Mark Malkoff became well known for his outrageous stunts and challenges like the time spent a month on a plane to get over his fear of flying, or the week that he lived in an Ikea. He also raced a New York City bus across town on a tricycle, and proved that he could get total strangers to carry him across Manhattan, lifting, pulling and hoisting him from the Staten Island Ferry all the way to 140th Street on the coldest day of the year (watch that video here). This year he’s been up to something completely different but just as entertaining. He’s hosted a narrowcast called, simply enough “Carson.” Each week he interviews people about only one subject– their experiences on The Tonight Show, with Johnny Carson.
It’s a brilliant idea, and the results have been great conversations with an impressive list of entertainers. In his first year doing the Carson podcast, among others, Mark has sat down with Mel Brooks, Steven Wright, Charles Grodin, Martin Mull, Dick Cavett, Carol Burnett, Rich Little, Carl Reiner, Robert Klein, Buck Henry, The Amazing Kreskin, Paul Provenza, Jim Fowler, and The Amazing Randi. He’s also talked with people who worked behind the curtain with Johnny like Johnny’s head writer Marshall Brickman, and his producer Peter Lasally. Also writer Andrew Nicholls, producer (and nephew to Carson) Jeff Sotzing, biographer Peter Jones, and former NBC President Fred Silverman.
It’s almost 44 hours of great stories from the people who helped to create the show, to those who had guest appearances, and even the man who held the curtain for Johnny and his guests for years. We welcomed the opportunity to talk with Mark about his experiences with “Carson.”
The IBang: We love the idea of your podcast. It’s so specific and so unique. Where did the idea come from?
Mark Malkoff: There is surprisingly a lack of information on Johnny Carson. It’s strange because for 30 years he had very little to no competition and I think as Steve Martin said, was probably the most famous person in America. And other than a few books that were a bit gossipy about his life, and a PBS American Masters documentary, there’s very little. The PBS documentary is what really got me, because that was the first accurate portrayal of Carson, and after watching it for two hours, I said to myself, I need more. And I met with Peter Jones who did that documentary and I told him my idea for this Carson podcast and Peter said Mark, you have to do this, tell everyone I endorsed you.
The IBang: Where did your love of Carson come from?
Mark Malkoff: I think I was 16 when Johnny went off the air on May 22, 1992. I remember where I was that Friday night. I remember very vividly watching that show. I think I was probably 8 or 9 and my dad would sometimes let me stay up, if it was the summer or if it was a Friday I could stay up to watch Johnny. And it seemed, this really glamorous show that was funny, that I didn’t as a kid understand all the jokes but it worked on this other level where Carson was just so likeable. And the stand ups, I could understand some of the jokes. And I feel like I was just let into this world and there was just something about Johnny who was so likeable especially with kids and animals. There really isn’t a late night show host that I know that regularly has the kids on like Johnny did and he was so likeable with every demographic. Even as a kid I recognized his brilliance and talent.
The IBang: Have you gone back to watch all of the available episodes?
Mark Malkoff: I’ve watched a lot of Carson. Pretty much everything that’s available plus I go to the Paley Center, plus some people have shown me some clips that aren’t available to the public so I feel very well versed on the show. Johnny’s nephew Jeff Sotzing who runs Carson Entertainment Group– he’s the guy. When I sat down with him I was like a little kid just so excited to sit down with him and hear the stories; I mean I don’t think there’s anybody on the Earth who knows more about that show. But I feel like after Jeff I’ve probably seen more than most.
The IBang: How long have you been doing the podcast?
Mark Malkoff: I think we launched in February. February 18th was the first one we did- we did two episodes. I did Steven Wright. Just because his stand up debut was so unusual– how it happened was very memorable. He got very emotional talking about Johnny. That was the first guest. And then the second guest– a gentleman, very funny comedian Tom Dreesen. A very funny comedian who still goes on Letterman a lot. He would open for Frank Sinatra. They both have these stories that don’t exist anymore about their dream doing the Tonight Show, and then having their dream happen and their life literally changing. That doesn’t happen. I have friends that go on those television shows now, and very little to nothing happens other than its a great experience and they have the video tape. It was just a different time.
