Before the Jimmys, both Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon, before Seth Meyers, Jon Stewart, Arsenio Hall, Conan O’Brien, Bill Maher, and David Letterman, there was Johnny Carson!
To set the scene, this episode of The Tonight Show first aired in 1988. As Johnny begins the show and speaks with his straight man, Ed McMahon, he makes a reference to David Letterman. Dave was celebrating the sixth anniversary of his late-night program at the time. Ed reckons that they had already been running for 19 years when Mr. Letterman debuted in October 1962. This film transports us back in time!
Johnny presents Merritt Heaton of Toulon, Illinois, claiming that Mr. Heaton is the longest-surviving working farmer in the state of Illinois. Merritt takes his place on the sofa, and the laughter never stops!
Johnny questions Merritt on why he was originally hesitant to appear on the program. Merritt claims to have been afraid, but Johnny claims to have been in “ten or twelve global wars.” Merritt seems to unwind fast, and Johnny wonders how many times Merritt has watched the act over the years. Merritt is a little fuzzy on that, so Johnny lets it go. Farmers get up early!
Merritt and Johnny talk about coffee shop culture, with Merritt detailing the vital political and farm-related talks that take place at the local java joint every morning. That’s one custom that hasn’t changed over the years—many farmers still stop by the coffee shop every day.
The gentleman farmer describes his regular day on the farm; however, he admits that he’s now delegated supervisory duties to his son, and the crowd screams in amusement when he tells Johnny that his son is 78! Mr. Heaton’s family clearly has a strong work ethic!
When asked what has caused the most difference on the farm, Mr. Heaton replies electricity, and Johnny adds he thought it could be the involvement of the wheel. Everything is in good humor. Both the interviewer and the interviewee exhibit excellent humor and kindness.
The subject of Mr. Heaton’s love life is brought up. Merritt, although not much of a dancer, seems to have it together when it comes to romance. Merritt had been married for 64 years when his wife died, so Johnny, making fun of his own dismal track record with spouses, asks him how he managed to keep it going for so long.
Merritt discusses how times and women have changed, and how happy he is with his connections with two woman friends—one in California and one in his birthplace of Illinois!
Merritt mentioned “rural free delivery” and how it was novel to him as a youngster. Without telephones, television, or, apparently, the internet, his father learned about President William McKinley’s murder in September 1901 through the newspaper!
Johnny finishes up with Merritt, and Merritt thanks Johnny before departing. Johnny compliments Merritt on his sharpness and friendliness. Ray Stevens, who was a huge thing in country music at the time, is scheduled to perform following the ad. Rather, Johnny brings Merritt and his California sweetheart, Peggy Taylor, back for a brief introduction. Ms. Peggy is sophisticated and ladylike, but less outgoing than Merritt. They seem to be a wonderful pair!
The whole interview is a delight! It’s also a fascinating piece of history!