Watching THE TONIGHT SHOW's New Year's Eve episode of 1976 is a fascinating look into a time capsule. Well, just the idea of there being a TONIGHT SHOW on New Year's Eve, instead of the special programming networks air now.
After a monologue with Jimmy Carter jokes (yet to be inaugurated) and a bit with Ed McMahon interviewing Carson as the 1977 New Year's baby (as usual with a Carson routine, the worse reception the jokes received from the audience, the funnier he was), Johnny brought out his first guest: Robert Blake. Drunk.
Blake, at the time a huge TV star on BARETTA, had become something of a personality, not just because of his series, but because of his mercurial personality. He was loved by some audiences for the way he would come on THE TONIGHT SHOW and ream out his bosses publicly. None of that in this episode, but it's very weird to hear Blake talk about the "blood works" that fly when he and his then-wife Sondra would get into fights.
The clock struck midnight during one of Blake's segments (the show, of course, taped during the afternoon), and Doc Severinsen and the NBC Orchestra played "Auld Lang Syne."
Second guest: Lola Falana. Like Blake, a tragic figure later in life, but for a different reason. During the late 1980s, this beautiful, talented singer and performer was stricken with multiple sclerosis that forced her out of show business at an early age. Like with Blake's appearance, seeing the vibrant Falana energize the TONIGHT SHOW audience with two songs invites a certain melancholy that nobody in 1976 could have predicted.
After Lola, James Hampton, a very likable character actor, mostly in comedies. He was the ill-fated Caretaker in THE LONGEST YARD and played a supporting role on F TROOP. Probably a very interesting man, certainly an entertaining storyteller, and absolutely a personality you will never see on a late-night talk show again. With Leno, Letterman, Conan, et al. doing 60-minute shows packed with comedy bits and room for only short segments with big stars, the idea of someone actually talking and being entertaining is a thing of the past.
Nor will you ever see someone like Frank Haines, Johnny's final guest. Not a star, but a Southerner with an unusual talent. It's basically a parlor trick, where he repeats anything you say at virtually the same time you say it. Sort of like stereo with a short in your headphones. Even if you speak very rapidly or in a foreign language, Haines will repeat you right on top of you. And, really, he got some of the biggest laughs of the night, as Doc tried to stump him with an Italian member of his band, and Blake and Falana threatened to knock him silly.
What a fun show and a warm reminder of when television was different and in many ways much better. Of course, NBC was also airing stuff like PINK LADY AND JEFF and SUPERTRAIN around this time, so TV wasn't always better then!
As an extra, the show I watched had its original network promos for NBC series like MCMILLAN (the "sequel" to MCMILLAN AND WIFE after "wife" Susan St. James left the series), BAA BAA BLACK SHEEP, and QUINCY and the big upcoming movie event RAID ON ENTEBBE with Peter Finch and Charles Bronson.