In Memoriam: Johnny Carson

January 24, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT

ED MCMAHON: Here’s Johnny!

JEFFREY BROWN: For three decades he was the king of late-night television, a comfortable presence who kept Americans laughing.

JOHNNY CARSON: It was so hot today that Burger King was saying, “if you want it your way, cook it yourself.”

JEFFREY BROWN: His opening monologue poked fun at current affairs.

JOHNNY CARSON: Surgeon General Koop says we’re having too much fat in our diet, and not enough fiber. Did you ever take a close look at the surgeon general? He didn’t get that spare tire from eating trail mix.

JEFFREY BROWN: He also made fun of himself and his four marriages.

JOHNNY CARSON: Twenty-five years is silver, right? Fifty years is gold. I don’t know, I wouldn’t know much about that, the furthest I got in my personal life was Formica.

JEFFREY BROWN: Carson seemed willing to try anything.

SPOKESPERSON: Why don’t you get down a little deeper, Johnny, get your ears right there, and you can see better.

JEFFREY BROWN: And took his viewers along, gently, for the ride. Johnny Carson was born in Iowa and raised in Nebraska. As a kid he loved magic and performing. After college, he wrote comedy for Red Skelton.

RED SKELTON: Now, Johnny, would you like to take over for a couple minutes?

JEFFREY BROWN: And in the ’50s he hosted a daytime show called Who Do You Trust? Carson was a substitute on the Tonight Show for host Jack Parr and took the reigns himself in 1962.

Nightly through the years he showcased those on the top, and performers on the rise. Numerous future stars got their big break with Carson. He let animals crawl on his head — and children have the punch line.

JOHNNY CARSON: Have you over seen this show before?

JOEY LAWRENCE: Well, when I was up vomiting and all that stuff.

JEFFREY BROWN: Politicians courted him.

JOHNNY CARSON: You’re governor of Arkansas until 1991?

BILL CLINTON: That’s right.

JOHNNY CARSON: Where are you looking beyond that, politically or are you?

BILL CLINTON: Depends how I do on the show tonight.

JEFFREY BROWN: Carson’s program was a mix of tightly scripted, including regular characters like Carnac the Magnificent.

JOHNNY CARSON: Steroids. What can you get from sitting on a stereo?

JEFFREY BROWN: But he also thrived on the unexpected moment, as in this famous episode with Ed Ames.

JOHNNY CARSON: I didn’t even know you were Jewish.

JEFFREY BROWN: He was also not above a bit of late night risqué humor.

DOLLY PARTON: People are always asking if they’re real and —

JOHNNY CARSON: I would never.

JEFFREY BROWN: Here with Dolly Parton.

DOLLY PARTON: You don’t have to ask.

JOHNNY CARSON: I would not.

DOLLY PARTON: I’ll tell you what, these are mine.

JOHNNY CARSON: I have certain guidelines on this show.


JOHNNY CARSON: But I would give about a year’s pay to peek under there.

JEFFREY BROWN: Always on hand were orchestra leader Doc Severson.

JOHNNY CARSON: You say you look an animal right in the face and talk to them, then they know you’re not scared. Ah!

JEFFREY BROWN: And sidekick Ed McMahon.

JOHNNY CARSON: What do you mean you’re going to be out of town? Tomorrow’s Friday.

ED McMAHON: I know that, but I can take a day off once in a while. You certainly invented it.

JEFFREY BROWN: On screen Carson was always suave and personal. Off screen he was said to be a very private person, who called himself a loner. He talked to Barbara Walters in 1983.

JOHNNY CARSON: If you start to take yourself too seriously, and start to comment on social issues, your sense of humor suffers somewhere. And we’ve had some criticism on the show, some critics over the years say “well this show has no great sociological value, it’s not controversial; it’s not deep.” The Tonight Show basically is to amuse people, to make them laugh.

JEFFREY BROWN: Carson himself decided when the time had come to call it quits, even as he was still drawing millions of viewers.

JOHNNY CARSON: I’d like to do the whole thing all over again. It has been, it has been just a hell of a lot of fun.

JEFFREY BROWN: His last show was on May 23, 1992.

JOHNNY CARSON: I bid you a very heartfelt good night.

JEFFREY BROWN: Johnny Carson died yesterday at age 79.

JIM LEHRER: More on Johnny Carson from former talk show host and entertainer, writer Dick Cavett, who’s with us from Park City, Utah, and Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. Dick Cavett, what made Johnny Carson so special?

DICK CAVETT: I think it’s always something, I believe Jack Parr said this once, he said “after all, kid, it’s always just a personality contest.”

And it seemed too glib at the time, but I think he’s right. Johnny, somebody else could come on the show and say everything Johnny did all those years, and not be very good.

But he was a born showman; he was studying it when he was a kid. He wrote a thesis at the University of Nebraska on Jack Benny and timing, I think it was. And he was nice to have in the room with you.

JIM LEHRER: Robert Thompson, what would you add to that, just in terms of what was there about this man that made him so different than others?

DICK CAVETT: Well, I think a lot of it had to do with the fact of when he was doing it. Thirty years night after night year after year, this was often the last voice we heard before we went to sleep.

And it was equivalent of when we were kids our mothers singing us say a lullaby. The other thing was that he really managed to, I’ve used the word “bland” to describe his performance, and I mean that in the most positive sort of way.

He wasn’t the guy at the party with the lampshade on the head dancing around on the coffee table. He was the witty guy on the couch laughing at that person. Carson really became a star reflecting the performances of other stars, and it’s why we could not get sick of him for 30 years.

