January 25, 2005

Heeeeere's grotesque racial stereotyping!


Don't get me wrong, I like Johnny Carson as much as the next guy (or at least as much as the next guy who grew up with Letterman). But the bombardment of utterly uniform hagiographic tributes rankles the contrarian in me. Almost involuntarily, I start to search my memory for anything that might have bugged me about the guy.

That's how I recalled the clips you're about to watch. I first saw them years ago on the amazing public access cable program Media Shower, hosted by Jamie Greenberg. They show Carson indulging in some spectacularly poor judgment when it comes to racial matters. And comedy. The more dramatic second clip, in which Carson does blackface and ebonics, is actually the less disturbing. Yes, most people knew by then that such antics aren't funny, and yes, the joke is too lame to justify the caricature, but still, it was an attempt at satire that a person might be inclined to forgive.

The ad-libbed first clip, however, is something different. It starts cringe-worthy and then turns jaw-dropping (if you don't catch it at first, it's repeated).

Here are the clips (If that's slow, here's a backup), complete with Greenberg's astute commentary. They come to you courtesy of my friend Andrew Hearst. I contacted Andrew immediately when I thought of this, because he once wrote an article about Media Shower and I was hoping that he'd kept all his tapes. As it happened, Andrew had also been thinking about the clips, and my e-mail was enough to get him digitizing them. As it also happens, Andrew has just launched a blog, Panopticist, which promises to be a major new player in the pop-culture blogosphere. Here's his take on the clips.

Update: The clip has been MeFi'd, so be patient. Also, there's a plausible suggestion in the MeFi comments that Carson doesn't actually say the one particularly bad thing that Jamie, Andrew and I heard him say.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


As I sit and wait for those clips to download...the Rickles confrontation "skit" was played on last night's "Tonight Show" tribute, but it stopped short of the "Yo, black man" part.

I'm sorry, I don't hear it either. Carson says "hangin'" (or possibly "hang in'") a continuation of the "jive" riff he was on. It isn't especially funny or clever but it at least makes marginal sense. "Hang him" doesn't make any sense at all in this context. Even if for some unfathomable reason a person was going to make an off the charts offensive comment like that (not just offensive but cruel and threatening), he would use the word "lynch" not "hang."

The whole thing is weird and certainly not one of Carson's best moments. But the dude committed tens of thousands of hours to video. Not every moment is one to be proud of, I guess.

This is interesting in a nostalgia context, though. Like everyone else, I jump on Saturday Night Live for not being "as good as it used to be" (and I've been saying this for twenty years). Late Saturday night I was watching a first season SNL (an episode with Elliott Gould that won an Emmy, apparently) and much of it was just embarrassing. I was reminded that our memories of those early years are compressed by clip shows and enduring individual moments. From the beginning the show has always been largely miss with the occasional hit. The measure of a good episode or season was how hard the hits were when they came.

Two cringeworthy incidents in 30 years of broadcasting? Better than most, I'd say. Must we disect everything? He was funny, charming and made his guests (both onstage and at home) feel comfortable. Seriously, what's wrong with that?

As I said, I don't think Carson was a racist, or a bad guy, or a bad entertainer. I just happen to find most people and things more interesting when we acknowledge the rough edges rather than try to smooth everything out.

I'm now agnostic on the "hang in" /"hang him" line. "Hang in" actually makes more sense, because Rickels certainly wasn't and Carson probably felt like he needed the comedy help by that point.

Still, to those who suggest (over at MeFi for instance) that we're all too PC these days, I would suggest that TV (and life) is actually better now that the most popular white guy in the country can't see a random black man and automatically reduce him, even jokingly, to a jive-talking cotton picker.


I would go one step further: I see Carson's "hang in [there]" as a millisecond acknowlegment that he just did something quite unfunny.

A reader writes that "hang him" "makes more sense" because it's classic build up/tear down humor of the day: Carson plays nice with the guy, then stabs him in the back. That's plausible.

But I'd still say that "hang in" makes equal sense (though again, I'm agnostic now) because it's not "hang in there" as in, "it's OK, you'll get through this," but "hang in" as in, "keep up with me." It's comedic one-upmanship at Rickel's expense.

