Hard to believe it was 20 years ago tonight, May 22, 1992, that Johnny Carson signed off from the “Tonight Show” for the final time, just five months shy of a full 30 years of ruling Late-Nite television. Numerous competitors/imitators have come and gone since then, some successful (David Letterman, Jay Leno, Arsenio Hall, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel) and others not-so-much (Chevy Chase, Magic Johnson, Dennis Miller, Joan Rivers, Alan Thicke), but none of them can match the majesty that Johnny (along with co-horts Ed McMahon and Doc Severinsen) gave us for three decades.
I first got into the “Tonight Show” when I was about 10 or so, when I was first able to stay up just late enough to catch Johnny’s nightly monologues. This would’ve been the summer of ’74 when I didn’t have a strict bedtime on non-school nights, and it was the height of the Watergate crisis, which provided Carson and comedians nationwide a seemingly endless supply of funny material. Johnny appealed to me not only because he was funny and personable, but because watching his show made me feel a bit more grown-up—this was my first venture into a more sophisticated adult world of entertainment (non-porn, that is). Johnny was such a gentleman and made doing his show seem so effortless and there were times when I thought he had the coolest job in the world, thus I couldn’t quite understand his numerous contract disputes and conflicts with NBC and such over the years, or why he insisted on shortening the show from 90 to 60 minutes and only worked three days a week toward the end. Of course, I didn’t realize then that doing a nightly show like could become a real grind over time. Undoubtedly, the 60-90 minutes Johnny spent on camera was the fun part, but all the work that went along with it probably sucked. Like the late Bon Scott of AC/DC once sang, “I tell ya, folks—it’s harder than it looks…”
I could spend the better part of an eternity highlighting my favorite “Tonight Show” moments, but here’s a sampling:
--Anyone remember those ‘70s commercials featuring British actress Rula Lenska hawking RCA TVs? "My hair is a brilliant red, my eyes a dazzling green and if you're not seeing that, you're not watching on an RCA television". Pretty redhead, this Rula was (although she sounded like a drag queen when she spoke), and these ads, along with her Alberto VO5 shampoo spots, puffed this woman up to be some big-time Liz Taylor-esque celebrity that everyone was supposed to automatically know and recognize, thus I’ll never forget the night Johnny Carson incredulously uttered, “Who the hell is Rula Lenska?!?” I forget the context of the discussion, and it wasn’t mean-spirited or anything, but he totally echoed my thoughts at the time and that one always stuck with me.
--Like any superstar athlete, Johnny had his off-nights now and then, and I remember one particular night when Johnny was just bombing right and left during his monologue. Every joke he told was met with lukewarm semi-laughter at best from the audience, to the point where Johnny finally just gave up and laid down on the studio floor and “died” while Doc Severinsen played taps on his trumpet. I loved that totally spontaneous stuff Johnny and the gang would do at times—this is what made that show appear be so much fun to do.
--I’m not sure if this one was spontaneous or staged, but it was pretty funny anyway. Comedian Don Rickles guested on the show while Johnny was on vacation one week in 1976, and upon his return, Carson noticed that the little wooden cigarette box he kept on his desk was damaged, and Doc Severinsen fingered “Mr. Warmth” as the guilty party who broke it. So, Johnny had a cameraman follow him across the hall into the next studio where Rickles was taping “CPO Sharkey” at the time and interrupted the proceedings to take him to task for mangling his cigarette box. Rickles almost seemed a bit rattled by it all too.
--Johnny again echoed my thoughts (and those of millions of American heterosexual men, for that matter) during singer Dolly Parton’s first “Tonight Show” appearance regarding her breasts when he said, “I would give about a year’s pay to peek under there…” Only Johnny could get away with saying something sexist like that without incurring the wrath of feminists and conservative media hacks and such. If Leno or Letterman made that kind of comment today, they’d be put in front of the firing squad.
--I always looked forward to actor Robert Blake’s appearances on the show. Before he became a murderer (yes, I think he whacked that gold-digging Bonny Lee Bakely woman) during his “Baretta” days, he always seemed to have funny stories to tell, and he showed no outward signs of what an asshole he truly was/is off-screen. In spite of all that, I wish they would put the rest of “Baretta” out on DVD beyond just Season 1—it was a damn good show.
