An Interview With Mark Malkoff: Host Of The Carson Podcast, Part 1
Mark Malkoff is a comedian, filmmaker and host of The Carson Podcast. Knowing from an early age that he wanted to work in the entertainment industry, Mark moved from Hershey, Pennsylvania to New York City when he was eighteen to go to college and do sketch comedy. “I wanted to be doing comedy professionally, but I knew it would take a little time. So my other goal was to work in TV, just as a day job.”
Over the next decade Mark worked on a variety of shows: The Late Show with David Letterman, Spin City, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Hope and Faith and The Colbert Report among others. “I learned a lot about what I like for each show. Each show had things, with how they were run, where I’d say ‘Oh this is great,’ and others I was like, ‘I would personally maybe do this differently.’ It was a really good chance to see how every show is run.”
After The Colbert Report, Mark was ready to be in front of the camera instead of behind it. Over the past five years he’s created and starred in a host of popular videos and web series. He has gained worldwide attention for videos of him living in an IKEA store for a week, living on an AirTran airplane for a month and watching over 250 movies on Netflix streaming in one month. “I do over-the-top kind of stunt-y comedy videos. I get hired by brands a lot of times to do comedy videos. In the last year I did a comedy series for Disney, a video for Skype’s tenth anniversary, a thing for US Cellular and a thing for Armor-All. I really do like doing the videos.”
Each week on The Carson Podcast Mark “talks with guests about legendary talk show host Johnny Carson. Guests include stand-up comics who debuted on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, individuals that worked on the show, frequent guests, and top entertainers that were influenced by Carson.”
Ben: Why did you decide to start The Carson Podcast?
Mark: I have always been an admirer of Carson’s work, ever since I was a kid. I would devour everything I could possibly read on Carson. I think I’ve read every single Carson book. Just anything with Carson. Bill Zehme did that Esquire piece (“Johnny Carson: The Man Who Retired” –ed) ten years after Johnny’s retirement and I remember racing to get it at the newsstand.
Peter Jones, I watched his documentary (American Masters: Johnny Carson: King of Late Night –ed), I sent him an e-mail the next day thanking him for all his hard word. That, to me, was the thing that seemed like it captured Johnny from his friends and his family. The thing with that documentary, and I’ve talked to Peter Jones about it, was that I wanted it to last longer. Peter responded, “Mark, people will only sit there two hours.” Still I wanted more.
In my head I had so many questions about The Tonight Show and about Carson. There’s just something about Johnny; his career, and just how he was able to stay on top for thirty years, and the elegance about that show. I think Phil Rosenthal said that it felt like you were being invited to a party every night.
Surprisingly, there isn’t tons of information about Carson and The Tonight Show. I sat down with Peter. I told him about my idea of a Johnny Carson podcast, and he said, “Mark, you should do this. Tell everybody I said that I endorse you.” So when Peter said he’d support me, it encouraged me. I told myself, “I’m going to do this”.
That was it. Basically I set out to do a passion project on Carson. I wanted, just for me, to talk to people about Carson, and if listeners tuned in, great, but my expectations were low. Carson had been off the air for twenty years. A lot of people in their early thirties and twenties don’t know who he is. They think Leno was the only host of The Tonight Show. So I just wasn’t sure what the response would be, but I was pleasantly surprised. It’s been incredible that people have been listening to the podcast. It’s definitely been rewarding.
Ben: I would love to spend the next eight hours talking to you about each guest that you’ve had on The Carson Podcast, because I have the same curiosity about your interactions with them as you have with their interactions with Carson and The Tonight Show. We don’t have that kind of time, but I would like to touch on a few of my favorite guests.
Mark: Sure. Absolutely.
Ben: Let’s start with Teresa Ganzel. I got the impression that you guys were sitting on a park bench somewhere.
Mark: We were in Studio City, California. My wife Christine was with me. I’d never met Teresa. I watched The Toy over and over when I was a kid. And then I knew her from Carson when I was a kid watching the sketches. I wrote her a letter; she was kind to get back to me. I didn’t see one thing online of her talking about Johnny, which blew my mind. We met up at a park in the area.