If that's what he said, I mean.

My persistent correspondent writes: "Hang him" makes perfect sense, and in fact, him NOT saying it makes very little sense. To quote one of the Mefi posters (now that I've maligned them all), "In the first skit, you need to take Johnny's greeting of the black man together with his 'hang him' comment -- they're part of one joke: a satire of people who pretend to welcome black people while secretly dismissing them." In other words, from the point Carson stiffens into a dorky cartoon character to walk over there through to "hang him" he's trying (although, of course, failing) to make humor out of the two-faced attitude most white liberals evinced at the time (not saying they don't now, but there's less of it, at least), making essentially the same joke as in the later "blackface" bit. For Carson to do the talking-jive-to-the-black-guy and consider the joke completed would actually be *more* racist than ("satirically") adding  "hang him." Certainly the phrase is still jaw-droppingly inappropriate. But it makes perfect sense in its riffing-on-Rickles context, which "hang in" simply does not. The real joke is that those who deny it's "hang him" are thus tarring Carson with more racism than he actually showed.

I think it is clearly "Hang him" but if someone clearly hears "Hang in" so be it.

In the first clip I don't think he was being racist; I think he was mocking Rickles. All of it, from the shuck-and-jive greeting to the sotto voce "hang him" are a parody of Rickles' act. He is calling Rickles a hack on The Tonight Show.

I don't understand the cotton mill joke but it kind of fits the Rickles-parody as well. I imagine Carson watched the tape and thought "Even I don't get that joke." He probably meant to say "your job at the cotton mill," which would have made sense in that context. Again, if you see it as mockery of Rickles, not the other actor, Carson isn't racist.

As for the second clip, the blackface/twoface was the point of the joke and I don't find it offensive. It isn't top-quality satire (fish in a barrel target and all) but the joke is on politicians not African-Americans (though the ebonics is hard to swallow - if the black woman had recoiled instead of numbly shaking his hand it wouldn't even have a tinge of racism).

When I first saw the clip, I was sure Carson said "hangin'" and immediately assumed he was making a joke about the guy's genitalia. That would fit in somewhat more as an answer to what he said to the guy: "How ya doing, Daddy?" and would be in line with much of Rickles's humor. Listening to it many times more, it's difficult to tell exactly what he's saying, but the "H" sound of "him" does not seem prominent. If that was the case, Carson's joke is still racist, but it not as vicious as him saying "hang him."


You asswipes are digging up something that happened on TV 30 years ago that happened at the spur of the moment as evidence that carson was racist, and they have the balls to do it just after the man died and can no longer defend what may have happened.

Meanwhile, ever fucking negro comic I watch makes jokes about how white men are unable to play basketball, dance, make love, etc. etc. etc.

Why don't you have everone involved in "White Chicks" as how that isn't racist.


I don't think anyone is calling Carson a racist here. This video would make anyone in 2005 a little uncomfortable... but it's obvious to me that Carson's intent was pretty much to parody Rickles act, no matter if you here "hang him," "hangin" or "hang in."

"Hey, a black man" is something Rickles would do, and if you hear "hang him", the act of being friendly to someone's face and then dismissing them immediately afterwards if another Rickles' standard. Carson target when walking into the studio was Rickles, not the black guy. So he was taking down Rickles a peg by doing Rickles own act in front of him.

The second part with the busing/blackface bit is a lot more forgiveable. Though it's a bit weak, you don't everything out of the park in 30 years.

It's unfortunate that race has become such a taboo subject for comedy. One of the reason why Chappelle Show is so fresh is because it's pretty much the only show to deal with race in a funny manner. In the 70s, along with Carson's small bit, you had Richard Pryor on SNL, All in the Family, the Jeffersons, the Lampoon, all of which touched on race (in sometimes uncomfrotable ways). Castrating comedy to make everyone comfortable is minimizing as an art form. Missteps are going to happen when you play with difficult subjects, but its far better than not touching them at all.

hard to get riled up about this one. any black people submit comments here? if so are you offended? he was mocking rickles, not the black cast member.

as for the second clip, it's not funny. it's eyeroll worthy. it's tacky. but it's pretty much in keeping with the whole friar's club scene they were all a part of (along with sammy davis, i might add).

