He wasn't supposed to let me or anyone see it. No bigger secret existed anywhere in Show Biz. But no one was around and
we'd been discussing the topic so he — the Vice-President of Comedy Development at NBC — hauled out a thin blue folder and gave me a
glance at the list of folks who were being considered to replace Johnny Carson as host of The Tonight Show. "It's definite now," the
Veep said. "Carson's leaving in September. And this isn't like before when Johnny announced he was leaving and wound up just
renegotiating. This is it. I've talked to him about it, myself. Johnny Carson is leaving."
This was eleven years ago.
And, as of earlier this evening when I tuned it in, Johnny Carson was still hosting The Tonight Show.
(The NBC exec is long gone, however. In fact, his replacement is gone. And his replacement's replacement. And his
replacement's replacement's replacement. And his replacement's replacement's replacement's replacement. And a few others, NBC
Vice-Presidents having roughly the life span of the Muscoid Fly. Which is amazing when you consider how little they have to do: Being in charge
of comedy at NBC is like being a Nestlé's salesman in Hershey, Pennsylvania.)
Johnny Carson took over the host's chair of The Tonight Show on October 1, 1962. As I write this, it is 1990 and, though
he is now renewing his pact there year-by-year, the end does not appear to be in sight. The ratings are still good and, if Johnny is sick of
the thrice-a-week grind, he is doing a good job of concealing it.
Twenty-eight years. There is no way to describe to someone outside the business how incredible that is because there is no "close
second" to compare. Steve Allen hosted The Tonight Show for less than four years and Jack Paar for less than five — and neither
gent's stint was considered unsuccessful. Both are, in fact, considered classics of the industry. My guess is that when NBC signed Carson
on to fill the timeslot, they didn't even allow themselves the optimism of hoping he might last five years in it. If you had offered to wager
cash-money that Johnny might be there into his third decade, everyone — Carson, included, most likely — would have covered your
action. It would have been like wagering the guy could hike across Lake Michigan: Simply can't be done.
Carson's nearest challenger is Merv Griffin who, in the same period of time, had a daytime talk show on NBC, a nighttime syndicated
talk show, a late-night network talk show on CBS and then another syndicated nighttime program. And all those shows added together do not come
close to equalling Carson's tenure.
Who's in third place? Probably Dick Cavett. His late night show was opposite Johnny for a shade over five years, most of
the time finishing a respectable second in the time slot. Unfortunately, Cavett had the misfortune to be on ABC when they were finishing first
in prime-time and were no longer satisfied with a profitable runner-up position in late night. In the kind of "golden goose" beheading seen so
often throughout TV history, someone fixated on beating Carson cancelled Cavett and replaced his profitable second-place show with a stream of
unprofitable third-place finishers.
And after Cavett, you have Joey Bishop and Les Crane and Mike Douglas and Sammy Davis and Joan Rivers and John Davidson and Pat Boone
and David Brenner and Steve Allen a couple times and Paar again and Alan Thicke and Jerry Lewis and Woody Woodbury and Della Reese and probably my
mailman and I think it was Andy Warhol who once said that, in the future, everyone would have their own talk show for fifteen minutes. Which is
how long some of the above seemingly ran. Measured against any standard, Carson's longevity is staggering.
So staggering, in fact, that almost since Day One, they've been talking about who would replace him, who would get The Tonight
Show. It's been a topic of discussion even when there wasn't the slightest inkling of Johnny going anyplace. At times, he must have
felt like a rich uncle watching constant discussions as to who's in the will. My own feeling is that no one will replace Johnny Carson. I
think NBC ought to just retire the time slot.
That day in the NBC Veep's office, I was shown a list that included the names of Joey Bishop, McLean Stevenson, David Brenner and Joan
Rivers, all evaluated for their various strengths and weaknesses as possible Carson successors. That was eleven years ago and I would guess
that, if such a list exists today, none of those names are on it.
(There was a time when, had Carson quit when he was threatening, we probably would have gotten The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy
Dean, featuring the country-western singer now best known for hawking pure pork sausage. Johnny has not only outlived his competitors, he's
outlasted his potential replacements.)
