March 1, 2023

The Apollo 13 astronauts on The Tonight Show, 1970

Beginning with Apollo 11 in 1969, the U.S. manned space program scheduled seven missions to land men on the moon, ending in 1972. Six of them succeeded; the seventh was Apollo 13. 

It's ironic, I suppose, that Apollo 13 became the most famous of those seven moon mission other than Apollo 11 itself, because technically it was a failure. It didn't accomplish its mission of putting two of its astronauts, Jim Lovell and Fred Haise, on the moon's surface. However, it became a triumph in a different way: by putting together an emergency plan on the fly, a plan that required everything to go right, Apollo 13 became a triumph of human ingenuity and determination.

The Apollo 13 astronauts—Lovell, Haise, and Jack Swigert—received a hero's welcome when they returned; their dramatic flight had united the world in a way that few events have since. One of the honors they received—and, in the realm of American culture, it was an honor—was their appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson on June 3. The response from the audience, as well as from Johnny and Ed McMahon, indicates how much these three men had touched the hearts of Americans, and how the astronauts themselves had come to understand the significance of their mission—perhaps even more significant than had it been a "success."

This clip, and it is well-worth watching in its entirety, is interesting on so many levels. Aside from it being a time when Americans actually believed in heroes, it tells us much about its time. You notice that male hairstyles are getting longer, and sideburns bushier. Although the suits we see are still relatively conservative, Johnny's raspberry-colored shirt shows how color is becoming a more important part of men's fashion. (Note the cufflinks, a standard part of every well-dressed man's wardrobe back then.) And Johnny still does the live lead-in to Ed's live commericals; imagine hosts doing that today.

The astronauts are terrific, displaying a wry humor to go along with their military bearing (although Lovell was the only one of the three to be on active duty, all three had been in the service at one time or another). I wouldn't presume to know what was going on inside any of them, but outwardly they're completely at ease, comfortable chatting and joking with Carson, and it must have made it easier for Johnny in turn. Neither he nor Ed are phoning it in; both show a genuine interest in the mission and in what the astronauts were going through at the time. They've seen many celebrities come and go through that set, and these men are the real deal.

And speaking of that set: it's so modest, compared to Carson's later sets, just a desk, chair, and couch, along with a simple backdrop of different colors. It's a refreshing break from the ubiquitious nightime skyline that's become a part of every talk show since, and the couch is a reminder that these were conversation shows, with guests remaining after their time in the chair, engaging with the rest of the panel. It's adult television, and it's satisfying; Graham Norton seems to have taken this lesson to heart, and I wish more would do so. If it's interesting, you might even be able to justify spending 90 minutes on it. TV  

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