An Interview With Mark Malkoff: Host Of The Carson Podcast, Part 2
Ben: The list of people you’ve interviewed for The Carson Podcast is really impressive. What’s been your secret for getting them to be on your show?
Mark: I think that part of it is that people just want to talk about Johnny.
I e-mailed Steven Wright, who I did not know. Within an hour he called me. I’m a fan of Steven Wright, and I was like, “He’s calling me on the phone. Ooookay.” In my head I figured I’d have to go to Massachusetts. That was where he lived. He said, “Mark, you don’t understand. I’m in New York City. I’m leaving tomorrow. I can only do it in three hours. Where are we going to do this?” The only reason Steven Wright said “yes” was that it was Carson. He said normally these things–if they even happen–take weeks to set up for him, if he even says yes, which I don’t think he does for a lot of them.
I think momentum-wise, that has helped to get a few names. People just want to talk about Johnny. I mean, it was such a fun time in these peoples’ lives. Bob Einstein, I wrote him a letter, and he got back to me right away. He’s like, “I love Johnny Carson.” I don’t think a lot of it necessarily had to do with me, Mark Malkoff, because these guys, they don’t know who I am. I think that they wanted to just talk about Carson and this time in their lives that meant something.
I try to knock on doors. This is a labor of love. I certainly got some polite “no thank you”s and that’s okay.
Ben: Can you give me an example of someone who has turned you down?
Mark: The only person I will say, and I understand why he declined, was Dennis Miller. Dennis, and I acknowledged it when I contacted him, doesn’t like to talk about the past. He and Eddie Murphy were the only two people that turned Tom Shales down for The Saturday Night Live oral history book.
Dennis couldn’t have been more gracious when he got back to me. He was so nice about it. It was classy, and I appreciated that he even got back to me. He did the show three times. Basically, he just said he doesn’t remember. He’s just not big on specifics from the past, and that’s valid.
One woman, I will not mention her name, she’s a well-known person, you would know who she is. She was a stand-up comic. She did the show only once. She told me she doesn’t really remember doing it. She said it was “uneventful.” That to me was just, “you don’t want to talk to me,” and that’s fine.
One thing that has been really challenging is getting more women on the show. There’s been only three women on the show so far: Carol Burnett, Florence Henderson and Teresa Ganzel. I have asked at least fifteen or twenty women on the show. One person and I have e-mailed back and forth, we’re trying to make it happen.
I’ve tried to make it more diverse, as well. I had Byron Allen on, but I–trust me, I have asked a lot of people just trying to make it diverse. I would freak out at having Harry Belafonte and Della Reese on. I have approached both. Della Reese guest-hosted the show, very historic, and so did Harry Belafonte, also very historic. I reached out to both, Della Reese multiple times. E-mail. Letters in the mail. They don’t owe me anything. She’s a legend; they both are. They both have excelled at their careers, and I’m just this guy that’s doing a podcast. Would I love to talk to them? Absolutely. I would like to make it more diverse than what it has been so far. That’s been a challenge that I continue to work on.
Ben: I’ve never considered diversity to be a problem in your podcasts. It’s interesting that you bring it up.
Mark: No one’s ever brought it up; it’s just been something that I personally would like. Bette Midler would be a dream guest. Carson had a profound effect on her career. That May 21st ’92 thing, where she won an Emmy, was one of the greatest moments of The Tonight Show. I told Peter Lassally this and he said, “You can’t force those things.” I’ve seen on other shows that they’ve tried to force those moments, and it’s hard to watch, because it’s so obvious that they’re forcing it. I’d love to have Bette Midler on as a guest.
Ben: You’ve reached out to her though?
Mark: I tried, yeah, to make it happen. It hasn’t yet, but you know, we’ll see. Knocking on doors, I think, is an important thing. Just be persistent. Politely persistent.
Ben: Have any of your guests spoken to any of your other guests and said, “Hey, you should go talk to Mark Malkoff about Johnny Carson”? Has there been any networking like that?
Mark: There was one person, Phil Rosenthal, Everybody Loves Raymond, who I’m friendly with. Phil’s a great, great guy. When I said I was thinking of approaching Peter Lassally, Phil said, “Mention my name.” I think that helped.
Peter Jones, has been really really helpful with contact information from guests and stuff. I owe so much of the success of the podcast to Peter.
Ben: I’m looking forward to your interview with Peter Jones.