Donald Trump’s amusing to watch, but a little of him goes a long way. Johnny Carson went down pretty smooth for three straight decades.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that analysis, Dick Cavett?

DICK CAVETT: Yeah, except, well, I bristled at the word “bland,” but then you qualified it a bit. He had something that over the years I’ve decided great performers all have, and it’s a sense, though he was a nice boy and Midwestern and maybe went to church in his life, there was a sense of danger.

You never knew what he might do. When he was… would throw himself all over Ed or dump Don Rickles into the bath on the air, you… he always — I think he had a mean kid’s glint in his eye at times — certainly was the mean kid when he grabbed that old lady’s potato chip art and downed it on the show.

JIM LEHRER: Professor Thompson, you were trying to add something there?

ROBERT THOMPSON: Well, no. I was saying he had a smirk that you just never knew what he was going to do. At the same time, he appeared comparatively safe. In a strange sort of way, he was the comic equivalent before bed of that era of what Walter Cronkite was doing after diner in that era, and they were in fact trawling some of the same water.

JIM LEHRER: Dick Cavett, you worked with Johnny Carson, you were a writer for him for a while, and obviously you did the same kind of work he did. And you knew him very well.

Is it your feeling that he was a natural, or was this a guy who as you said earlier studied this and worked very hard to become the man he was on the air? Or was that the real Johnny Carson we saw every night?

DICK CAVETT: Oh, there’s no doubt that he was a born comedian. But he also… magic and comedy were his two wonderful obsessions.

And he would stay at a party, notoriously, long enough to do a couple of tricks, and then when he was on good behavior go home before he had that half a drink which could in fact get the lampshade uprooted.

And he had a lot of misery in his life. And I finally decided that it must have been hell for him the first week away from the show, because he had done it, it was final and he must have realized as many do, “God, that’s the only time in my life I’m happy, when I go out in front of that curtain and the applause and the lights and getting your first laugh and the guest thing goes well.”

And then like an old alcoholic actor in a play he’s enjoying being in, he has to at the end go back to the hotel room with the bottle of gin on the dresser. There’s a lot of that. I had Judy Garland on once and we couldn’t get her out of the dressing room afterwards.

She wasn’t drunk, she just found things to do to stay in there and fold things in her purse, in her world, not the awful, brutal one outside.

JIM LEHRER: Robert Thompson, to pick up on Dick Cavett’s term, in the end… in the end now, how important was Johnny Carson to the scheme of things in television? There’s been a lot of superlatives spoken in the last 24 hours about his place in the history of television. Help us understand that.

ROBERT THOMPSON: Well, we do have to be careful about the hyperbole. Absolutely, there were people like Dave Garroway, Arthur Godfrey on radio, Gary Moore, who were taming this newly emerging monster that would become the talk show.

And I think we shouldn’t forget those people because they were important as well. On the other hand, the way Johnny Carson when he came to the Tonight Show tweaked that format, tweaked that template, clearly anybody that watches Conan or Dave Letterman or Leno are seeing that Carson iteration of the talk show at the time.

The sad thing is that since what he did was so timely, it doesn’t rerun very well. People, generations from now will continue to see Lucille Ball and I Love Lucy, and Dick Van Dyke and his show.

The Tonight Show, since it’s never going to play on Nick at Nite and TV Land and all of the rest of it, is one of those… he’s one of those people that is going to be really well-known and beloved for a generation.

But like people like Arthur Godfrey, like Dave Garroway, who were huge stars in their time, I’m afraid we may remember really bad sitcoms fifty or sixty years from now better than a really brilliant comedian.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Dick Cavett?

DICK CAVETT: Yeah, I do. But I don’t know why it needs to be a legacy that goes down through the generations. Johnny would scoff at that idea, perhaps partly because he wasn’t sure it was true. That he was working for the ages in any sense.

JIM LEHRER: I’m sorry. He was really actually working for that night, you’re suggesting when he went out on that stage every night, he only cared about right then, right?

DICK CAVETT: He cared about who was watching and that kind of thing, but he was like a dog in the existential moment, and it was a wonderful thing to see, especially in the studio, I used to watch him.

And I used to try to think who did that gesture once, and realize he had gotten it from Ed Wynn or from his great stare into the camera from Oliver Hardy — the mighty Carson Art Players from Fred Allen. He loved Fred Allen. And that speaks well for anybody.

JIM LEHRER: Dick Cavett, would you agree though that with those who are now saying that late night television in America would not be what it is tonight and every other night if Johnny Carson had not come along and done his thing?

DICK CAVETT: I think it might be, because I can sometimes see in myself, I just did a gesture that was pure Jack Parr, or I just did a turn of the head that was pure Johnny.

And a lot of the attitude toward the Tonight Show, where it came from him, he didn’t invent it, but he certainly made additions to it and he certainly recognized that he was doing a lot of other people’s gestures and things, and not stealing them, they just came to him.

Comics knew that he was on, and he might do Benny and he might do Fields and he might do whomever. He and Ed McMahon worked wonderfully.

And people always said with, McMahon, he’s the laughing machine, when Groucho came on the show, he turns to Ed and says “oh, the laughing boy,” which some of us are old enough to know was the name of a novel.

But I’m here to tell you that when Ed laughed, he was that amused, he genuinely found Carson very funny, and I don’t think, though he’s a good actor, he’s good enough to fake that laugh.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you very much for being with us tonight, Robert Thompson, Dick Cavett.


DICK CAVETT: Good to be here.