Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Heeeeeeeeeere’s Johnny! ... forever

      One of my biggest thrills, non-sports and non-family related, happened Thursday, June 23, 1983 -- the evening we saw The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
      And Johnny -- not a guest host -- was there that night. For me, he (not Elvis) is The King.
       He was, and is, my favorite entertainer, a thought I share with probably millions.
Ed McMahon and my favorite Johnny Carson character,
 Carnac The Magnificent (photo from
       Bea and I made it to the NBC Studios in Burbank, Calif. -- Studio One, to be exact, where Johnny's Tonight Show was taped most weekday evenings at about 5 o'clock for some 20 years. Tickets were free, although you had to stand in line for a good hour to receive them.
        By the time we got in that studio and saw the familiar set -- it was much smaller than I could have imagined -- and waited for Ed McMahon to come out and do his warmup act, I was soooo nervous.
         In a way, our night with Carson was sports-related. We were in the Los Angeles area for the Associated Press Sports Editors convention -- the first of five consecutive I attended as executive sports editor of the old, now-gone Shreveport Journal.
          This was the year before the Los Angeles Summer Olympics, so we got a preview of many of the Olympics sites, including visits to USC (the LA Coliseum) and UCLA (Pauley Pavilion). But among the attractions the convention offered, a chance to see The Tonight Show was No. 1 on my list.
          It was a long, busy day. While I attended the convention seminars, Bea went with a spouses' group on a bus tour to visit the Hearst Mansion, Rodeo Drive and Beverly Hills. She then left the tour and took a cab ride -- an expensive and wild cab ride, she remembers -- to the NBC Studios.
           I had the tickets. She got there about 10 minutes before it was time to go in the studio; I was (go ahead and laugh) in near-panic mode.
           She'll vouch for this. By the time, Doc Severinsen and the band -- that terrific band -- struck up The Tonight Show theme song (you know it) and Ed began his introductory spiel, my palms were sweaty. Bea says I must've been as nervous then as I was when Rachel was born.
          Then: Heeeeeeeeeere’s Johnny! and the curtains parted. The King got his usual standing ovation.
          What a moment. For me, it was like walking into the old Yankee Stadium for the first time in August 1967. One of those "I can't believe I'm here" moments.
         I've watched thousands of Carson monologues, but only one in person. What do I remember about it? Nothing. But I guarantee you I laughed as hard as anyone.
         I do remember the guests on the show that night: Pete Fountain and Jim Fowler. I looked this up
-- it was one of 56 Tonight Show appearances for Fountain, the famed clarinetist from New Orleans; 40 for Fowler, who for years brought a variety of animals/critters (as did Joan Embery).
        There was also a sketch (I had to look this up, too): "Commercial Actors School."
        But the star of the show was a bear cub Fowler brought. First, the cub began drinking from Ed McMahon's cup, prompting Carson to crack, "That bear will hibernate for a year." Then, given a bottle of milk, the cub made his way all around Carson's desk, lying in front of it on his back, then climbing on the desk itself and again prone on his back, all the while drinking from the bottle.
          It was hysterical -- imagine Carson's reactions -- and so funny that the scene made one of the "Favorite Moments" tapes. We were part of history.
         He's been gone from television for almost 20 years, dead for eight years (Jan. 23, 2005, a sad, sad day), and yet, he's still right here with us.
         I've got the four-volume Johnny Carson "His Favorite Moments" tapes sitting a few feet away. There are thousands of Carson-related links on the Internet, on YouTube.
        Anytime I need laughs I can look up a Carson moment. If you added up the hours I've spent watching Carson, it probably covers two full years of my life.
         Two scenes in particular will bring great laughter every time:
          (1) The 1965 Ed Ames tomahawk throw, splitting the drawn character's crotch and drawing one of the loudest, longest laughs in TV history (my mother, who absolutely loved Carson, saw this when it happened).
         (2) Johnny, appearing dressed as Willie Nelson and joining a surprised Julio Iglesias to sing To All the Girls I've Loved Before (and Johnny sang it well, straight-faced the whole time while Julio is cracking up).
        I could make a long list of favorite moments, but there's not time nor space right now.
         But, oh so many laughs, so many great lines, so many quirks -- fidgeting with the tie, the blank stare when a joke bombed, the golf swing at the end of the monologue, "how hot was it? or "how cold was it." So many characters: Floyd R. Turbo, American; Art Fern, the "Tea Time Movie" host; and, yes, Carnac the Magnificent.
          Absolutely loved all the Carnac sketches, the whole routine. I could do a blog just on them (and maybe I will).
        I've had this piece in mind -- and on my possible blogs list -- for months. What brings it to the forefront is a two-hour PBS documentary on Johnny I saw for the first time last week, although it first appeared last May, in the American Masters series (see link at bottom).
         It is the most thorough, the most honest look at Carson's life and career I've seen -- all the highlights (most of which we've known about) and the lowlights (there were some revelations for me). Much of this material probably has been public for years, in books and on television, but I hadn't come across it.
         If you're a Carson fan, and you haven't seen it, you should.
         You know about the positives, and how the private, aloof Mr. Carson could be, as opposed to his public persona. Not as well-known: Johnny could be vindictive and hold grudges  -- against Joan Rivers, his longtime guest host, after she bolted for her own competing show without telling him; he never spoke to her again; against his former attorney, Henry "Bombastic" Bushkin; against NBC chairman Fred Silverman (with the threat of Johnny leaving when he was by far NBC's most lucrative show and most popular performer, he wound up with an unprecedented contract).
         It was Johnny, not Ed (as they joked so often on the show), who had the big drinking problem. Johnny's four marriages/three divorces were  well-publicized and fodder for jokes (even his own). Not as well-known: His difficult relationship with his mother and his three sons.
         The documentary, for which 45 people were interviewed, near the end includes scenes from my favorite two Carson shows -- the final two. I have watched them repeatedly, and will again.
         The final show, May 22, 1992, was one of the most poignant, bittersweet shows I've seen. Done before an audience of family, friends and staff, it's a series of highlights leading to that final minute or two and the last: "I bid you a very heartfelt good night."                   
         It was the next-to-last show that I conside the most special television hour: Johnny, Ed, Doc, with guest stars Robin Williams (at his maniacal best) and Bette Midler, whose performance made the show. She sang I'll Be Seeing You and then joined Johnny for a chorus of Here's That Rainy Day.          My favorite number, though, is her parody You Made Me Watch You -- a takeoff on You Made Me Love You.  Best line: "... and when I can't sleep, I count your wives at night."
         She ends with a mournful One More for My Baby, leaving her and Johnny and the audience, and millions at home, in tears. A couple of minutes later, Johnny signed off ... for good. We seldom saw him again.
         But it brings to mind another fond Carson memory, his Kennedy Center Honors induction in December 1993. The final tribute was the University of Nebraska band marching through the audience playing the school's fight song and winding up on stage, then playing The Tonight Show theme ... with Doc Severinsen appearing to finish it off on his trumpet.
         The documentary ends with the credits and what I (and my friend Mark Finley, and many others) think is the best Carnac the Magnificent joke of all:
          Carnac, putting the envelope to his brow and ascertaining the answer: "Sis-boom-bah."
          The question: "Describe the sound made when a sheep explodes."
          Followed by Johnny and Ed laughing longer and louder than any other of the million Carson moments I've seen.
           Carson always made us laugh. He always will.


