Hands down the best host of a variety/interview show was Johnny Carson from The Tonight Show, starting in 1962 and running through May 22, 1992. Carson embodied and improved on the style of his predecessors like Steve Allen and Jack Parr just as modern day show hosts channel the Carson mystique.
In what has to be a singularly brilliant concept, Time Life has released a DVD set that pairs episodes from the 1970s in their entirety, including commercials. The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson: The Vault Series comes in single disc, three-disc, six-disc, and twelve-disc editions. Watching a whole 90-minute show with ads makes one feel like they’ve been transported via a time warp to a simpler time.
Before we even get around to the great guests, I have to emphasize how television commercials from this era are a time capsule of consumerism. One show alone (from 1972) has both Farrah Fawcett and Tom Selleck in a Dubonnet commercial, plus another commercial with Judd Hirsch, and Cybill Shepherd in yet another televised ad. An amazing percentage of commercials show people taking showers. I guess it was a thing.
Some of the guests include impressionist Rich Little showing Carson how to imitate Carson; animal and environmental activist Joan Embry; drummer extraordinaire Buddy Rich; the original Wonder Woman Linda Carter; Jack Palance pushing his latest detective show; and Truman Capote lambasting everybody from Marlon Brando to socialites. There are many others.
One night Buddy Hackett keeps saying the word “ass” and keeps getting bleeped. “We can only say it once,” says Carson. However the next night (November 21, 1975) Vincent Price is giving a fish baking demonstration and says, without being bleeped: “I’ve been married so many times I know how to bone my wife.”
In what was perhaps Carson’s best recurring comedy routine he would don a wizard’s hat and divine the questions that were inside a sealed envelope. Carnac the Magnificent was hilarious then and still elicits laughs today.