'When television is good, nothing - not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers - nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit-and-loss sheet or rating book to distract you - and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland.'
- Newton Minnow, 1961
It was the same with Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer and too many other great writers to name. While much has been made of the comedians whose careers were launched by Carson, it is important to remember that "The Tonight Show" was more than just a comedy showcase. It regularly featured novelists, essayists and literary journalists, something that is almost unheard of on high-profile network TV talk shows these days.
Vidal was a regular on Carson's "The Tonight Show." And he did not appear merely to hawk a book or to promote a new Broadway play. He was invited on to talk politics, a favorite subject of Carson, whose guests over the years included the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Bobby Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. (Indeed, the Arkansan's comeback after early stumbles in the 1992 presidential race was aided by a well-timed appearance on "The Tonight Show.")
What Vidal had to say about politics was provocative, even radical: He spoke about the perils of empire, the corruptions of the governing class, and the notion that it might make sense to hold a new constitutional convention.
Carson's death Sunday at age 79 offered a reminder of just how much television has changed - for the worse - in the years since his retirement in 1992. His late-night variety show, which debuted only a few months after former Federal Communications Commissioner Newton Minow described much of television as a "vast wasteland," was not some experimental program.
"The Tonight Show" was the mainstream. It was the No. 1 program in its time slot for the better part of three decades, and it made NBC a fortune. The program owed much of its success to the fact that Carson was not afraid to welcome guests who were smart, controversial and sometimes even dangerous - at least to the political establishment.
Muhammed Ali appeared on the show to talk not just about boxing but about his objections to the Vietnam War.
New Orleans prosecutor Jim Garrison came on to argue that the assassination of President John Kennedy had been the work not of a lone gunman but of conspirators.
Carson may have been at his very best with Vidal, who shared the host's dry wit and fascination with the deeper questions of American politics. As Vidal's biographer, Fred Kaplan, noted, "Gore's appearances on 'The Tonight Show' had become semiannual events. Carson and Vidal were alike in their combination of impromptu wit and icy discipline, which created some sparkling moments in the transient world of 1960s and '70s talk television."
Amazingly, Kaplan discovered when he was working on his biography of Vidal in the 1990s that "NBC later filmed over the tapes; none of Gore's 'Tonight Show' performances survive."
In a sense, that is not surprising. The executives at NBC would not want Americans to have a record of an oasis of what could be good about network television that flourished in the days before the vast wasteland encroached.
John Nichols is the associate editor of The Capital Times.
© 2005 Capital Times