The IBang: With all these people you’ve talked to, who has had the best stories?
Mark Malkoff: There’s a lot of people that are very vivid with their memories. Mel Brooks, he was on the very first show on October 1, 1962. He was reciting bits that he did on the show thirty years ago. He remembers the first show. I think he got into some sort of– Tony Bennett was upset with him over something he did on the show. Yeah, Mel Brooks was just phenomenal. Carl Reiner also had just really strong vivid stories. There are certain people, like your Tom Dreesens where their memories, they have these photographic memories where they can pick out the year and their appearance. There’s just something special about that. Steven Wright was an example of one of these guys that you can just see it on his face, he’s reliving the moments in front of me.
The IBang: Who are the people you’d like to talk to that you haven’t connected with yet?
Mark Malkoff: I definitely would like to sit down with Doc Severinsen. I’ve talked to Doc twice on the phone. David Letterman. My top three guests, if I could talk to anybody when I started this, were Peter Lasally, David Letterman and Doc. Peter talked to me. He does very few if any interviews, he said that my message that I got to him, that’s what got him to say yes. So definitely Doc, definitely Dave. I would like Don Rickels. I believe he does not do podcasts. There’s somebody who is a famous comic– I don’t want to mention his name– who told me Rickels won’t even do Marc Maron. But that’s okay. He doesn’t owe me anything. I’d really like to sit down with Jerry Seinfeld. Bette Midler. I really wanted to sit down with Della Reese, just because she was historic for guest hosting the Tonight Show. Ellen Degeneres is another one. We’ll see what happens, sometimes it just takes awhile to work out. I’ve definitely been in contact with some of these people either directly or with their people so we’ll see what happens.
The IBang: Have you thought about putting it all together for a book?
Mark Malkoff: Yeah, people have suggested it, and even before that I thought about it, so we’ll see where it goes. I’d like to keep doing it a little longer but its definitely a possibility. Jimmy Fallon’s just done such a wonderful thing talking about Carson on the air, and David Spade was on the show and they showed his Carson clip and just to keep that alive with younger people… You know I’ve gotten messages from younger people that have heard of my podcast and Jimmy’s gotten them kind of intersted in Johnny and they listen to my podcast and watched Johnny on Youtube. But Fallon is definitely somebody I’d like to talk to just because….there’s just so much about him that’s influenced by Carson. I would love for him to be on the show.
The IBang: The recent Paul Provenza episode is so great where he talks about being invited back on the Tonight Show right away after his first appearance, but then turning it down. Who are some of the other recent and upcoming guests?
Mark Malkoff: Jim Fowler went on Carson at least 40 times. He did the show almost from the start. The show went on in ’62 and Fowler did the show starting in ’63 or ’64 and Fowler went with Johnny to Africa on safari so he has very unique stories. I really like talking to the stand ups like Paul Provenza and Tom Wilson — who was from Freaks and Geeks and Back to the Future. And then I have James Randi, the Amazing Randi who Johnny put on a lot. So I like having these different people. Like Marshall Brickman had the experience of being a writer on the show, Peter Lasally being a producer. I like to vary it. I have a gentleman coming up whose job it was for over 20 years to hold the curtain open– not only for Johnny every night but he held the curtain open for the guests. So just to sit down with these people with all these different stories and perspectives, its just been very gratifying.
The IBang: Has that episode already been recorded?
Mark Makoff: I do most of them in LA and scramble to get as many done as I possibly can. There’s a bunch in Vegas, I would love to get out to Vegas and sit down with people. I was in Vegas for only a day but was able to sit down with both Rich Little and Lance Burdon who both went on the show quite a bit. So I just try to– whenever the geography fits to record with people and they’ve been so nice to invite me into their homes and sometimes their offices. It’s been a really nice thing.