The past few weeks have been a challenging time for America’s snack chips. Firstly, fried chicken replaced the Dorito as Taco Bell’s shell du jour. Then, a Cheeto seemingly shaped like the gorilla Harambe sold for $100,000 on eBay. Apparently, when one snack chip lost its status as the nation’s favorite bizarro taco shell, the universe demanded another snack chip rise to fame in its stead. It’s called balance.
The gorilla-shaped Cheeto may have inspired many memes and clickbait articles this past week (and, let’s face it, you’re reading one), but it also inspired a memory that ties directly into my fascination with the, and subsequent hosting of a, talk show. While I’ve confessed in past articles that David Letterman is my late night host of choice, the talent that drew my attention to television past prime time was, of course, Johnny Carson.
When I caught Johnny in his waning years, I didn’t appreciate his legacy or genius. My young mind probably categorized The Tonight Show as another celebrity tabloid, like Entertainment Tonight, where actors and musicians appeared to discuss their current projects. By the late ’80s, Carson was only hosting live a few nights a week, with the remaining nights dedicated to guest hosts or best-of’s, so I wasn’t among the millions that understood the potential of Johnny’s five-night momentum, or how his monologue was water cooler fodder the next day. I understand the form of the show, but I didn’t understand the function of its host . . . until the potato chip lady.
Fans of Johnny Carson know who “the potato chip lady” is. Johnny had a knack for featuring “regular folk” on his show, right alongside the Dean Martins or Zsa Zsa Gabors of their day. Credit Johnny’s midwest upbringing, but he loved chatting with an award-winning garbage truck driver from the suburbs of Seattle just as much as he enjoyed the hearing Jimmy Stewart’s witticisms and Don Rickles’ put-downs. One such pedestrian guest was the wonderful Myrtle Young who, long before America knew how to pronounce Harambe, collected uniquely shaped potato chips. Her collection included dinosaur-shaped chips, and salty likenesses of Bob Hope and Rodney Dangerfield. Watch a segment of her interview right here:
Animal crackers are a staple of any growing boy’s diet, so I wasn’t blown away by Myrtle’s fascination with funky-shaped foods. I was intrigued by Johnny’s respect for the woman and her hobby, which was the perfect set-up for one of the best pranks ever pulled on television. If you’ve watched the clip, you saw the quip: when Myrtle is distracted, Johnny chomps on a crunchy chip from a bowl behind his desk, tricking that poor old woman into thinking he’s “eaten her act.”
I’m telling you, Johnny’s foodie faux pas fake-out changed my life. I saw the host transformed from consummate straight man to television personality. Of course, fans of David Letterman already knew how sardonic a host could be, but watching Johnny, from my grandparents’ era of entertainment, become a giggling prankster — well, that just transcended generations. As millions already knew, Carson was a master at exploiting a moment’s potential for comedy, and his irreverence was always forgiven by his charm — again, no doubt a credit to his midwestern roots. As the adage goes, he reached America’s heart through its stomach, by striving for the belly laugh every night.
When the Harambe Cheeto achieved global fame this week, I remembered Myrtle Young, and how important animal-shaped snack chips have been to me every since her now iconic The Tonight Show appearance. As the host of my own late night talk show in Phoenix, I hope to make those kinds of memories for my audience — the kinds of jokes that echo in subsequent years, as trends turn in the news cycle to remind us of those good times gone by. Johnny and Myrtle had that gift in common. They both knew how to sift through the ordinary to find something that took on a memorable, magical shape.
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