Two v. good comments from Andrew's site:

With all due respect, it would be better to provide some context before promoting your allegations of racist behavior by Johnny Carson.

I watched both the episode you've excerpted and the previous night's when Don Rickles hosted and broke Carson's cigarette box. During the 1970's, I used to watch the Tonight Show regularly, especially when Carson had comedians like Rickles who would often push the host with his abusive comedic style. Rickles was one of the few guests where Carson would smoke on camera. Rickles' act always featured over the top imitations of a black minstrel character. In fact in another show, Carson demanded Rickles show him the alleged black man. Rickles led Carson up into the audience until he found a black man in one of the top rows. It was great comedy and not at all offensive for the times nor today.

When I saw the show where Carson discovers the broken cigarette box, I was amazed because it was the only time he really lost his composure. When he went into what you characterize as racist behavior, he was simply mocking Rickles schtick which would always include over the top mugging with and towards a black man, present or not.

So you see there's nothing to your analysis. As someone who's been subject to my share of racism, I never suspected Johnny Carson of it. Please correct and amend your misinformed analysis. Thank you.

posted by Larry Chinn at 6:14 AM on January 27, 2005

Thanks for the context, Larry. That does make it easier to understand what's going on in the first clip.

But let's keep our eyes on the ball here, people. What's interesting here is not the question of whether or not Johnny Carson was a closet racist, because no one could plausibly argue that these clips demonstrate that. Jamie Greenberg may sort of imply it, and his intro is a little over the top, but I seriously doubt he actually believes it. What's really interesting about these clips is what they reveal about certain kinds of humor that were acceptable back then but no longer are today. I would argue that it's a GOOD thing that it's no longer acceptable for famous white TV stars to wear blackface, because blackface has tons of sickening historical/cultural baggage. Does Johnny Carson's use of blackface in 1976 indicate that he was a racist? OF COURSE IT DOESN'T. But it's shocking to see it today, because blackface has, with good reason, been tossed in the trash heap of outmoded comedy shtick. And 1976 was not all that long ago.

This morning I rewatched the controversial "Hang 'im" sequence several times on my TV, and therefore with no audio or video compression. I find it hard to believe that Carson could be saying anything other than "hang 'im!" Carson puts a strong emphasis on the first word--"HANG 'im"--which he wouldn't do if he were saying "hang in." I'm about as certain as I can be that Carson says, "Hang 'im," then pulls his head back slightly and says, "What?" The "What?" seems to be Carson's acknowledgment that he just said something offensive--shorthand for "What? Did I really just say that offensive but funny thing?"

Lots of people have pointed out, on this site and Daniel Radosh's and others, that Carson is simply trying to, in Jamie Greenberg's words, "out-Rickles Rickles" in that first clip. Of COURSE that's what Carson's doing. Thanks to Larry Chinn's helpful post, it's easier to put Carson's shtick into context. Regardless of that context, though, the "Hang 'im!" comment--and I'm certain that's what Carson says--is totally shocking. Does that comment indicate that Carson was a closet racist? OF COURSE IT DOESN'T. But it's shocking nonetheless. If you don't think it's shocking, well, then I just don't know what to say.

And is anyone surprised that Rickles, in his Monday Tonight Show appearance, only showed the first part of the clip--and not the second part involving the shenanigans with Harrison Page? There are lots of potential reasons why Rickles didn't show it, the most likely simply being time limits. But the second part would come across as totally offensive to most of today's TV audience, especially without the context Larry Chinn provided above.

Anyway, thanks to everyone for visiting this site.

posted by Andrew Hearst at 10:54 AM on January 27, 2005

"I would suggest that TV (and life) is actually better now that the most popular white guy in the country can't see a random black man and automatically reduce him, even jokingly, to a jive-talking cotton picker."

Yeah, things are much better now that the most popular black guy in the country can see a random white man and automatically reduce him, even jokingly, to an uptight yuppie dork.

