Sunday, April 12, 2009


Apparently Bill Benzon, who has all the privileges of the author function here at Mostly Harmless, was too embarrassed to post this himself:

Yes, it's Carson and Rickles at a Tonight Show studio onsen in 1968--I truly have no shame. And on the morning of the most sacred Sunday in the world of golf.

As penance, I'm linking to Uncle Bill's robo-subaltern post over at The Valve.


bill benzon said...

Either those women were unusually large or Johnny was small.

But this was a lot of fun. Do you think they rehearsed the Rickles-toss or was that spontaneous?

bill benzon said...

More seriously, this clip raises interesting cultural issues. I suspect that I know more about public bathing in Japan than most Americans (including me) knew in 1968, so I know that, above and beyond the staging for this show, this is not about traditional authenticity. But nonetheless is does play off differences between Japanese culture and American culture. But it's more than I want to attempt to try explicating what's going on. What's at stake has to do with intimacy, sex, touch, and skin, all at once.

And then Rickles enters, and just makes it all more complicated.

The Constructivist said...

What's amazing about Carson is his timing. He lets the audience imagine 3 or 4 different punch lines to the words and actions of the Japanese women, then goes in a knowing but usually fairly offbeat direction. Toeing the line with the network censors all the while. I think the Rickles toss was completely spontaneous.

Some interesting details. The women introduce themselves with the -san honorific. A no-no in Japanese, but otherwise Carson couldn't be counted on to use it himself. It seems one only used Japanese the whole time, while the other couldn't possibly have not known the connotations of the English she was using.

bill benzon said...

I was wondering about that "san," because it raises all the tricky issues of cultural difference that are in this skit. To many Americans, then and now, "san" is just a syllable associated with Japanese names, similar to a final "ski" for some Slavic names or an initial "O" for some Irish names. They don't realize that it's an honorific and, as such, is the approximate functional equivalent of "Mr./Miss/Mrs." You use honorifics when addressing or referring to someone else, but not when talking about yourself, or introducing yourself to another (as is the case here). So, when the women give their names they're making a social error.

One might, however, want to know what honorifics would be appropriate among these people in that situation. My not very-well-informed sense is that "san" is the default honorific between adults, and so would be appropriate. Still, one might wonder just what that situation is.

The implicit framing is clear: Carson is in a brothal. And that's where it gets really tricky. This Wikipedia article on the Japanese bath indicates that, during the Tokugawa period and even "nowadays,some brothels in Japan specialize on having young women clean their male customers in a private bath" (cf. this more specific article). So, that's what we're seeing. But that's not the more general situation, which is, of course, quite different. That this skit depicts a sexual service is readily interpretable in terms of American culture. But the public Japanese bath is a bit more opaque, though perhaps less so now (with the proliferaction of spas) than back in 1968.

It would be interesting to know how Carson introduced this sketch. What did he lead the audience to expect?