It's not all that fashionable to be a fan of Johnny Carson. No one likes him except most people.
I have heard not a few folks brag of not watching him...even a few dismiss what he does as easy. Yeah, right, that's why most TV
shows last twenty-eight years. Though the man has enough money to buy Nebraska, his ties to his home state are clear enough that it is easy to
dismiss him as a panderer to Middle America. "Middle America" is an oft-heard slam leveled at anything in entertainment that commits the
backwater sin of not being overtly L.A. or N.Y.
I don't think that begins to explain Carson. He has developed, perhaps not even consciously, an unerring feel for what interests
America, what they want to hear. He knows, for instance, that Big Stars whining about how tough it is to be in Make-up at six in the morn or
what a pain it is to be pestered for autographs, send viewers fumbling for the remote. Which is why, as on few other chat shows, the host
politely terminates such ramblings and segues to the next topic. He knows that America squirms to see folks on TV fawning over
non-entities...so Johnny fawns rarely and, then, only over a Bob Hope or Jimmy Stewart. He knows what America knows about and doesn't.
Other shows settle arguments about that using Carson as the windsock. I wrote a variety show once for which a sketch was proposed about ratings
"Sweeps Week." A debate broke out as to whether that was too inside for the viewers and the discussion went round and round until someone
— probably me — pointed up that Carson often does jokes that presume a knowledge of what "Sweeps Week" is. That settled it.
Because, on things like that, Johnny is rarely wrong.
The real marvel of The Tonight Show is the monologue, one of the few places on TV one can hear actual Current Events jokes,
often scathing ones. When some outrage is detailed on the news, there is a comfort to have Johnny up there, almost always first to weigh in
with the appropriate comment. When a Senator or Congressperson gets into a scandal, Johnny is always the first to do jokes about it and, more
important, the first to stop. He knows just when folks stop thinking it's funny. The live audiences that line up outside NBC Burbank to
watch Carson tape his show for later airing are perhaps the most statistically-accurate cross-section of America one could hope to assemble in one
Jokes occasionally die and one might note that Carson's monologue batting average is not as high as, say, Robert Klein doing a guest
spot later in the show. But a Robert Klein is performing a routine that may have taken months to develop and which has been assiduously tested
and refined in Comedy Store clones about the country. Johnny's out there with brand-new material every time — material he has probably
never before spoken aloud. I have never known a professional comedian to be in anything but awe of the amounts involved, how well most of the
jokes are received, and at Carson's skill for recovery when they are not.
Obviously, I am impressed.
Three times in my career, I have been offered employment on the writing staff of The Tonight Show. That I have never
accepted has to do with a conversation I had once with someone who did. A friend who'd done six months service in such a job asked me one day,
"You a fan of Carson's? I was, too. That's why I'm kinda sorry I went to work there."
"The reason Johnny's been on so long is that he treats every show like everything's riding on it. He figures he has to be at his
best every night so everyone who works for him has to, as well.
"Everyone has a job to do. If you do your job, everything's fine. If you don't...well, the only time you'll ever see Johnny
get mad is when he feels someone isn't doing their job. Because he figures he's the one on the spot without the proper support."
"When I started there, I did okay. Used to get something strong into the monologue practically every show. That's how you
know you're carrying your weight. You hand in your material for the monologue and then Johnny edits it, all by himself. He picks the
jokes out, rephrases some, adds a line or two of his own...and then it all goes down to the cue card guy. You can usually spot the new guys on
the writing staff sneaking down there, trying to get a look at the cards, trying to recognize their jokes. If you go three days without getting
on the cards, you might as well go up and clean out your desk.
"One nice thing about Carson...if he picks out your joke to do and it dies, he doesn't hold it against you. Your job is to give
him stuff that he thinks will work. If it doesn't, he recognizes that he was just as wrong as you were or maybe he didn't tell it right.
But he doesn't rephrase your joke and then blame you if it dies.
