Remembering Johnny Carson

Carson-desk

I still have that image of the microphone on the desk, a typed script for a comedy bit, and a number two pencil that we’d see him use as a drumstick coming out of a commercial break.

There was a time when late night television really had a king.  That king was Johnny Carson.  He hosted The Tonight Show on NBC-TV for nearly thirty years: from October 1962 until May 1992, twenty years ago this month.

I grew up watching Carson.  As a preteen, I’d beg my Mom to let me stay up late on Friday nights to catch his show.  As my family slept, I sat in front of our console television set watching Johnny. 

I was a broadcasting major in college and it seemed as though all my classmates wanted to be the host of The Tonight Show.  I would have settled to be just a guest on the show, or more likely, to be in the audience during a taping. 

Johnny was part of my adult life too as VCRs came on the market and allowed me to tape the show for viewing at a time when I was awake.  I was in a habit of watching the nightly monologue the next morning as I did my exercises.  Carson got me through some difficult back problems I had in my early thirties. Bending and stretching sore muscles were made a lot easier thanks to his nightly monologue and post commercial comedy bits.

So I mark the twentieth anniversary Johnny's farewell with my memories of that very special final week.

The Monday night show (May 18, 1992) of that week featured Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Douglas as guests.  Taylor was talking about her astrological sign Pisces when the three-times divorced Johnny observed, “I think I was married to a Pisces once.” To which Taylor retorted, “Oh I’m sure you did.” 

The Tuesday night show featured Mel Brooks and Tony Bennett.  Both were on the very first Tonight Show with Johnny thirty years earlier.  Brooks, at Johnny’s urging, told the story about how he became a reluctant daily lunch companion to Cary Grant back in the 1960s. 

Tony sang I’ll be Seeing You, gave Johnny a portrait sketch, and sang his signature I Left My Heart in San Francisco right after Johnny pointed out that the song debuted nationally on that very first show thirty years earlier. 

Actor Jack Lemmon filled out the evening with a story about how he stayed up all night talking to Johnny at a diner in New York City back in the 1950's.

The Wednesday program featured Roseanne Barr who was going by her then married name of Roseanne Arnold.  She thanked Johnny for giving her a career after her breakthrough performance several years earlier. 

She did a brief stand up bit that was inadvertently cut off by the band before her last punch line.  Johnny let her finish the joke at the chair next to his desk.  Actor Richard Harris filled out the evening with a story about how he and fellow actor Peter O’Toole would try to mess one another up while performing on stage. 

Harris seemed out of place during a week when each guest seemed to have a special link to the show.  Johnny wanted to feel comfortable during those final shows and Harris was an apparent favorite, probably from the early years of the show when it was done in New York City.

Practically anyone watching television twenty years ago remembers that next to last Tonight Show with Robin Williams and Bette Midler as guests. 

Williams gave Carson a rocking chair and then launched into his frenetic observations on everything from then Vice President Quayle to Williams' use of cocaine in the early days of his career.  Midler sang Miss Otis Regrets, a Cole Porter tune that featured Doc Severinsen’s last trumpet solo with a guest on the show. 

But we remember the impromptu duet between Johnny and Bette: Here Comes that Rainy Day.  At that moment, it finally sank in for me:  Johnny was actually saying goodbye.   He introduced Bette a final time for One More for the Road. 

A speechless Carson thanked his guests, and accepted a lei and a hug from Bette.  What a night.

I watched that last broadcast on the Friday evening in the living room of my parents’ home. We were visiting for the weekend with children in tow. 

My Mom and Dad joined me well past their ordinary bedtime to watch this history-making finale to Johnny’s thirty-year run as host. 

Mom and Dad never stayed up that late.  But they did this particular night.

Johnny came out from behind the curtain to a standing ovation.  He uncharacteristically pulled a barstool to center stage and did his last monologue sitting down. 

He only told a few jokes; all were centered on his leaving the show.  General Electric, the owner of the NBC television network at the time was one of the targets of Johnny’s last monologue, as was then Vice President Dan Quayle once again

The rest of the evening consisted of video clips, a farewell to announcer Ed McMahon and bandleader Doc Severinsen, a behind-the-scenes look at how the show was produced, and Johnny’s closing remarks capped by his poignant final words “I wish you a heartfelt goodnight.”

Late night television changed the following Monday when Jay Leno took over The Tonight Show.  Within a year, David Letterman would leave NBC and compete head-to-head with Leno. 

They’ve been at it for the past nineteen years.  Gone were those monologue jokes that the audience either laughed at or groaned; today, it seems every line is met with applause from an audience that’s coached to “make Dave happy” or “don’t disappoint Jay” prior to being seated. 

Gone are the desk bits done after the first commercial break where Johnny would do his Carnac bit, or a read a list of something funny right from the paper it was typed on with no assist from the teleprompter. 

Gone were the days when I would light up just knowing Johnny would be hosting that night.   

As near as I can tell, there is no special tribute being planned for the anniversary of Carson's last stand.  He is pretty much forgotten by today's audiences. 

That's a shame because no one captured the excitement of mixing conversation and comedy quite like Johnny. 

He was a late night king back at a time when the term really had meaning.  And he is sorely missed.

Steve Newvine lives in Merced