(SPOILER ALERT: Mild spoilers for Season 5 of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”)
On Friday, I wrote about historical anachronisms that bother me in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” including a “mic drop” last season and a Johnny Carson-clone this season called “The Gordon Ford Show.”
An alert reader messaged me on Facebook to say, “‘Mrs. Maisel’ also (used the term) ‘Friend of Dorothy,’ which wasn’t really used until the 1980s, and even if it were used in queer spaces, would (Midge) Maisel know it?”
In fairness, the writers of “Mrs. Maisel” couldn’t have used any of the actual 1960s euphemisms for being gay, because there would have been riots, not Emmy awards.
As a sidenote: I’ve been on a little bit of a kick lately looking up old 1970s episodes of “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” and the amount of casual homophobia in the monologues is astonishing. Carson frequently used gay and lesbian stereotypes as a punchline, often insinuating that targets of his jokes— including his bandleader “Doc” Severinsen — were gay.
(The Credibility Gap — the comedy troupe led by Richard Beebe, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer and the late David L. Lander — did a memorable and scathing parody of “The Tonight Show” called “Where’s Johnny?” that focused on Carson’s frequent use of gay jokes. It’s painful, but funny, and very close to the truth.)
One of the leading anachronisms in the current season of “Mrs. Maisel” — at least to my eyes — is “The Gordon Ford Show,” which in the fictional world of “Maisel” is a nightly talk show on NBC, originating from 30 Rockefeller Plaza, hosted by Gordon Ford (Reid Scott), who looks and sounds like the 1960s Johnny Carson. Like Carson, Ford comes onto the stage through a rainbow curtain, tells jokes during a monologue, and then interviews celebrity guests.
I pointed out that the problem — historically — is that NBC only had one late-night TV talk show from 1954 until 1973. In the early 1960s period depicted in “Mrs. Maisel,” that show — variously called “The Tonight Show,” “Tonight” or “The Jack Paar Show” — was hosted by (you guessed it) Jack Paar.
(“Tomorrow” with Tom Snyder debuted on NBC in October 1973, and aired after “The Tonight Show,” not in direct competition.)
Jack Paar is mentioned in one episode of “Mrs. Maisel.” Writers for “The Gordon Ford Show” are pitching jokes, and after one, someone says something to the effect of, “Paar already did that.”
To me, that implies that Jack Paar and Gordon Ford exist in the same fictional universe, which isn’t likely, as I’ll explain.
Alert Reader Tom commented:
Now hold on; I only watched that episode of “Mrs. Maisel” once, and I didn’t get the impression that Paar was running at the same time as the Carson clone guy. My impression was that the gag was so old, Paar had used it on his show, months/years before. I could be wrong. I’d appreciate if you put me in Corrections.
Corrections? Who do you think I am, Seth Meyers?
Maybe I need to go back and re-watch the episode. But I got the clear impression that “The Gordon Ford Show” was supposed to be running at the same time as “Tonight” with Jack Paar, both on NBC.
But let’s speculate that “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” exists in an alternate reality. In our timeline, Jack Paar hosted “Tonight” from 1957 until 1962. That year, he gave up “Tonight” and began hosting a weekly 10 p.m. variety show called “The Jack Paar Program” at 10 p.m. Fridays on NBC.
In our timeline, Johnny Carson — who was then the host of an ABC-TV daytime game show called “Who Do You Trust?” — began hosting “The Tonight Show” in October 1962 and continued until May 1992.
In real-life, Jack Paar was notoriously moody and — since we’re on the topic — even more of a gay-basher than Johnny Carson. (An entire chapter of his memoir is devoted to criticizing and outing gays in the entertainment industry. But that’s a topic for another time.) In February 1960, Paar was annoyed because NBC censors cut a joke from one of his monologues as “tasteless.” (The joke, which was cornball — strictly Reader’s Digest stuff — was about an elderly couple who confused the term “W.C.,” meaning “water closet,” or toilet, for “Wayside Chapel.”)
In a fit of pique, Paar quit “The Tonight Show” for three weeks before returning in March 1960.
Let’s say that in the alternate “Mrs. Maisel” timeline, Paar didn’t return to “Tonight” in March 1960. Instead, in this reality, NBC placated him with the Friday night “Jack Paar Program,” and hired Gordon Ford to take over “Tonight.”
In this alternate reality, then, Gordon Ford is hosting a replacement for “The Tonight Show,” Jack Paar is telling jokes on his show on Friday nights, and perhaps Johnny Carson doesn’t move to NBC-TV in 1962. Instead, he and Ed McMahon are stuck hosting “Who Do You Trust?” on ABC-TV indefinitely.
Ah! But that doesn’t explain a major incident in Season 5 of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” There’s a big skating party at Rockefeller Center to celebrate the fact that “The Gordon Ford Show” is now the number-one show in late night TV.
In our reality, there was really only one late-night TV show that mattered from 1954 to 1962 — “The Tonight Show.” Pittsburgh-based Westinghouse Broadcasting Corp. launched a syndicated late-night talk show with Steve Allen in 1962, and ABC-TV launched “The Les Crane Show” in 1963.
Johnny Carson didn’t face any serious late-night competition until the late 1960s, when ABC created “The Joey Bishop Show” and CBS launched “The Merv Griffin Show.” (Neither did much damage to Carson’s ratings.)
Remember, until the 1980s, there were only three television networks in the United States. So while individual independent TV stations may have offered a late-night talk show, most of them were running old movies (or simply signing off the air for the night.)
Therefore: If “The Gordon Ford Show” has “the highest ratings in late-night,” then it must face at least one other show. Otherwise the claim is meaningless.
And if “The Gordon Ford Show” airs at 10 p.m., then it isn’t in “late-night,” it’s in prime-time.
So does “The Gordon Ford Show” after “The Tonight Show”? If so, how could it have higher ratings than “Tonight”? That’s a trick that Tom Snyder never managed. Neither did “Late Night With David Letterman.”
Thus we’re back to the question, if “Gordon Ford” is on NBC (which it is, in the “Mrs. Maisel” universe), then what time does it air?
And if the rival show to “Gordon Ford” isn’t Jack Paar’s “Tonight” show at 11:15 p.m., what is it? Because until 1962, NBC was the only American network programming a late-night TV talk show.
I think the real reality is that the writers of “Mrs. Maisel” grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, when more competition began to emerge to challenge “The Tonight Show,” in the form of ABC’s “Nightline,” Fox’s various failed efforts (“The Late Show” with Joan Rivers, “The Chevy Chase Show,” “The Wilton-North Report”), syndicated shows such “The David Susskind Show” and “Arsenio,” and public TV shows such as “The Charlie Rose Show.”
Either they assume that there were always multiple late-night TV shows and don’t realize there weren’t; or they assume that a 21st Century audience, which grew up in a universe of many television channels and choices, will expect there to be multiple late-night TV shows, even if that’s a historical anachronism.
What I’m sure they didn’t expect — or maybe they did, who knows? — was that a part-time oldies disc jockey and TV nerd in Pittsburgh would waste this much time trying to dissect something that 99.5 percent of the “Mrs. Maisel” audience couldn’t, frankly, give two hoots in hell about.