Washington Post, 31 July 1977
Americans think the Alaskan pipeline is a klutzy farce, the neutron bomb a cruel joke and Anita Bryant a big pain in the neck.
These findings are the result of an analysis of the monologs of Johnny Carson, star of NBC's “The Tonight Show".
When you follow Carson's nightly topical musing religiously - or, let's say, loyally - you get a provocative picture of what a popular entertainer thinks it is safe to say about current events.
Carson is not on the cutting edge of social change or public attitudes, but what he says is barometric because he's so brilliantly expert at gauging and exploiting what the traffic will allow. In recent months his monologs have grown increasingly audacious and topical, and it's his handling of the Anita Bryant business that has proven most interesting to observe.
Gay rights activists said they feared a new era of McCarthyism when Bryant began her crusade against homosexual visibility. To the contrary, she may have unwittingly done them a favor. Carson and other comedians have turned her into a new symbolic stock comic figure: Anita Bryant has become the female Archie Bunker, a living caricature of abrasive bigotry.
The image of Bryant that emerges from the Carson monologs - repeatedly to the cheers and laughter of, one presumes, a largely heterosexual studio audience - is that of a prudish, self-righteous fanatic. Was the New York black-out an act of God? No, said Carson. because “Anita Bryant would never have given Him time off!”
In a routine about mock predictions for the future, Carson prophesized that this year, “at the insistence of Anita Bryant, the Muppets will undergo a sex test.”
He also promised his audience, “A little later on, Anita Bryant will be out here and try to knock off Truman Capote's hat with a Florida orange.”
The tone is not hostile, but clearly derisive. Other talk shows guests have spoken against her but not so effectively, because they all lack Carson's guileless credibility. Guest host Rob Reiner sounded nearly as self-righteous as Bryant when be implored into the camera. "Why doesn't that woman stop? Stop, Anita." This did get a big hand, however.
It’ s very likely that Bryant jokes will be particularly plentiful on the new Fall comedy shows coming up. They all did "Gong Show” jokes last year; they’ll all do Bryant jokes this year. "Laugh-In” producer George Schlatter, contemplating topics for the new version of the show to be seen on NBC, was quoted recently as noting, “You don't have the war anymore - but you do have Anita Bryant."
Pollsters could be more conclusive about this, but it does begin to look as though Bryant has solidified public opinion against what gay activists call "homophobia" more effectively and more quickly than any amount of homosexually generated propaganda could have done.
What Bryant and Carson may have done is help speed up the process that will allow television to treat homosexuals with the same disrespect it treats everyone else, which is in its way a kind of 20th century media realism, and perhaps even fair[…] and Anita Bryant, at least in the telltale monologs of Johnny Carson, has assumed the Earl Butz role of national village idiot.