"When I started out with Carson, I did pretty good. Got a lot of stuff on the cards and into the desk spots. But it's one
thing to write jokes and another thing to do it every day, day in, day out, even when there's nothing in the news. You run out of stuff...I
did, anyway. By my twentieth week there, I had used up every old line I'd ever thought of, done a switch on every joke I had in my head...and
pretty soon, I was just dry. The stuff I handed in was just awful.
"They let me go. And I didn't blame them for a minute. Johnny has to go out there and do jokes and I wasn't supplying
enough of them.
"But it was nastier than it had to be, that was my only beef. Some things were said that I thought were needless...
"I still can't watch The Tonight Show for pure enjoyment. I used to love watching Johnny and now I just can't.
That's why I'm sorry I took the job."
And why I turned down my three offers.
But I have still managed to be around The Tonight Show a lot. Johnny tapes in Stage 1 at NBC-Burbank. Stage 1
adjoins Stage 3 and shares a common make-up room and dressing room corridor. I wrote on a number of shows that taped in Stage 3 and so got to
observe the mysterious, almost ritualistic process of the taping of The Tonight Show.
One morning, I was doing a show in Stage 3 with a friend, comedian Jeff Altman. Jeff does what is generally hailed as the best
Carson impression in the business; he has yet to appear on the Letterman show without Dave urging him to do a little of "Doc's here? Doc's not
here? Ed's here?" It is a legend of the Comedy Store (and a true one) that Jeff was once up on-stage doing Carson when, much to his
shocked amazement, Johnny strolled up and joined him.
That morn, we had a lull in the taping and so, like little kids slipping in somewhere they shouldn't be, we snuck over to Johnny's
set. This was long before anyone had arrived for that day's taping. Jeff stood on Johnny's star and delivered a thoroughly filthy
monologue a la Carson. Then he sat behind the desk, drummed with Johnny's pencils and interviewed me in the guest chair about my career
writing Mickey Mouse comics. "Hey, that's wild," he kept saying.
Later, as the crew began arriving, Jeff and I were wandering the dressing room corridors and he was still doing Carson, this time
ticking off a list of sexual perversions that Doc was off somewhere doing obscene things with a Clydesdale. We turned the corner and there,
obviously having heard it all, was Doc Severinsen. There was an awkward silent moment and then Doc broke up and Jeff, much relieved, decided to
stop doing Johnny for the day.
In the make-up department is one private room and if its door is closed in the late afternoon, it probably means Johnny is inside,
getting made-up. During the few hours that precede each taping, Carson is All Business and it is understood that no one is to bother him with
small talk or social niceties. And even if you didn't understand that, you couldn't. During the time he is on the studio premises, he is
usually accompanied by a uniformed Burbank police officer to fend off all who approach. Sometimes, if there have been recent threats, there are
When he is made up, Carson single-mindedly hurries back to his office to finish preparation for the impending show. He rarely
exchanges words with that night's guests, preferring that whatever happens between them happens before the cameras. It is easy to see why
Johnny has gotten the rep as being cold and impersonal.
Until just before 5:30, while the ritual, unneeded audience warm-up is being conducted by Ed and/or Doc, no one sees Johnny. That
is when he reappears, accompanied usually by director Bobby Quinn.
His head is full of monologue and his manner is tense: He has never done this before and his whole whole life and career are riding on
(I have aided a couple of stand-up comedians prepping for their Tonight Show debuts; sat backstage with them to hold hands and
tell them it would all be fine. So important is Tonight Show approval to a comic that his life and career could be said, with but slight
exaggeration, to truly be riding on his performance. For real. And while some of my friends were among the tensest folks on this planet,
especially then, not a one of them was as tense before his first time as is Carson, heading out there for monologue number umpteen-thousand.)
Just as Ed intones, "And now... herrrrre's Johnny," Johnny moves into position behind the parti-colored curtains and is cued through by
his director who then sprints up to the booth to assume command.
Right behind where Executive Producer Fred deCordova sits, there used to be a little area where the staff could gather to watch the
proceedings. If I was at NBC anywhere near 5:30, I'd slip over to that spot and watch at least the opening. Whereas David Letterman chats
with his studio audience before tape rolls, those attending The Tonight Show see not a glimpse of Johnny before he makes his entrance.
