Carson focus of UF thesis


Published: Tuesday, January 25, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 24, 2005 at 11:26 p.m.
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Johnny Carson appears as "Carnac, The Magnificent!" on "The Tonight Show" in this undated photo.

AP Photo/NBC
Countless millions of people watched "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson." Herb Press of Gainesville studied it.
And Carson, who died of emphysema Sunday at age 79, thought Press deserved an "A-plus" for his research.
In the late 1970s, Press, then a photographer at the University of Florida and a lifelong fan and student of comedy, began analyzing Carson's nightly monologues as the basis of a thesis for a master's degree in mass communications.
"I studied 515 jokes," said Press, who retired last year as chief of photography in UF's News and Public Affairs department, where he worked 30 years. "I began to pursue the idea of continuity in topical humor."
He made audiotapes of about four months' worth of Carson's monologues. It was during President Carter's administration, and Press - who started watching the late show when Steve Allen was host - said he noticed the almost nightly jokes about Bert Lance.
Lance was Carter's director of the Office of Management and Budget. He resigned in 1977 after allegations of financial irregularities at two Georgia banks he once headed. Press said he was curious why Carson and his writers devoted so much attention to the Lance story.
"In terms of public opinion, what I found was that his topical humor reinforced what people already believed," said Press, who has a library of joke books, biographies of comics and comedy albums.
"He could take social or political issues, or controversies surrounding show business or political personalities, and amplify them," he said. "He once did a routine on a toilet paper shortage and sure enough, people went out and stocked up on toilet paper."
After completing his thesis in the spring of 1982, Press sent Carson a copy. To his surprise, he said, the "Tonight" icon replied with a personal letter of thanks.
In his letter, Press said, Carson noted that he had done a similar analysis of some of radio's great comedians when he was in school.
"He said, 'I got an A-plus and I think you deserve one, too,'" Press said.
He said he never met Carson in person. But a few years before he began his thesis, Press was in California and attended a taping of "Tonight" at its Burbank studio.
"In the entertainment industry, he's in a category with Bob Hope and George Burns, people who endured so long in television with all its changes," Press said. "And so many entertainers credit Carson with starting their careers.
"For the general public, Carson was very universal," he said. "He was so well-liked and never really offended anyone. He pushed the envelope, but sometimes today (late-night comedians) carry things a little farther than Carson would."
Press said he had heard Carson's health was deteriorating and wasn't really surprised Sunday when he learned he had died. But it still feels almost like a personal loss, he said.
"He was the backbone of my thesis," he said. "In watching some of the stuff on television (Sunday), it almost moved me to tears."
Bob Arndorfer can be reached at 374-5042 or arndorb@ gvillesun.com.

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