Johnny Carson, Watergate, and the Myth of Staying in Your Lane

Johnny Carson, Watergate, and the Myth of Staying in Your Lane
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Tonight Show Deep Dive

March 8th, 2018 – “Stay in your lane” – the phrase that’s used against people speaking about politics who happen to make their living doing something else in the public eye. If you’re an actor, you may have heard something to the effect of “Stick to pretending!” If you’re an athlete, it’s likely that you’ve received the message to “Shut up and dribble.” No matter your public profession, the bottom line is that you should only speak out about one thing – because, as we all clearly remember, you were only supposed to excel at one subject in school.

Comedians tend to hear “stay in your lane” the most often from people who remind them that “so-and-so” didn’t have to get into the political weeds to be funny. Johnny Carson’s name gets thrown around a lot when this talking point comes up, and Jon Lovett decided to debunk that example at a recent live show of Pod Save America.

Lovett hosts this political podcast with fellow former Obama aides Jon Favreau, Dan Pfeiffer and Tommy Vietor. The podcast taped a show at The Dobly Theater recently, welcoming Jimmy Kimmel as a special guest. Kimmel has been a passionate voice in the healthcare and gun control debates happening around the country, so the guys decided to play a game with him aptly called “Stay In Your Lane.”

During the game, an audience member was supposed to choose which conservative public figure said which statement about celebrities discussing political topics. The final question brought Johnny Carson’s misremembered style into the spotlight.

Johnny Carson, Watergate, and the Myth of Staying in Your Lane
Pod Save America live show at The Dolby Theater. Credit: thecrookedmedia Instagram

Here’s the quote from former congressman Joe Walsh that was read onstage:

“I miss Johnny Carson. Didn’t even know what his politics were; he was just funny. Kimmel, Colbert, these guys are all nags and boring.”

Walsh certainly isn’t the first or only person to ask why comedians can’t go back to being more like Johnny Carson. Plenty of people have hoisted Carson up on a pedestal for not being political, but it turns out that wasn’t true.

“We did some digging. In 1974, at the height of Watergate, Johnny Carson invited the journalist and columnist Jack Anderson onto The Tonight Show for a 20-minute discussion on the details of the reports and allegations and evidence against President Richard Nixon,” Lovett said. “Anderson detailed not only the allegations of obstruction of justice and other malfeasance, he spoke about the failure of anyone involved to speak up for moral principle.”

Lovett then asked the audience member to guess which of the following were quotes from Carson during that interview:

“That seems to be the greatest criticism from both Democrats and Republicans. It’s not a particular partisan thing there. No one seemed to say at any time that, ‘hey something’s wrong here.'”
“The public has almost become immune or inured as these revelations come up. ‘Well all administrations are guilty [the public says]’ and that’s kind of sad to hear. You don’t really believe that politics has to be this way.”
“I’ll probably be accused by people now of being the eastern liberal establishment, and I have made jokes about what is happening – I hope not unfairly. But just trying to make humor about what has happened. But that is considered, when you do that, almost un-American.”

The answer: all of the above.

“It turns out that people don’t remember that Johnny Carson went deep on Watergate,” Lovett said. “And he was pretty fucking troubled by it.

“Who knew?” the audience member replied.

Now that you know this bit of information, does “Stay in Your Lane” lose some of its power? What role do you think comedians should play in political conversations?

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