Kids today don’t know a world without sneezing panda GIFs or grumpy cat memes. A candid animal video isn’t the stuff of National Geographic anymore. Now it’s Facebook fodder, as common as a bathroom selfie or a picture of somebody’s breakfast burrito, and as fleeting as any online trend.
Before the internet, if you wanted to see exotic animals doing crazy things, you only had one place to look: the late night talk show.
“The animal segment” is a classic staple of late night television. Before YouTube, the average American didn’t have many opportunities to see animals that weren’t dogs and cats running around their own neighborhood. Enter: The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson. Johnny introduced America to thousands of actors, musicians, and comedians, but Hollywood’s sexy beasts weren’t the only creatures to grace his stage. Sometimes, experts would do a show-and-tell interview with live, exotic animals like monkeys, tigers, and crocodiles. What would start as a seemingly scientific segment often quickly became comedic, slapstick, and incredibly memorable.
I’ve often wondered why shows like The Tonight Show would seek live animal segments, considering the presumed high risk involved. Some quick internet research reveals that precursors to those segments include classic television shows like Zoo Parade and Wild Kingdom. These were popular syndicated series in the developing age of television, so I bet Carson and company wanted to capitalize on that success. The animals’ handlers often promoted conservation and preservation, too, so messages of environmental awareness and altruism were undoubtedly welcome changes from the cycle of movie plugs.
Of course, one can’t deny the comedic potential of a dangerous animal in striking distance of the untrained, pampered host, as afraid for his life as he is the cleanliness of his suit. Is it worth Johnny’s life to see him run from a snapping leopard and leap into Ed McMahon’s arms? Apparently, producers thought so!
Joan Embery’s patience with Carson, and Jack Hanna’s bravado with David Letterman, are some of the most cherished moments on their respective shows. Johnny’s encounters with exotic animals have even warranted their own best-of compilation! Those shows are simply of a more innocent age, when a diapered monkey wasn’t mindlessly swiped away on Facebook but actually the cause of gasps and aw’s from the live studio audience.
When I started hosting my own late night talk show in Phoenix, the live animal segment was on my bucket list. I wasn’t sure how to pursue it, considering the liability, but when a regular audience member told me about La Gattara Cat Cafe in Tempe, I chased down the lead. You may have seen Melissa Pruitt on the local news, promoting her coffee shop-meets-cat shelter, and when I asked her to be my first animal handling guest on Phoenix Tonight, she happily agreed. Yes, Melissa’s kittens aren’t the kings of the jungle Embery brought to Carson, but I’m no king of late night, either. I’m just a dude that wants to recreate the late night talk shows I loved as a kid, and Melissa made that dream come true.
Check out my visit to La Gattara and Melissa’s appearance on Phoenix Tonight right here. It’s no sneezing panda GIF or Grumpy Cat meme. However, it proves that “the animal segment” is more than some online trend, but a comedic and intimate look at nature we humans will need forever.
Phoenix Tonight: June 10 Prime Time Spectacular
- Saturday, June 10, 8 p.m.
- Space 55, 636 E. Pierce
- Guests include actor/poet Ernesto Moncada, Voyage Trekkers’ Nathan Blackwell, and L.A.-based comedian Renee Watt