, McLuhan was the sharpest skate among conservative Canucks, himself not above hosting his own show, however the closest he ever came was a cameo appearance in Woody Allen’s masterpiece, Annie Hall in 1977.

I’ve been treated very unfairly by this judge. Now, this judge is of Mexican heritage. I’m building a wall, OK? I’m building a wall.

McLuhan’s ideas were understood and expanded by the great conservative historian (and 12th Librarian of Congress) Daniel Boorstin, who wrote in The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America in 1962, that “We have used our wealth, our literacy, our technology, and our progress to create a thicket of unreality which stands between us and the facts of life,” writing that Americans have confused the copies for the originals, and even more disturbing, today the copy is actually preferred to the original. A hero — a person distinguished by noteworthy achievements — has been replaced with celebrity, or a person distinguished solely by their image. Last year ‘conservatives’ (if you can even call them that anymore) were crying like little colicky babies that poor Donald Trump, our boring and unfunny insult comic of a president, was being unfairly maligned by late-night comedians, the horseshit argument went that Johnny Carson NEVER insulted the president, noting that he was apolitical (at a time when ‘equal time’ restrictions were in full effect) but this, of course, is stupid and wrong.

Richard Nixon at Baskin Robbins: “mmmmm peach-mint”

A little known fact is that Richard Nixon actually had a decent sense of humor. Here’s a joke from Nixon about running for president on Johnny’s show from 1967 and it reveals that Nixon was kinda funny, if not the charming, made-for-TV personality his rival Kennedy had been. The problem Nixon’s handlers recognized was that Nixon was trying to be ‘cool’ on the new ‘hot’ medium of color television. The cool voice of the radio had given way to the hot visuals of the glaring television screen and after meeting and hiring the little-known TV producer for the successful yet boring Mike Douglas Show in 1970 by the name of Roger Ailes, Nixon then began to successfully employ the full arsenal of tools that Marshall McLuhan had laid out for examination, as confusing as they are, birthing what has now become known as the Trump Republican party. When Rupert Murdoch wanted to start a Republican TV network in America in the 1990s, he hired the McLuhan disciple Ailes to create what became known as MSNBC and FOX, using McLuhan’s famous mantra that ‘the medium is the message’ to casually influence public opinion and his genius was as maddening and incorrigible as the master himself. The world we see around us today was predicted by him every time Trump appears on Hannity.

On his show, Johnny Carson showcased his conservative buffoon character Floyd R. Turbo, who frequently introduced himself as an American with a hilarious lack of world knowledge in one of his best skits — and I can imagine Johnny would be filling the air with hours of Trump jokes today if he were still with us. Here’s one from 1989, during a typical monologue cracking jokes about Jim and Tammy Fay Bakker, President Bush, practically his entire cabinet and when things got a little quiet after a joke bombed (Johnny knew how to make even that seem funny) he set his sights on The Donald:

I don’t go out of town with this folks, what you see is what you get… Donald Trump, believe it or not, there’s a new game show it’s called Trump Card they’re trying to get it on with Donald Trump… He’s on everything: his name’s on buildings, his name’s on boats and this show is — apparently — like Wheel of Fortune but instead of Vanna White, Leona Helmsley comes out and flips a homeless person into the street.

Anyone who remembers Leona Helmsley, that’s a funny joke. Trump Card was filmed at Trump Castle, (now the Golden Nugget Atlantic City) and lasted about a week. Johnny Carson secretly fed David Letterman monologue jokes right up until the week before he died and in one of the most heartfelt tributes to Carson after he was signed to that great talk show in the sky in 2005, Dave revealed to his audience that his entire monologue that evening was written by Carson, whom Letterman was on the phone with nearly every day in the last years of his life. The monologue was hilarious and timely, very political (even zinging President Bush during a time of war), but that’s beside the point,  because an interesting sidenote to Dave’s story was that his last joke of the monologue, in essence, the last joke ever told by Johnny Carson, went something like this:

There’s a new record for civilian spacecraft – 50 miles into space. And from that height, you know this probably, there are two things, two man-made things that are visible from 50 miles up. One, of course, is the Great Wall of China. And the other?… Donald Trump’s hair.

Johnny Carson was a comic genius, in a rare 1978 Rolling Stone interview (Johnny was notoriously private, because occasionally he was a brooding drunk) he opened up a bit on his feelings about morality and politics and anyone who thinks they know who Johnny Carson was may not realize how intelligent Carson could be (as long as the subject of women’s lib didn’t come up) because he was truly a man of his times, the perfect host for the tumult and revolution of the 60s and 70s in America, every night he would talk us all off the ledge and back onto our couches and beds for a quickie and a good night’s sleep. A product of small town, middle America, he spoke common sense to all of us and made us laugh at ourselves and in post-Watergate America, he verbalized what so many of were thinking at the time,

I resented people like Nixon and Agnew moralizing from the tops of their voices about morality and putting down the kids who didn’t want to fight in Vietnam and talking about high moral principles when they were deceiving everybody. If they weren’t so damn-highly moral about it, it would be one thing, but I don’t know how many people even know how much they were screwing the political process and using it for their own benefit. I think politicians in those positions have to have better standards. If they ask for those jobs, then they better have better standards than the rest of us.

Marshall McLuhan often repeated a slogan he claimed he had gotten from IBM, ‘Information overload = pattern recognition’ and as a practicing Catholic his entire life, he put that practical knowledge to good use. His ideas led to the change in perspective that respect was something earned, or that politicians should rise to a higher standard, and Roger Ailes and the Republicans changed that perception by merely stating the opposite, over and over again. The Republican party, after the Nixon years and the Vietnam War, needed to do something radical because the Democrats had retaken all of the important roles in society, just as they had in WWII and just as they are today. A return to a conservative ‘norm’ was favored over the chaos of the 1960s in America and Richard Nixon was the first Republican convert, hiring away Ailes from TV as his media advisor as he successfully employed all of the tools that Marshall McLuhan mused about in his typically disjuncted and meandering way, where Wired magazine put it like this in 1996:

McLuhan saw the world cooling down after a hot interval. The twist was cooler than the Charleston. Cool jazz replaced bebop. TV was cooler than radio, which was cooler than print, but much hotter than the songs and dances of tribal culture.

McLuhan loved to talk. His natural medium was speech. He slept fitful hours, and when he awakened with something on his mind – at any hour – he would call a friend and start talking. Peter Drucker, who knew McLuhan in the 1940s when Drucker was teaching at Bennington College, remembers opening the door one rainy morning to find McLuhan standing soaked on his doorstep, ready for a chat.

Facts never bothered McLuhan, nor would he concede a point in argument. When caught using an example that could be proven incorrect and confronted by a student or colleague rude enough to heave this inconvenient detail into the works, McLuhan would press ahead, speak up louder, interrupt, and race off on a new tangent.

For McLuhan, the future would become an eponymous ‘global village’ and today we have our Tribal Chieftain Trump beating the drums every day on his highly rated show, as McLuhan predicted, and hot is now cool again. McLuhan is now justifiably a prophet of our age and we ignore his message at our own peril. Roger Ailes, Richard Nixon and the Republican party got the message early on and created the self-fulfilling prophesy that is Donald Trump and this reality should remind us of McLuhan’s most dire warning for our little global village, now getting hotter with a pandemic raging, in his later years, when McLuhan was asked whether he was pessimistic or optimistic he said,

Neither — I’m apocalyptic.

John Underhill
April 4, 2020

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