Mark: I think you’ll like it. Oh my gosh, that’s a very emotional podcast. He ran a marathon like nobody else; years and years of writing those letters to Johnny Carson. All anybody can do when they have a dream is to see that dream and to focus on it. You have all these stumbling blocks and roadblocks, and just keep climbing over them and breaking through them. The only thing keeping you going is that love and that vision. He ran that race where the average person would have stopped right away, and for some reason something compelled him. What he was able to create with that documentary just touched so many people, including myself. That was just a remarkable, remarkable piece of work that he should be proud of, and I’m sure he is. That whole story of how he made that happen is just inspiring to me.
Ben: Speaking of wanting to talk with Bette Midler, I, personally, would love for you to sit down and talk with Garry Shandling.
Mark: I would like to sit down with Garry Shandling. His debut was really strong, and then he would guest-host the show. I want to sit down and talk to him about going on the show, guest-hosting the show, subsequently, saying “no” to hosting, removing himself from the process of being considered, for having that type of show. Yeah, he’s definitely somebody I would like to talk to.
And the whole deconstruction of the talk show on Larry Sanders, which was one of those sitcom-like shows. It’s my favorite show that’s a non-talk show. It holds up, when they first aired, as now. That rarely happens. The quality of that show is incredible.
Ben: Have you reached out to him?
Mark: I have attempted to get in contact with him. Hopefully he got the message. I have no idea. It’s really hard sometimes to get to some of these people, and you do your best. I don’t know if he ever got it, but I try to be politely persistent. Hopefully, if he gets the request he would want to do it, and if not, I still will remain in awe of his work.
Ben: You’ve spoken with Carson’s nephew, Jeff Sotzing. Have you tried to speak with either of Carson’s sons?
Mark: Out of respect for his family, I would never ask them to be on the show. I’m sure I could probably find a way to maybe get them a message. I can’t do it. Even if they said they would want to talk to me, I can’t imagine doing it.
Ben: Does that also go for his wife, Alexis?
Mark: She and Peter Jones had a meal together, and she talked about Carson openly, but it was completely 100% off the record. I would never ask her to do an interview. There’s just certain things that are out of my comfort zone.
Joanne Carson, yes, because she will do interviews about him. Joanne Carson was instrumental in convincing Carson to do The Tonight Show. She had these amazing stories from that time period about The Tonight Show and Johnny’s career.
Ben: If Carson were alive today, and you could interview him, what would you most want to ask him?
Mark: Out of respect I’d focus on The Tonight Show and not his personal life. I would love to talk to him about how he and Ed went down to Florida before the show and they just kind of were creatively brainstorming the show and stuff. I’d love to talk about October 1st, 1962, that day leading up to the show, just the production meeting, rehearsal, what was going through his head in the hallway leading up to Groucho Marx introducing him and him standing behind the curtain, and 6B, and just taking me through that whole thing. An hour forty-five and what that was like. Then ninety minutes. Do you regret, I think it was ’82, that you guys went to just sixty minutes?
Mark: I liked podcasts, I listened to podcasts, it seemed like it would make sense. I feel like a lot of the people I’ve talked to are not used to going on camera, they’re behind-the-scenes people, and I felt that that would be a lot easier for them to be comfortable, and they would open up a lot more, if I just had a Zoom sitting on their desk. I have seen a lot of these people forget that they’re being recorded, and they open up in a way that, if there was a camera, I don’t think that they would.
The book thing … I try to have an open mind to everything, and if something happens and it makes sense, yeah, maybe I’ll explore it. I don’t know, we’ll see. The podcast, just from being a fan of podcasts, and in terms of resources that were affordable, buying a Zoom, that just made sense.
Ben: Almost everyone who leaves a comment on iTunes about The Carson Podcast mentions your enthusiasm, passion and knowledge about Carson, The Tonight Show and the guest you’re interviewing. That’s got to feel really good since you’ve put so much time and effort into doing it.
Mark: I love doing the podcast. I love everything about it. It definitely can be time-consuming doing the research, but it’s necessary for what type of podcast I want to do. The travel is not always been fun. Monday I went out to Connecticut, but it was worth it to sit down with Jim Fowler, who did The Tonight Show more than, I counted forty [times]. He said he’s done it a lot more because a lot of those were erased and stuff, but I mean, it’s definitely a passion project.
