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.
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.”