Story of a Class Act: Johnny Carson

Story of a Class Act: Johnny Carson

Our friends at the Daily Caller have a wonderful column up today written by Raymond Siller, a former head writer for “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” Unbelievably, this month we’ll hit the twenty-year mark since the legend’s departure from his thirty-year stint as the man all of America loved to go to bed with.

Here are some highlights, but you will want to read the whole thing:

In 1980, before Mark David Chapman murdered John Lennon outside his Central Park West apartment, Johnny Carson, the late-night host of “The Tonight Show,” had been targeted in Chapman’s mind. But the assassin calculated that Lennon was more accessible, that he couldn’t get near enough to hit Carson. Little did he know. While B-list guests as well as announcer Ed McMahon took limos to the studio, Johnny, a private man, drove himself to work.

Twenty years ago this month, Johnny Carson retired from “The Tonight Show,” the program he began hosting a half-century ago.

Johnny was a liberal, though viewers would have been hard-pressed to know his politics. He skewered the left and the right. That made business sense. Why alienate half your audience? Johnny was also fair and wouldn’t pile on any politician on life support. But when he launched his missiles at a pol, that official could no longer be taken seriously and may as well have cancelled membership to his favorite Capitol Hill massage parlor. …

Following presidential candidate George H.W. Bush’s 1988 address at the Republican convention, Johnny said, “Next time you talk to your friend, tell him he has my vote. He gave a helluva speech.” That may have been the only time Johnny ever voted Republican. However, when candidate Bush invited him to play tennis at the White House, Johnny declined. True to form, he didn’t wish to be identified with a political party. He said, “I was once photographed at the White House with Hubert Humphrey and I’m sorry I did.” Later, President George H.W. Bush and Johnny did become friends.

Not that there’s any reason to doubt it, but I can personally vouch for the fact that Carson drove himself to work. The first vacation my wife and I ever took was to Los Angeles in 1986 and one of the stops we made was at NBC for their legendary tour. Part of the tour took us outside to the parking lot so we could see all the famous names and their reserved spots. Caron’s was empty, but just as we were about to head back in, Carson zoomed into the spot and we all stood there with our jaws swinging.

What I’ll never forget is how nervous Carson was.Already a legend, he was far from comfortable being the center of attention in a group of about 20. It was unbelievably endearing, especially because he still took the time to say hello before heading inside.

As a teenager, I watched the “Tonight Show’ every night, going so far as to use my first VCR (which was about the size of a Cadillac) to record Carson so I could watch the next day after school. Even at that young age, Carson’s soothing presence, class, and comedic brilliance was one of the highlights of my day. 

When he went off the air I mourned, and still do.

Just before we moved out of Los Angeles last year, some UHF channel began to rerun clips of the “Tonight Show” sometime around 11pm. What a treat it was to fall asleep to Johnny one more time.

Sadly, no one’s even tried to replace him. In his physical place might be Jay Leno, who lacks Carson’s old school polish and is a bit of a Obama suck up; and of course there’s Letterman, Kimmel, and Fallon — but they’ve all become partisan to one degree or another. Letterman, who was mentored by Carson, is the worst of the lot, becoming something Carson never was: angry, bitter, mean, and crude.

In order to avoid looking partisan, Carson wouldn’t even play tennis with a sitting president. What was obvious then and is even more obvious now is that Carson’s unwillingness to allow his personal politics to insult his audience is the kind of old school showbiz class that’s all but extinct today.  

There’s nothing wrong with the likes of Letterman, Stewart, Colbert, and Fallon carrying water for Obama. What is wrong is that they want to pretend they’re heirs to Carson using a phony mask of “satirist,” when they’re nothing more than left-wing political operatives.

And that makes them something else Carson most certainly was not: a liar.