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 www.screeninsults.com)
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. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Npyut2CUdLM
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.