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.
Five minutes before show time, Johnny entered backstage wearing his game face, locked in, controlled. The nocturnal monarch rocked on his heels, stretched his back, paced, shot his cuffs, pulled on an unfiltered Pall Mall. The familiar theme cued Johnny to grind out his smoke with a spit-shined shoe, steal a final glance into a floor-length mirror, and step through the curtains into America’s homes. The studio audience did not see him until the program began. When I mentioned to him at lunch three years after his retirement that Dave Letterman and Jay Leno greet their audiences before each show, he frowned.
“Destroys the magic.”
So here it was, the talk show Taj Mahal. For the diehard fan, sacred ground. For some, the set from birth. They’d crawled through the looking glass of a TV set into the actual set. Audience members sat in rows of unforgiving seats and watched a combo platter of glitterati and literati on an upholstered couch chug coffee and booze. To ensure audience alertness, the studio temperature was cranked to hanging-meat-frigid, pegged to the Arctic Circle.
Johnny outlasted five American presidents and whacked countless competitors, some merely sidewalk Rolexes. To be fair, offstage Johnny did not exactly channel Mr. Rogers. The program was his life’s centerpiece. Each morning he phoned in for the overnight ratings. He was seriously serious about its success and could hold our gigantic clown shoes to the fire. Once, in a rare moment of self-analysis, he confided, “I’m not Mother Teresa.” But he was a decent boss and man.
Johnny was reliable when life was brutal. You drove through a hurricane, got fired, your wife left you, a coyote ate your cat. Still, homesick travelling salesmen and flight crews could check into creepy motels northwest of nowhere, flip on the chained-down TVs, and he was there, a witness through America’s rites of passage who pointed to our fads and warts, heroes and scoundrels, booms and busts. He defanged the snakes, told light jokes about heavy matters and coaxed us not to take ourselves too seriously. His departure demolished a vintage landmark. He was a 30-year boarder in our bedrooms, crooning monologue lullabies to make love by … the comedy Sinatra, the family dog who saw you naked. America was that intimate with the guy who lived inside their furniture.