On a visit to Washington, White House Chief of Staff James Baker brought me into the Oval Office and introduced me to President Ronald Reagan as “the fellow who’s been writing your one-liners for the Gridiron and White House Correspondents’ Dinners.” That was greeted by a smile and hearty handshake. That is, until Baker added that I was Johnny Carson’s head writer. Shaking his head, the president said, “My wife really gets upset with some of those jokes.” On the way out, I asked Jim if the president was kidding. Baker said, “No, he’s thick-skinned, but it bothers him that it bothers her. Think you could say something to Johnny Carson?”
When I returned to Burbank, I told a surprised Johnny about my experience. He said, “I don’t know why it bothers him. We were much harder on other presidents. Look what we did to Carter.” But Carson got a kick out of raising Oval Office hackles.
Johnny knew the Reagans casually but it didn’t affect his swats at the Gipper’s alleged hair dying. Johnny backed off after he mentioned on the air he’d received a phone call from an associate of the president who assured him that Reagan did not dye his hair. Later he told me the associate was Nancy. Comedy is a cruel enterprise, and it’s easier to take a public figure out if you don’t know them personally.
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.
Raymond Siller is a former head writer for “The Tonight Show.”