--You had to love the animal segments with Joan Embery from the San Diego Zoo and Jim Fowler from TV’s “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom”. Carson was often keen to point out that Fowler was the one who did all the heavy lifting on that show while host Marlin Perkins got all the glory, and would constantly mock Perkins: “While Jim is down under the ship being swallowed whole by the Great White shark, I’ll be on deck mixing martinis for myself and the crew…” (Or something like that.) He always seemed so scared shitless of the bigger animals too, which made things all that much funnier. And who could forget the night when the little critter called a Marmoset ascended to the top of Mount Carson and proceeded to take a whiz on Johnny’s head? Classic stuff…
--The week after the Kansas City Royals won the World Series in 1985, pitcher Bret Saberhagen represented the team on the "Tonight Show". Johnny introduced him as "Bert" Saberhagen. Oops! However, David Letterman had no trouble pronouncing Buddy Biancalana when he appeared on "Late Nite" the same week.
--Almost every time I see Ed McMahon, I think of George Carlin's bit: "Just once, don't you wish somebody on the Johnny Carson panel would go, 'Whew! Goddamn, Ed, MOVE DOWN, will ya!'" Johnny often gave Ed grief about his drinking prowess, although he wasn't near as bad as say, Dean Martin or Nick Nolte. One night, however, Ed was feeling no pain...
--And then there was my all-time favorite Carson recurring bit, Carnac The Magnificent. About once a month, the legendary all-knowing seer/sage/soothsayer would grace the “Tonight Show” set in his ever-present turban and divine the answers to the questions from the envelopes that Ed McMahon handed him (that had been sitting in a hermetically-sealed mayonnaise jar on Funk & Wagnall’s porch since Noonn that day). For example, Carnac would say the answer “Joe Namath, Big Ben, and a politician’s campaign promises”. He would then open the envelope and read the question: “Name a jock, a clock and a crock.” Or another: “Bjorn Borg”…“Describe the sound made by Orson Welles sitting on his hat.” If the audience reacted negatively, Carnac would respond with, “May the Minnesota Vikings’ front four give your sister an illegal chuck!” or “May a carsick mongoose change the color of your seats!” Or hell, check him out in action for yourself. Here is a fairly comprehensive list of Carnac classics. And here’s another. Carson had other recurring characters and bits like Art Fern with his “Tea-Time Movies” (often aided and abetted by late buxom actress Carol Wayne), anal-retentive conservative reactionary Floyd R. Turbo (Bill O’Reilly with earflaps), Stump The Band and crabby Aunt Blabby, but Carnac was far and away the funniest of them all.
In later years on the nights when Johnny was on vacation, viewers were treated to “Tonight Show” reruns (re-titled “The Best Of Carson”), but during the heyday, guest hosts would sub for Carson, and this was a bit of a crapshoot sometimes. Some guest hosts were very entertaining, like Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart, Richard Dawson, David Brenner, Tony Orlando, Orson Welles, George Carlin and McLean Stevenson. Even Kermit The Frog and the Muppets held court on the show one night, and it was hilarious. On the other hand, some guest hosts were grating like Joan Rivers and hack entertainer John Davidson (usually butchering Olivia Newton-John songs in the process).
I mentioned the Carson imitators earlier, and the most egregious of the bunch had to be Alan Thicke’s “Thicke Of The Night” in 1983-84. And it was bad. (How bad was it?) Well, it was SO bad…all throughout the summer of ’83, TV viewers were harangued by an onslaught of TV ads promoting Thicke’s new show, proclaiming Big Al to be the cat’s ass and practically trash-talking that he was going to slay the dragon that was Johnny Carson. Long about that same time, the United States Football League tried to take on the NFL, too—how’d that work out, hmmm? (I’ll give you $3 to tell me!) In his brilliant 2004 bad TV anthology book entitled What Were They Thinking?, TV/film scribe David Hofstede had some accurate observations about Thicke’s show: “A couple things can happen when a performer is relentlessly shoved into the public consciousness, and it’s amazing those doing the shoving haven’t figured this out yet. Some [viewers] will be so turned off by the disturbance that they’ll make a point to NOT watch out of spite. Others will be curious enough to tune in with great expectations and little patience. Woe to the host who demands your attention, and then wastes your time.” Count me in the former group there—I wasn’t about to defect from Johnny’s camp in the first place, but I had no desire to watch Thicke’s crapfest based on the incessant way they hyped the hell out of it. By extension, I refuse to eat at Sonic Drive-Ins for similar reasons—I am so sick of being force-fed those two dorks in the mini-van (the vaunted T.J. and Pete) in their lame-ass TV ads. Predictably, “Thicke Of The Night” was an abysmal failure, and one of the big reasons for that, in my opinion, was Thicke himself—what a freakin’ dullard! Hofstede sums up the Thicke fiasco quite succinctly: “There were many other challengers to the ratings supremacy of ‘The Tonight Show’, but none entered the game with more arrogance and less ammunition.”
