Long ago late at night, before Jay, Dave and the Jimmys, there was Johnny, a droll comedian out of Nebraska. A demographer’s dream, he evoked the viewer’s father, husband, son, or funny uncle. Johnny Carson was a member of the family and NBC’s MVP, at one point generating 17% of the network’s total profits. Americans got their news from Cronkite and their take on it from Carson.
On January 1st, Antenna TV will begin airing entire episodes of Carson’s Tonight Shows nightly at 11pm ET.
After Mark David Chapman murdered John Lennon, Chapman told police he’d first fantasized assassinating Carson, but assumed he couldn’t get close enough to take him out. He was wrong. Johnny would have been easy to pick off. Sidekick Ed McMahon arrived at the Burbank studios in a chauffeur-driven limo. Johnny drove himself in, usually accompanied by a brown-bagged lunch.
There was no entourage or armed muscle. He didn’t make the demands of perishable stars with outsized egos that require the biggest dressing rooms. During construction work at NBC, he was moved to a windowless basement office. Mirrors were hung on the wall to make it appear larger. He said it reminded him of a New York City apartment.
Johnny never aired his politics. He was a liberal and knew I was writing humor for Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush, but that didn’t faze him in the least. Unlike insufferable leftist Stephen Colbert, he didn’t use his program as a forum to proselytize for one party. His mission was to get laughs and he kneecapped both sides.
Scores of legendary standup comics were birthed on the Carson show. His wave over to the couch was the imprimatur that forever altered a career trajectory. Johnny could match wits with the best of them but was thrilled when the comic killed. His goal was to make the guests look good, his grace notably on display with centenarians and children.
It must be added that Johnny was no saint. Too often he wasn’t very happy. I learned to keep my distance during weeks when dark clouds circled his head. He was keenly aware of his shortcomings. He once gave me a rare compliment, then added, “That’s from me, and I’m not exactly Mother Teresa.” But he was a decent guy and loyal boss, and he’d hate me for revealing his soft side. One day I walked into his office as he was hanging up from a phone call to a terminally ill boy. He was beaming.
“The kid kept asking, ‘Are you really Johnny Carson?’”
He made those calls all the time.
A private man, he couldn’t understand why Lucy lived in a corner house in Beverly Hills exposed to tourists who rang her bell and asked to pose for photos. In the ‘70s, he walked me through his Bel-Air mansion, the former home of Mervyn Le Roy, producer of The Wizard of Oz. Entering through the Oz-guarded gate, I admired the lush landscaping, tennis court, and screening room. The wizard of late night just winked.
“Got it on the GI Bill.”
Despite interviewing thousands of legendary performers, sports figures and newsmakers, Johnny considered himself first and foremost a comedian. When he was on vacation it wasn’t uncommon for him to phone me with premises for sketches. And he was always eager to have me pitch him ideas in his office, even when my visits awakened him from a nap.
Carson monologues ran eight minutes without interruption. In today’s 140 character, goldfish attention span world, late night hosts feel compelled to break up theirs with video drop-ins.
In this comedy time capsule, it will be instructive to note how humor has changed. We did material that would be inappropriate today. There were reliable go-to hooks. Ed McMahon was a lush. The band was high on drugs. An intimation that flamboyantly dressed bandleader Doc Severinsen was gay. We had Doc mince through a sketch. Carol Wayne, the matinee lady in the Art Fern Tea Time Movies, was the foil for dumb blonde-big boobs-slut jokes.
Conversely, the language in contemporary humor is coarser. After comics on HBO specials routinely dropped the f-bomb it bled over to Comedy Central. Each night Jon Stewart bleeped himself cynically so his fans obviously knew what he’d said. Once delivered for shock value, the verb is so common today it’s lost its power. Today’s targets are different too. Politicians are still fair game, but in sitcoms it’s perfectly safe to mock Christians as simpletons and even bigots.
Johnny was a constant in a rapidly changing society, a nightcap who tucked the country in. When he swung his imaginary golf club for the last time 23 years ago, it was akin to a wrecking ball flattening a landmark. Now millennials will get to see the man who sleep-deprived their parents and grandparents for three decades.
Raymond Siller was the longtime head writer on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”