When did former education secretary of education Rod Paige do that?

But Jim's a smart guy, and doesn't really need someone to explain the different cultural and historical context between whites making slave jokes about blacks and blacks making uptight yuppie about whites.

Not as smart as you, obviously. Please explain that, and also who Rod Paige is. (I meant Dave Chappelle or maybe Chris Rock, but maybe he's more popular than them.)

And is anyone surprised that Rickles, in his Monday Tonight Show appearance, only showed the first part of the clip--and not the second part involving the shenanigans with Harrison Page?

Rickles didn't provide the clip. The clip was edited in after the show was taped (see here for proof).

Carson was definitely aping Rickles. The "I-I-I-I-I-You big dummy" that preceded Carson's doing shtick withe the black guy was a standard part of Rickles act.

Jim seems to be one of those guys who goes on February muttering "Why isn't there a White History Month?"

Relax Ofay [it's okay, I can say that, I'm passing], we all hate yuppies but if the worst thing that happens to you at work is someone mistakes you for a Young Urban Professional then, awesome, you're doing fine. Buy yourself a Heineken. On the other hand if someone casually asserts you should consider forced labor as a career and that your life is expendable, well, that's a bit of a downer. And if the factor that decides which of these things happens to you is the color of your skin it all takes on a somewhat offensive character.

"Jim seems to be one of those guys who goes on February muttering 'Why isn't there a White History Month?'"

Because I don't get why it's okay to make white jokes but not black jokes? Huh.

I don't quite understand what you're saying, Didi, but as Daniel has established, I'm kind of dumb.

Oh, and wasn't White History Month last month?

Just so we can get a baseline reading, Jim, do you in fact understand why there isn't a white history month, and do you agree that this is not unfair? If so, please explain.

I confess, I don't know why there isn't a White History Month. Or why there should be one. Never gave the matter much thought. Do you have any questions for me about National Broccoli Week? I've got some strong opinions on that one.

Also, what does it have to do with Johnny Carson making a weak attempt to imitate Don Rickles? Or why we're better off now that somebody like him couldn't get away with something like that? I thought that was the topic.

if we look at anything with a negative perspective, we will find negativity... anyone with intelligence can usually find what they are looking for in comedy, because comedy (especially bad comedy) is an attempt to make us laugh through counterpoint and juxtaposition and confusing ideas and unexpected presentation and props and costume... Don Rickles was known for insulting humor which often included racial stereotyping and Johnny was mocking Rickle's brand of shock-insult humor... as for the blackface parody, have you seen any of the seventies all-black TV shows (Jeffersons, Good Times, What's Happening, etc)?... they are racially degrading to African Americans, or they are people secure in their social identity laughing at themselves... comedy is putting people into ridiculous situations in ridiculous costumes saying ridiculous things... and much of comedy comes from laughing at ourselves for our faults, fears, and prejudices are high on that list... by mocking the prejudices and stereotypes, we open a dialogue about how stupid and laughable taking them seriously can be... trying to interprete comedy as serious prejudice may say a lot more about those interpreting than the actual comedy or commedians... but then, this comment might be a parody of a serious comment about how ridiculous comedy critics can be... you see through your eyes...

I don't know if you are friends with Greenberg or related to Greenberg, but Media Shower was neither innovative nor thoughtful. It was one of a dozen or so "clip shows" that aired on Manhattan's cable access network in the late 1990's. There were so many of them because the formula was simple: Vulture someone else's video footage, then comment on it as if you invented it.

If you call yourself a doctor or a lawyer and you aren't one, you are committing fraud. Unfortunately there is no such statute for people who refer to themselves as "comedy writers". A quick perusal of the internet will demonstrate that Greenberg does not have any credits of note, only access to a reservoir of video clips from having worked in development at MTV.

I'll leave it up to the readers to determine which institution is more racist, Carson's Tonight Show or Greenberg's pals at MTV.

Pimp my ride, Jamie.

Hello Robin Towers. Jamie Greenberg here.

