After watching The Story of Late Night?, a six-part series on CNN, Al Muskovitz writes about Dick Purtan Show alumn Larry Lawson.
I need to use this forum to put a stop to the rumors flying around about me. For the record … I am not among the anonymous donors that contributed $550 million to Western Michigan University last week; the single largest donation ever gifted to a public university in our country. Hopefully, that puts that story to rest.
First of all, the donors are WMU alumni and anyone who knows me well, knows I graduated from Michigan State. Secondly, the contribution is being given to the university’s foundation in installments over the next 10 years. And besides, if I made that kind of commitment, I would be good for it in one lump sum. I can just hear it now in year two — “the check’s in the mail!” Yeah, right.
Meanwhile, did you catch the recently concluded six-part series on CNN, The Story of Late Night? It looked at the evolution of the late-night talk show host — from Steve Allen through Jimmy Fallon. The backstories are riveting, especially the drama of the debacle surrounding the hiring and firing of Conan O’Brien as Jay Leno’s replacement on The Tonight Show.
Conan was famously hired then unceremoniously fired after poor ratings resulting in Leno’s return for five more years. It created a lot of dirty laundry being aired publicly — drama that was better suited for a soap opera time slot.
I would love the CNN docuseries to be mandatory viewing for members of our youngest new generation — Generation Z, those born after 1997, if for no other reason than for them to learn about the true genius that was Steve Allen.
Steve Allen was to the birth of the late-night talk show host that the Big Bang was to the universe. Without him, late night does not exist in its current form. You can’t watch Jimmy Kimmel, Steven Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, James Corden, Seth Meyers or Conan O’Brien without seeing some remnant of a Steve Allen comedic creation. From comedic sketches to audience participation segments, to man-on-the-street interviews — late-night talk show hosts’ DNA can be directly traced back to Allen.
I was happy to learn there is a series of podcasts that takes the story line further. Behind the Desk: The Story of Late Night, is, as described on CNN’s website “a companion podcast” to the cable channel’s series. Most notably, the April 29 podcast is titled: “The Writers,” something near and dear to my heart.
As the late Gene Taylor, the beloved writer and producer of the Dick Purtan Show said on many occasions: “If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.”
The late-night hosts shine every night, but outside of the spotlight are teems of writers who fuel the fire. And it turns out that a Purtan show alum and my dear friend, Larry Lawson, actually got a little taste of being a contributing late-night writer.
There was a time when Jay Leno would accept and pay for jokes submitted by viewers. Larry had two of his jokes, complete with “set-ups” incorporated into Leno monologues and he has a check signed by the comedian to prove it.
One night, Leno shared the news story about the health hazards of popcorn sold in movie theaters followed by Larry’s punchline: Said Leno: “I had a terrible nightmare last night. I dreamt I was in a crowded theater, and somebody yelled popcorn!”
In another monologue during a news cycle that simultaneously included the financial crisis and the Men’s NCAA basketball tournament, Leno delivered this Lawson-authored joke: “As you may know, President Obama made his predictions for the Final Four … The only ones left standing will be Citigroup, Chase, Bank of America and Morgan Stanley.”
For his trouble, Larry was paid $75 for each joke, which is why he remained a radiologist until his retirement.
By the way, Larry also has some incredible personal correspondences from Joan Rivers. The letters, thanking him for his jokes, are suitable for print … not the jokes!