Classic Video: The Carsenio Hall Show – Saturday Night Live

It’s the Carsenio Hall show, with your host… Carsenio! Aired 05/18/91

Was it a coincidence that Johnny Carson stepped down as host of the Tonight Show after 29 years just three days after this segment aired on Saturday Night Live? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But this even making the airwaves on Carson’s own NBC network was a bit shocking. I was only 15 years old when this very funny SNL skit played and I even understood what it meant. Johnny Carson was going to be very pissed off by what he saw.

Carson had a lot of power back in the 70s and 80s. He was doing a nightly show that pulled in fantastic ratings, and it really didn’t cost all that much to produce each show. The guests were plugging a movie or something so they didn’t cost anything. The studio audience watched for free. And the studio was already built years ago so only daily maintenance was needed. So the only cost was the talent (Carson, his sidekick Ed McMahon, and the band) and union crew. In relation to the advertising money they brought in nightly (on average his ratings were 10-12 million a night, with the majority of TV sets turned on watching the show.) that was pittance in comparison. So the network’s main job was to keep Carson happy as he was the glue to the entire enterprise.

So the thought of a skit like this that really lambasted Carson’s show would be unheard of until 1991. And if a writer dared to even do a draft of a skit like this, they would probably be fired. That’s how powerful Carson was.

Dana Carvey (who is brilliant on his season’s on SNL. Perhaps the greatest ever. Or at least the top 5.) did an impression of Johnny Carson before. And Carson even told Carvey personally how much he liked it. But this skit took it to a whole new level. It showed Carson as being delusional. It was a real shot at his age and him being “out of touch”. It crossed the line from someone doing an impression of Carson as a tribute to someone, to just being outright mean.

When this played on my downstairs suburban TV on May 18, 1991, I was laughing so hard. It was funny but also totally on point from my youth perspective. Doing Johnny Carson attempting to do Arsenio Hall was just brilliant. Who thought of this?. Arsenio was the “hip” late night host in 1991 and every teenager in North America was watching him. And in our eyes Johnny Carson was an old man who needed to get off of our television. It was a case of the youth living in their own time without realizing that there was a past. A common occurrence.

by Matthew Toffolo

CAST:

Johnny Carson – Dana Carvey
Ed McMahon – Phil Hartman
George Wendt – George Wendt.

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By matthewtoffolo

Filmmaker and sports fan. CEO of the WILDsound Film and Writing Festival www.wildsound.ca

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