That chic bunk about each individual needing his own psychological "space" in which to function on this planet is probably a byproduct of the age of television. Television gives most of the people on it their own tidy four-cornered space, and a majority of the faces we see on television get the screen to themselves while they speak to us.
Talk shows boil down to a series of interspersed individual shots of interviewer and interviewee. Newscasts dole out one reporter or anchorbeing at a time. And the mandated directorial "style" for TV films -- which is more a computer formula than a style at all -- is to alternate shots of solo active characters with reaction shots of solo passive characters. There was video pong long before there was video pong, but it was called entertainment.
Vagrant throughts about the concept of video space and how little it resembles physical, earthly space may pop into one's mind while watching the taping of a TV show, especially one at which a studio audience is present -- notably, or at least conveniently for the sake of example. "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" on NBC. Three times I've sat in the unbelievably penetrating chill of Johnny's vengefully airconditioned Burbank studio and felt that I was seeing one of the most familiar rituals in the world from the skewed perspective of a recently relocated Orkan. The "Tonight" show in person doesn't look anything like the "Tonight" show on television; if the thing opened on Broadway as a stage attraction, complete with guest stars and free admission, it wouldn't even attract village winos seeking shelter from the storm.
The "Tonight" show may have obvious origins in radio and vaudeville, particularly considering Carson's oft-stated motto that an old joke should never be thrown away if there might be one more titter left in it. But in certain senses it is pure television, and you realize this at once when you sit with the studio audience and watch it, because everything is played not to the people in the seats but to the unseen gazillions who will watch the tape played back later that night, when it is teleported into their proverbial bedrooms.
Of course, studio audiences are mere props, cushions, adornments, to help create the illusion of an event for viewers and to give the entertainers a source of immediate sonic response. But it's eerie to watch a show performed in front of you and feel as though somehow you're eavesdropping on a private conversation between other parties. If Carson merely nods or winks to the audience during the show's innumerable commercial breaks, they glow with gratitude; mostly, during these breaks, he sits in the dark (the hot lights are turned off to give him a rest), rapping his pencil on the desk in rhythm to screeching brassy yawps from the most over-praised band in the history of music.
How nuttily inconsequential it all seems! You couldn't in a million years get 500 people in a room to watch this show if not for the fact that 10 million people will be seeing it later, vicariously, in their homes. Except that with television, the vicarious becomes the actual and the actual the vicarious, if you get my draft.
And Johnny's studio space has nothing much in common with Johnny's screen space. Johnny's space, significantly, is one which nary a soul gets to violate, either during the monologue, when he is held in respectful mid-shot, or during the interview portions of the program, when a "slave" camera sits glued to Johnny's face so director Bobby Quinn can switch to one of his comic facial reactions at any moment.
TV cameras make studio space look larger; the first thing that strikes newcomers to Johnny's studio is that everything looks small and cramped -- Johnny's desk, on the audience's left, appearing much much closer to the rattlesome band, on the right, than it looks on TV. The way it looks on TV is all that counts, however; and the random, trivial, even tedious spectacle in the studio looks compact, orderly, amusing and even fiftfully delightful when watched through the keyhole of the television screen.
Another impression one may get from seeing the "Tonight" show in person is that the whole apparatus has gotten a little sad and worn. Band leader Doc Severinson and announcer Ed McMahon, dragged out to do the warm-up that presumably gets the audience in a festive mood (the folks are already salivating at the thought of seeing Johnny when they enter the chilly old meat-locker), look weak and weary. Severinson suggests an aging urban cracker who buys embroidered jeans at E.J. Korvette's and should have changed to gabardine about a decade ago. Ed's jaw trembles slightly, like a grandpa's; and during interviews, he sits silent on the couch, out of camera range, like a still-life from the Hollywood Wax Museum.