Ben: She had amazing energy throughout the interview.
Mark: She was genuine, completely genuine; I wish we had the video to go with it. You could tell this was somebody who loved that man; pure love and appreciation for his talent and his generosity.
Ben: I really enjoyed the Bob Einstein interview. He, like Teresa, was extremely passionate when talking with you about Carson.
Mark: I wrote him a letter. He called me. I couldn’t believe he was calling me. He was as funny on the phone, and before and after we taped, as he was during. I think he’s the funniest guy that I sat down with.
Christine and I drove to his home. He and his dog Willie greeted us. We started recording, and he was hilarious the whole time. That description of The Mike Douglas Show, with Sly Stone and Peter Marshall was unbelievable.
He called me afterward, I think it was the next day, and said, “Is there anything I said that was not nice about people? If there was, can we maybe take it out” I responded, “No, everything you said was good.” I really respected that. I thought that was great, that he wanted to keep it positive.
Ben: I was blown away when I saw that Peter Lassally as a guest on the podcast. To me, that is the pinnacle interview right there.
I went out to CBS. I got there early. I told myself, “I can’t be late for this thing.” I went to the floor, and I just couldn’t find his office, so I wound up just asking a stagehand or an assistant. They guided me to Peter’s office. His assistant brought me in, and I was just like, “I can’t believe this is happening.”
Peter couldn’t have been nicer. He just made me feel comfortable right away. I, of course, know he doesn’t do interviews, and I just wanted him to have a good time and a positive experience. Right away he was super candid. I feel like this has happened with many guests where they almost forget they are being recorded. It was just a conversation we were having. It couldn’t have gone any better. He answered everything I wanted to talk about.
It meant a lot that Peter did it. He’s just a beautiful, wonderful guy. We hugged, did some photos. He wanted to know about me, which meant a lot to me. We’ve talked on the phone a few times since. I’ve gone over there the last time I was in LA, just to say hi to him. He’s a special guy.
Ben: You’ve kept in touch with Peter?
Mark: Yeah. It’s been wonderful. He only had one requirement. I said, “name it.” He said, “Don’t call me Mr. Lassally anymore.” Okay. You know, it’s just a sign of respect. It was really hard for me to train my mind to say, “Peter,” but I’ve managed.
Ben: Were there questions that you wanted to ask him but didn’t have time for?
Mark: There were, and subsequently when we sat down I asked him some stuff, just curiosity-wise. Not even Carson stuff, just other details from his career including Arthur Godrey.
Ben: Considering how busy Al Jean is, it’s cool that you had the opportunity to interview him.
Mark: He’s a sweet guy. I think we first met when he came over to The Colbert Report, when I had a day job there, and he was awfully nice to me.
I had the idea when I was doing the podcast: I’ve got to talk to some writers. When Al did the Peter Jones American Masters I noticed he was really good on camera. I e-mailed Al and asked him if he’d do it. I think I gave him two days’ notice.
I went over to his office on the Fox lot. I remember watching the very first Simpsons, so to go over there was really cool. His office is decorated in Simpsons stuff. It was a thrill to hang out with him.
Ben: Last, but definitely not least, Jeff Sotzing.
Mark: Jeff is the gatekeeper of Carson Productions. I’ve been aware of who he is ever since Johnny’s final show, May 22nd, ’92, when they did the behind-the-scenes. He clearly says on the final show, “My name is Jeff Sotzing, I’m one of the many producers here.”
Anything post-retirement that I could get my hands on that had anything to do with Johnny, I would try to find. Once in a while they would do a magazine article about Carson, where he had this office, I think Santa Monica, he worked with his nephew, Jeff. So I was like, “Okay, this is who he is”.
And then they digitized all The Tonight Shows. He started doing interviews, and I was just always fascinated by what they were doing with Carson Productions, and that Johnny would still go into the office. I was aware of who he was, and then when I started doing this podcast I knew I wanted to sit down with Jeff.
