When Johnny Carson Became Ashamed of His Audience’s Bad Manners

From The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers, a book by Maxwell King, published by Abrams Press. Rogers was an influential figure in the history of children’s television. As the creator and star of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, he was a champion of compassion, equality, and kindness.

Johnny Carson played Fred Rogers in a 1978 parody in which he donned a bad wig and found only a dead fish in the famous tank on a simulated Neighborhood set. Instead of sneakers, Carson donned white shoes of the sort gamblers might wear in Vegas. And holding Barbie and Ken dolls, speaking in a slow and seemingly child-friendly cadence, Carson’s Mr. Rogers, full of sly innuendo,  shows the audience how the two dolls get under the bed covers to make a baby.

After Carson played the segment “Mr. Codgers Neighborhood,” David Newell got in touch with the show’s producer, Fred De Cordova, and asked for equal time. Fred Rogers appeared in his sneakers, looking nervous. The audience started to snicker before he even got to his chair.

As described in the Washington Post by Paul Hendrickson in a November 18, 1982 article, “That’s when a funny thing happened: Carson turned protective. He seemed ashamed of his audience’s bad manners.

“It was as if some atavistic Midwestern compassion came suddenly welling up. We may be urban-cool and all, Carson seemed to be telling his audience, but in some other deeper feeling way,  we’re all losers. During the break,  Carson leaned over and told Rogers that the first show he had on TV back in Omaha. . .was a kids’ show and that he knew you couldn’t dare be a phony, not with kids.”

At one point, when Carson tried to get a rise out of him, Fred responded, “Most of the people I know like fun just as much as you do.”

Carson kept having him back.

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