My whole thing is just follow my enthusiasm, follow my passion; that’s just what I do. I knew I wanted to do a podcast because I’m a curious person. The podcast was just an outlet. I’m obsessed with Carson. That I could just ask these questions, that I have an excuse to sit down with these people for an hour, sometimes more if they’ll allow it. I just ask everything I’ve always wanted to ask. Even if I wasn’t recording this, I still would sit down with these people for myself and ask all these questions.
Ben: What do you hope your audience gets out of The Carson Podcast?
Mark: I just want the audience to hopefully enjoy it. I ask questions that I’m interested in. I do my research, and then I put it out there into the universe. I have a lot of people that message me that say, “Those were questions I’ve always wondered about these people.” Hopefully I can ask questions like that. I just do my thing, focus on having the conversation I want to have, and put it out there.
Ben: You’ve mentioned that Christine, your wife, is with you when you’re interviewing guests. What’s her role?
Mark: She edits the podcast. She produces the podcast. She’s busy. We both put a lot of time into the thing. Yeah, sometimes she’ll be there. She was in this past week and she’s in the next week episode.
Ben: Does she share your passion for Carson and The Tonight Show, or is it more just to support you?
Mark: She definitely likes Carson, and she definitely appreciates what we’re doing. She’s been a champion. She’s been really really good with her input on the podcast, producing the podcast.
Ben: Do you watch any of the current late-night talk shows?
Mark: I watch clips. I got rid of my cable three years ago, so I watch clips the next day. Things have changed. Letterman, in the 90’s, when he got to CBS, was water-cooler talk. Everybody the next day would talk about the show. It’s just a little different now. Fallon and Kimmel with those viral clips, it’s become that. People are watching it more online and talking about it rather than watching it on television. I catch clips with Conan, with Kimmel and with Fallon. Sometimes I will sit and catch Ferguson’s stuff. I can really respect that he does the Jack Parr thing very well. Ferguson’s an incredible talent.
Ben: Have you ever had a chance to see a taping of a late-night talk show?
Mark: I was at the very first CBS Late Show, August 30th, ’93, and I went to the show, subsequently before I worked there, a bunch of times. I went to Late Night with Conan O’Brien a lot early on. He premiered in September of ’93, and I think I was there for the first time in either October or November. I went to the show a decent amount of times. I’ve been in the Jimmy Kimmel Live! green room but I’ve never seen the show. I saw Leno when he did The Tonight Show in 8H, I think it was ’94, the first time he did the show in New York. That was the whole thing that got them to go back to Burbank and go from Studio One to Studio Three and do the thrust stage and have the audience closer.
Ben: Did I understand you correctly? Were you there for opening night of The Late Show with David Letterman?
Mark: Yeah, I was there in the second row.
Ben: How did you get that?
Mark: The only way anybody could get tickets for that show back then is you send in postcards. It’s pure lottery. My friend Dan and I sent in probably ten or twenty postcards with everybody’s address, because you could only do one per household. Dan told me, “Malcolm,” that was a nickname when I was in high school, “we got tickets for opening night.” I started running around the neighborhood. I was literally running down the street jumping up and down. I just couldn’t believe it.
Letterman was the biggest thing in television at that point. It was like Wonka’s Golden Ticket to get a Letterman ticket back then to his CBS show. The biggest media event of the summer. The amount of camera crews that were outside the Ed Sullivan Theater that first day, and just the amount of attention was just extraordinary. It was incredible to be there for show number one. I will never forget it, and I remember every detail.
Ben: That’s amazing.
Mark: Yeah. Yeah. Dave’s last show on NBC was June 25th ’93. I was there June 24th, the day before his last show. Garry Shandling and Michelle Shocked were the guests.
Ben: So you’ve been in the audience for Late Night with David Letterman and Late Night with Conan O’Brien tapings. Did you get a chance to do the same when Jimmy Fallon hosted the show?
Mark: I haven’t been to The Tonight Show yet, but I went over twice to Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and I enjoyed it immensely. I thought it was great.
Ben: I think that’s it. That’s all the questions I have.
Mark: Cool. Well, that was fun.
Ben: That was fun. Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to talk to you.
Mark: Yeah, yeah. I’m happy to do it. Thank you for asking me. You know, I’m so much more comfortable, normally, on the other end, being the interviewer, so I didn’t know how this would go, but you made it really good for me and comfortable, so I appreciate it.
Ben: Well thank you. I really appreciate it, and I wish you nothing but continued success with The Carson Podcast.
Thanks for reading.
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.