And I wanted him to be aware of the podcast. It was Tony DeSena, who was a writer on Carson, who told Jeff about it. I think Jeff was like, “Tell Mark if he has any questions or if I can do anything with him.” We talked on the phone a couple of times before the podcast happened. I told him, “I’m going to do this. I just wanted to let you know I’m going to do this. It’s a celebration of, to me at least, of Johnny and the legacy and just the history of the show.”
I was, for some reason, really nervous to ask him to be on. I happened to be in Anaheim, and I heard he had an office nearby. I said to myself, “The timing’s right, I’ve got to ask him”. I think I only gave him a week’s notice, maybe less. He got back to me really quickly saying he’d be happy to do it.
I went to meet him at the airplane hangar, which is his office. Literally, from his office you’re looking at this small airplane. There’s all these cool Carson items all over the walls. Jeff told me afterward, “I think what you’re doing is just wonderful–capturing history.
I had all these questions I’ve been wanting to ask since I was sixteen. It was fascinating to talk to him about how they put together the behind-the-scenes show, to how he became the guy that did the warm-up. There are some questions I’ve asked of past guests where they don’t fully answer the question. Every question Jeff answered, I was satisfied. Like Tom Dreesen he remembers everything. I asked about when did they have to stop taping. They would only stop on emergencies. Jeff responded they stopped when Della Reese had a stroke, and when Tom Waits, just in the middle of the show, right before starting, said “I can’t do this” and he walked off. It was fascinating TV history.
Ben: I think that interview was a little bit over an hour.
Mark: Yeah, I think so. I could have kept going. Chris Hardwick and Maron go sometimes much longer and it works for them. I just feel like at some point, after about an hour, I feel like, even though they probably were cool with it, I just don’t want to take any more of their time.
Ben: Did you have additional questions, though, that you weren’t able to get to?
Mark: No, I think I got all of them, but I feel like I could probably do another hour with him with all new questions. Maybe at some point.
Ben: Has your opinion of Carson and/or The Tonight Show changed from the time before The Carson Podcast, when most of your knowledge about both came from books, to now that you’ve done twenty-five episodes?
Mark: I think that what I’ve learned is that show, going on that show, was more glamorous than I imagined. I knew it was an exciting time period, but to talk to those people and see them re-live it in front of their eyes–I’ve had people I’ve interviewed cry. The experience of going on Carson just meant so much to them.
In terms of Johnny, the vast majority of those books were negative books. It reminds me–and I talk about this in the Peter Jones episode–that it’s like Wired with Bob Woodward writing about Belushi, where, yes, the incidents happened, mostly negative, but it wasn’t an accurate portrayal of that man. Hands down, talking to these people about Carson, he was often a kind, generous man–details that a lot of those books left out. He was a complex guy. He had his flaws like anybody, and the reason why he had his flaws is because he’s a human being.
I think Garry Shandling is probably right, that being behind that desk five days a week changes you. Steve Martin called him the most famous man probably in America, and I’m sure that’s right. To have that pressure, you’re not going to probably live a regular life.
I just read an interview with Ruth Buzzi. She was saying that every single day she was going to visit her friend that was dying, Carson, every night after every taping, would go over to the hospital, it was a mutual friend of theirs, and hold the person’s hand. Carson kept anything that he did, in terms of those types of moments, completely quiet. It wasn’t until he was deceased, a long time later, that they revealed that he gave, something like, a hundred million dollars to charities.
There’s this other side of Carson that I’ve been talking to guests and finding out. Mainly what an incredible, generous, nice man he was.
Ben: It sounds like your opinions of both Carson and The Tonight Show have gotten better as a result of your podcast.
Mark: Absolutely. I mean, if I wanted to sit down with Jackie Mason or Wayne Newton, I’m sure it would be an hour of not-positive things about him. But I think with any public figure you could get enough people to go on record with things where they did not have good experiences, just because not everyone clicks.
Thanks for reading. Part 2 is now available.
This conversation has been condensed and edited from an interview conducted on August 14th.
My immense gratitude to Mark Malkoff for his time and kindness. You can listen to each episode of The Carson Podcast on iTunes or at CarsonPodcast.com.
Thanks also to Lisa for her very helpful editing and feedback.