  1. From Marty Mule': Love Carson, too. But Elvis is the king, just in another area.

  2. From Leo Van Thyn: We have all the DVDs. So many great moments. Sis-boom-bah is my all-time favourite Carnac.

  3. Here's an oldie but goodie from 'Karnack the Magnificent.' "EL PASO." What does a Mexican Quarterback do if he can't EL RUNNO or EL KICKO?"

  4. You nailed this one, Nico! I loved Johnny! There will never be another like him. I watched him (and Ed) on Who Do You Trust before he was named the permanent host of the Tonight Show, and I was so excited that he was going to take over! Little did I know how many more people would come to love him and spend so many nights laughing with him. He was and always will be the King of Late Night!

  5. From Don Landry: Nico, Lucille and I got to know Joan Embery of the San Diego zoo. In fact, we visited her at ranch, She kept most of the animals that she took to TV shows at her ranch.

  6. From Rick Woodson: Brought back some memories. When Jack Paar left the Tonight Show and Carson took over, I said the show will never be the same. And it wasn't, it was a million times better. Carson was a genius. Great blog!

  7. From Randy Walker: How did you know I was a Johnny Carson fan? My wife and I went to a Carson show back in the mid-1980s. We got to NBC at 6 a.m. to get tickets and then returned to the studio to stand in the parking lot about 2 p.m. and had to wait 1-2 hours before we were admitted to the studio. It was one of the shows when the staff had passed out cards to the audience for questions to Johnny. I was lucky in that my question was the first one asked: “Johnny, I gave up an extra day in San Francisco and a chance to see topless dancers to see your show. Will it be worth it?" His reply: "Randy, the only topless person you’re going to see is Ed!"
    My wife’s question made it also: “Johnny, we spent an afternoon driving around Malibu looking for your house without success. Can you give us directions?” His reply: "Marilyn, it is the house with the white picket fence and the pit bulldogs!"
    After we left the studio we called back to Marilyn’s dad and had him tape the show. We still have that VCR tape. I will need to watch it again.

  8. From Teddy Allen: Stayed up til 12:45 watching the 2-hour deal you linked to. Will watch the final 30 minutes later. He was the best. Ha … for The Times, I went to bars and watched the final show with people and wrote about it. When we moved to Louisiana, I started staying up and watching The Tonight Show. That was me attending comedy school, all alone in the den. In high school. it was too late to do that on the East Coast. I have a whole shoebox filled with jokes from the show. I would write them down with pencil on the paper we kept by the telephone. He was The Man. This was a good blog. Thank you, sir.

  9. From Bruce McMellon: Great one, Nico. For all of the years he was on, I rarely missed a show. The Bob Hope, Dean Martin and George Gobel night( did you ever feel like the whole world’s a tuxedo and you’re a pair of brown shoes) is one of my favorites, as well as the “Tomahawk” show. I also saw that one the night it happened, as your mother did. Johnny’s timing with his remarks, such as “now I know why the cowboys hated the Indians so much” and “I don’t see how I can hurt him any worse”, was perfect, as usual. I would love to sit together for a few hours and talk about our favorite shows and moments. Thanks for sharing.

  10. The "Copper Clapper Caper" with Jack Webb.
    Art Fern: "Go to the Slawson Cutoff, cut off your slawson."
    Marmoset: "I can't sit and talk to people with an animal on my head." "Was he spitting, was that saliva?"