For the last year, no matter which late night TV host any of us tune in to, we’ve all been watching The Donald Trump Show, like it or not. What will Seth Meyers or Jimmy Kimmel or Stephen Colbert or Trevor Noah say about the awful thing Donald Trump did today? Which writing staffs will find unique approaches to our president’s latest blunder, and which ones will accidentally end up making the same jokes? Which stock photo of Donald Trump will show up in the over-the-shoulder image (and why is it ever anything other than that picture of the president pretending to drive a truck)? It’s exhausting, it’s disheartening, and worst of all, it’s starting to get boring.
So tonight, instead of watching host after host pour the same rancid Trump wine into new bottles, let’s watch The Steve Allen Show from March 28, 1960. That night’s show featured Johnny Carson (!), Johnny Mercer, Diana Dors, Bill Dana, Barbara Wilson, Belle Montrose (Allen’s mother), Les Brown and His Band of Renown, Louis Nye, Don Knotts, and a killer performance from Jean Wald and the Swingin’ Mothers, an all-middle-aged-lady swing band.
What’s more, the show was sponsored by Plymouth and filled with ads for the 1960 Plymouth Fury, which is just two years off from the murderous 1958 Plymouth Fury from Christine. So if the vintage comedy isn’t doing it for you, you can imagine some unlucky member of Allen’s audience taking his advice, buying a Fury, pouring so much hatred and pain into its metal body that it becomes haunted, then selling it to a hapless teenager years later. And don’t miss the ad for the Plymouth Valiant wagon, with its bizarre hep-cat voiceover:
Aw, look at it glide over those bumps. That’s Torsion-Aire suspension, friend. You like a car that really rides smooth? You’ll flip over Valiant.
The highlight is guest Johnny Carson’s monologue, which includes some sharp topical humor about Los Angeles:
Where else but Los Angeles would you read on the front page of the newspapers that somebody napped Mickey Cohen’s dog? This, uh, kind of touches you—they did, they stole Mickey Cohen’s dog. And they had the police out looking, and they found it last night. The dog was holding up a liquor store.
Cohen, you will recall, was an organized crime figure who somehow managed to never get elected president. There’s even a forward-looking salute to “the sensational seventies,” in which Allen pretends to be a news anchor in 1980 doing a retrospective look back at decade gone by, complete with interviews with the scientist who cured the common cold and the first astronaut to return from Mars. Plus, another Los Angeles joke:
There was great transportation news: In 1970, they cut the time down to two hours and four minutes from Los Angeles International Airport to downtown Los Angeles.
And yes, there’s a pie-in-the-face gag, which cracks Allen up for a solid minute. Be forewarned, however: television in 1960 was considerably more comfortable with ethnic stereotypes than we are today: Hispanics protested Bill Dana’s José Jiménez character, who appears in this episode, for very good reasons. On the other hand, we elected a president who began his campaign by calling Mexicans rapists, so who are we to judge? The most striking thing about America in 1960, at least from the perspective of a late night TV watcher in 2018, turns out to be neither the racism nor the sexism but one simple, chronological fact : Donald Trump was 13 years old and nobody gave a fuck what he thought about anything. Now that’s good television.
One more thing
You depend on Slate for sharp, distinctive coverage of the latest developments in politics and culture. Now we need to ask for your support.
Our work is more urgent than ever and is reaching more readers—but online advertising revenues don’t fully cover our costs, and we don’t have print subscribers to help keep us afloat. So we need your help. If you think Slate’s work matters, become a Slate Plus member. You’ll get exclusive members-only content and a suite of great benefits—and you’ll help secure Slate’s future.Join Slate Plus