And what an entrance it is: The audience explodes, fueled by The Tonight Show orchestra which, in person, is incredible. Sadly though,
The Tonight Show has lately logged enough threats that no one is allowed to stand back there where I used to stand. Which is a shame for
many reasons. Of all the stages I've stood on and tapings I've watched, the first few minutes of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson
when it's actually Starring Johnny Carson, are the only times I think I've ever seen magic happen.
After the monologue is delivered, you can see Carson untense by half. During the first commercial, unless he's backstage slipping
into Karnak drag, he jokes with the audience and takes a question or two. The questions and/or answers are almost invariably risqué,
perhaps a release of the excitement just felt by both host and audience. The show is broadcast live via satellite to New York where is taped
for later playback in its proper time slot. Until recently when they started scrambling the signal, anyone with a home satellite dish and the
correct coordinates could have tuned in on the NBC feed, watched Carson live and heard the conversations during the commercials, including most
private, whispered confabs between Carson and guest or staff.
When The Tonight Show started, it was live and an hour and forty-five minutes and included a news update. By the time
Carson took over, the news was long gone and so was the live part. The show started at 11:15 and then, since some stations had a half-hour of
news and would join the show at 11:30, the program would start over again with a second opening and billboard of guests. As more and more local
stations expanded their 11:00 news to thirty minutes, fewer and fewer viewers got to see the Carson monologue. Considering the work that went
into the stand-up spot, it was understandable that Carson would get steamed over this. There was a quarrel with the network — one of many
Johnny has had — and, as usual, he won. Johnny always won. The Tonight Show went to ninety minutes and simultaneous
starts. Some years ago, citing a desire to keep the show from going stale, Carson pruned it further to an hour. The network was furious
but, as it turned out, Carson was probably right: The show is tighter, the energy doesn't have a chance to fade and we are spared that last dreary
guest spot. Plus Johnny leaves the set grinning, wishing the show had gone on longer, no doubt pleased if the audience feels likewise.
On one show a few years ago, Johnny inadvertently said some unkind things about one of my closest friends. The details are
immaterial except to say that Johnny had his facts mixed-up and didn't know what he was talking about...and my friend was deeply, deeply hurt by the
I phoned up Fred deCordova and explained the situation. He instantly agreed that a large apology was warranted and he told me
that if I wrote a letter giving the facts, he would guarantee that Carson would apologize on the air. I did and, as advertised, Johnny did a
long and gracious retraction at the earliest opportunity. It was so sincere, in fact, that several former Tonight Show staffers,
including the gent I quoted up topside, phoned me to ask how I had arranged it. Did I have photos of Johnny with an underage goat or
Three weeks later, I was walking through the NBC complex, passing Carson's parking space that is, sad to say, the high point of the NBC
Studio Tour. Suddenly, a two-seater Mercedes pulled into it, the driver's seat occupied by J. Carson. Guards were scurrying out to escort
him but I was between them and him and at that moment, it didn't dawn on me that I was committing any felony by stepping up to Johnny, introducing
myself and thanking him for the prompt and civil apology. So I did.
My back was to the guards but I could tell that they were in a high state of alarm. Someone is approaching Mr.
Carson! They may even have gone for their guns. Johnny waved them away and stood there with me, his arms full of papers and folders,
chatting for maybe five minutes. He seemed genuinely thankful that I had gotten the correction in so promptly and without a lot of litigation
threatened. He even laughed when I said, "Well, I thought you could do with a few less lawyers in your life." I recall thinking it was
one of those Bizarro World moments: Me making Johnny Carson laugh.
I was delighted he was so polite because, just as I wouldn't have wanted my Tonight Show watching dampened by an unhappy
experience on staff, I wouldn't have wanted it despoiled by an ugly encounter with Carson. I'm sure he is capable of incivility. I'm just
pleased I didn't see it.
He shook my hand and thanked me again. And then he went in to do his show. And I went home to watch it.