I don’t know of many people who hated Johnny Carson (Alan Thicke, maybe?), because he seemed to be so universally loved. Hell, even my old man liked Johnny, and that’s saying something—Dad’s approval curve for entertainers was sky-high. From what I’ve read and heard, though, Johnny was a bit of a contradiction because his personal life wasn’t nearly as rosy as his public persona indicated. In front of the camera, he was totally at home and at ease gabbing with all manner of entertainers, politicians/statesmen, musicians, sports figures and just plain folks, but off-screen, he was actually shy and rather inept socially. His numerous marriages weren’t all peaches and beans either, especially with the infamous Joanna Carson, who was the source of quite a bit of monologue material in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and toward the end of his run on the show in 1991, Johnny’s son Rick was killed in a car accident, so there was a fair amount of angst for Johnny off-camera. Carson also had health issues late in life, thanks mostly to his smoking habit, and he died of emphysema in 2005. Even though I knew all about that, when I heard the news of his death, I was still shocked by it, nonetheless. My immediate reaction was, “Johnny Carson can’t die! This just can’t happen.” He was such an institution and part of the inner fabric of our lives and culture, it just seemed like he should live forever. But, alas, he was indeed human just like the rest of us.
We didn’t hear much from Johnny in the years following his retirement, but that’s the way he wanted it. Can’t say I blame him, really—he’d “done his time” for America, so to speak, and he earned the right to ride off into the sunset and do whatever he wanted. I read recently that Carson had long foreseen the spectre that is “reality” television and like me, he was not a fan of it. I certainly remember how he ripped “Survivor” (and other shows of its ilk) a good one in a rare interview with Esquire magazine in 2002. I almost wanted to kiss Johnny on the lips (well, not really) when he said, "These people are in just about as much jeopardy as I am having dinner. People forget that there's a crew there. There's a catering service…It's not like they are going to die out there in the jungle. These silly people will do anything the director suggests because they want to be on television!" Preach, brother, preach!
I have to admit by the late ‘80s and early ‘90s that I had moved on a bit and hadn’t watched the “Tonight Show” as much in the years leading up to Johnny’s retirement. Still, I was really hoping he would wait until October ’92 to step down, that way he could’ve made it an even 30 years of hosting the show, but it all came to an end on May 22, 1992. Here in K.C., we viewers were forced to wait and wait and wait to see the finale thanks to our Kansas City Royals. You would think, given the special occasion and all, that Channel 4 (our NBC affiliate at the time) would’ve tried to avoid a conflict, and not aired a Royals game that night, right? YOU ARE WRONG, pitching change breath! The 7:30 Royals game from Texas seemed to take forever to finish, thus we had to wait for the game to end, then sit through all 30 minutes of the 10:00 news before Johnny’s last show finally aired a good 45 minutes late. I was not pleased. And on top of that, the Royals lost!
There is allegedly a cave somewhere in western Kansas that houses the entire video archive of every Johnny Carson show that still exists on videotape from the ‘70s onward (sadly, most everything from the ‘60s was erased). Several “best-of” video collections are available for public consumption now, of course, but one would hope that someday more and more of the archives will see the light of day again as well. Hell, I say why not run “Tonight Show” reruns (even the ones Johnny Carson didn’t appear on) Monday thru Friday nights at 11:30/10:30 central on TV Land or some other cable outlet? I’d be willing to bet they’d draw more viewers than some of the current late-night yack-fests (or at least give them a run for their money), and what a great way to time-travel it would be, too. I think Johnny Carson should be required viewing for school kids too, just to prove to them that high-quality television entertainment did once exist. I miss Johnny dearly, and today’s talk shows are just no substitute.