Not sure if you ever watched Media Shower but it is not quite clear what you mean when you say "the formula was simple: Vulture someone else's video footage, then comment on it as if you invented it."

I don't know if you mean that I commented as tho I had invented the FORMULA, or that I commented as tho I had invented the FOOTAGE, but I certainly did neither. I was always quite clear that the clips I showed were not my own, and I certainly did not claim to have invented the clip show. I don't mind your not liking the show-- it was a show I put together in my apartment late at night after working all day, many people liked it and many didn't.

But your anger at me seems a little odd. As for your scorn for my tv credits, although it is not at all clear why this is relevant, I was a tv writer for dozens of shows and specials over 12 years. Among many others, I wrote for all 5 seasons of PBS' Where In the World is Carmen Sandiego?, I co-created and co-wrote PBS' Where In Time Is Carmen Sandiego?, and was a story-producer on Michael Moore's TV Nation. I hope Robin, OH! how I HOPE that you consider these credits "of note."

Yes I also did a lot of MTV work, which seems to be all that popped up in your Quick Perusal of the Internet, but that work had nothing to do with Media Shower, and in no way helped me get clips to show. Ever. A Quick Perusal of the MTV's "Video Reservoir" will show you that they do not maintain clip libraries of other networks' shows, and I did not run any MTV clips on my show -- their shows are stupid enough, they do not need commenting upon.

Your ending, I'll leave it up to the readers to determine which institution is more racist, Carson's Tonight Show or Greenberg's pals at MTV, while it no doubt sounds just as smart and punchy as the closing lines of other angry letters you have read, is oddly off-base. My point was never that the Tonight Show was racist, merely that these are 2 shockingly off-color (excuse the phrase) moments that even in their day were in poor taste, and certainly in contrast with Carson's generally genial, inoffensive manner. (As for timing, I showed the Carson stuff around 7 years ago. Johnny wasn't dead then. The timing of when to show it on the Panopticist site was up to the proprietors of the site, tho I did consent).

As for defending MTV, I do not defend them in any way, tho I would submiot that their sexism, brainlessness, and greedy hypocrisy probably rank higher on their list of sins than racism.

And you end with "Pimp My Ride, Jamie." Yes, that is the name of an MTV show, and yes you sound flip and jaunty by ending with it. Nicely done. Antiques Roadshow, Robin.

[this refers both to comments posted here and at panopticist.com, both of which are showing the Carson clips]

One thing I'd like to add in response to several people's comments about the Rickles clip: posters seem to think I showed the clip because I was scandalized by the sight of a white man (Carson) in blackface, and hence they conclude I am hyper-politically correct, or humorless, or born too late, etc.

The sight of a white man in black face is not in itself what I found objectionable about the clip (although let's be real, there is a certain whoa!-factor here-- blackface is justifiably weighed down by LOTS of historical baggage, and no it is not simply the innocuous flipped equivalent of the "White Chicks" film, or Eddie Murphy's genius whiteface short film he did back on SNL)...

But anyway. I am fully aware that he was making a comment about politicians and their 2-faced (as it were) nature. I get the point he is making by being white for the white voter, black for the black voter. What most fascinated/repelled me is Carson's VERSION of being black -- to act "white" he speaks in measured, reasonable tones, then he turns round and acts "black" by going into a grinning, hand-slapping "right dere mama" characterization that seems out of an Amos & film.

Posters who think that I missed the point of the sketch, which is not objectionable, are simply making a category mistake. I was pointing out first how odd it is to see a lovable, somewhat bland mainstream entertainer like Carson in the loaded and very discredited medium of blackface, and second how weird anbd questionable his version of "acting black" was.

"Where in the World is Carmen San Diego"? You couldn't get any work on "Bloo's Clues"?

Well, that certainly put you in your place, eh, Jamie? So much for all those logical points. "Bloo's Clues!" Snap!

So did you get your baseline reading?

Yeah, but I lost interest. Arguing over drinks at a bar is much more fun than doing it in a comments thread. Unless you get to make Bloo's Clues jokes, of course. That's golden.

Okay. Can you at least tell me if I'm still a racist for not being offended by Don Rickles?

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