On one particular night, when Carson had elected to do another of his Aunt Blabby routines, a bit borrowed from Jonathan Winters' inimitable Maudie Frickert, it was hard not to wonder how much longer Carson, 52 and gray, can continue to ridicule old folks from a distance, real or imagined. With Ed's jowls quivering beside him, the spectacle took on certain macabre aspects in person that somehow didn't quite come across on the air. Perhaps for some, television is a magic mirror with a gauze filter in front of it. On TV, Carson is still able to suggest feckless, even impish, youthfulness.
Two years ago Carson sat in the superduper electronic rumpus room -- actually more of a rumpus house -- behind his Bel Air home and, looking considerably older with an open shirt that revealed the wrinkles in his neck (covered with a necktie on the air), declared, "I am sure I won't be doing 'The Tonight Show' in 10 years. I doubt if I'll be doing it at 55." He also said, in response to perpetual speculation about his successor to the throne of national court jester, "When I go, they can get anybody they want. I could not care less."
But watching Jonny on TV, confined to the video space he is so brilliant at dominating -- he is the king of the frame -- it seems unthinkable that the "Tonight" show could exist without him. Jack Paar, lovable terror that he was, obviously couldn't continue setting off fireworks forever; Johnny has more thoroughly ingratiated himself into American homelife, like pancakes, or pets. But it becomes easier to accept the idea of his eventual exodus when you see the show in person, because the seediness of it can get almost grisly.
It doesn't help that the indispensable "Ed" warms up the audience -- at least on one recent night -- with the kind of yellowing blue material that would make an Andy Warhol movie seem wholesome. McMahon told the crowd how wonderful they were, how wonderful Friday night crowds are in general, and then went off on a pathetic canned reverie about gauging a girl's seducibility according to how much booze she drinks on a date. If she orders a pink lady, said Ed, that is bad news -- "You know you won't have to stop at the drugstore on the way to your place that night."
The mere idea of Ed on a date with a sexy young woman, much less the thought of him stopping at the drugstore after getting her sloshed, struck me as obscene on the face of it. But there was more. Doc proceeded to "lead" the orchestra in a finale to the tawdry warm-up by heaving his hips toward the piano in mock-coital rhythm. And then Ed made a joke about Doc having a "wand in his pants." You had to wonder what creative whiz decided that two old duffers doing this kind of material were just right to win the hearts of a crowd. It was like watching the creepiest cheap lounge act in an Atlantic City casino.
Who were these smarmees to be laying out oalm leaves for the exalted arrival of Johnny?
None of this is to challenge the notion that "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" still thrives as a buoyant institution after 16 years on the air, or that Carson is a world champion of justifiable longevity. In addition, there is something pleasingly cozy about the "Tonight" show in that it is, indeed, a show. It is taped in sequence from beginning to end and then played back with virtually no changes (unless Johnny says a dirty word to rouse the studio audience from a moment's lethargy; he knows the word will be bleeped, but the shock treatment invariably works). The few remaining examples of comedy-variety programs or specials still on TV are taped in segments over a period of days and then patched together electronically through various manipulative processes that come under the euphemistic heading of "post-production."
A simple standard half-hour situation comedy may take hours to tape on a studio soundstage. Then it will go through electronic editing, electronic "sweetening" of the laughtrack, and so much afterthought alteration that sometimes there is not a single minute of the program that has not been artificially seasoned in some way.
The "Tonight" show one sees at 11:30 Eastern Time is at least the same "Tonight" show taped at 5:30 Pacific Time in the frozen wastes of NBC's studio. Not an exact replica of what the studio audience has seen, of course, but an engineered illusion with spatial relationships utterly scrambled and reordered for personal consumption.
Johnny has his own space, and Walter Cronkite has his own space, and the Pillsbury Doughboy has his own space. And if you want to keep them real, and in their own respective spaces, stick to the reassuring illusions and stay away from the negligible realities. Don't go see Johnny in the flesh; he only lives in the sprinkle of electrons at Your House, USA.