Nights with Johnny Carson: As long as it's been, we still long for them

By Tom Shales
Tuesday, August 17, 2010; C01

Johnny Carson had what he called "hills" and "valleys" in his nightly monologues -- the great topical ritual with which he opened "The Tonight Show" every night during his three-decade gig as its host -- and the same sort of leaps and lapses occurred for much longer intervals during his fabulous tenure. They'd last days or weeks or maybe even, on rare occasion, a month or more.

During the lulls, people or critics (or both) would say that the show seemed stale, or that Johnny seemed glum, and foolish rumors would circulate about the alleged imminence of His Eminence's farewell. If you need proof, it's now available; Jeff Sotzing, Johnny's nephew and the president of Carson Productions, has just announced the opening of one new Web site and extensive renovations on another, the result being that thousands of hours of historical and hysterical material from the Carson "Tonight Show" will be newly available.

During his atypically emotional farewell appearance, May 22, 1992 (that long ago?), Carson said he'd happily live the whole thing over again. Viewers who feel the same way won't get that opportunity from these Web sites, unfortunately. For one thing, most of the first 10 years of Carson's "Tonight Show" tapes were callously erased ("wiped" in video parlance) as a cost-saving measure by NBC; the tapes could thus be used again. There are various omissions and gaps from other decades, too.

But those of us who swore we'd never get over Carson's departure, and didn't (a return in some other vehicle, never likely, was made impossible by Carson's death in 2005), will now be able to plunge into the treasure trove, at least on the site that will be open to the public. The other will initially be accessible only to people in "the business," including ad agencies who want to license footage or imagery for a modern-day commercial, the way images of Elvis, Humphrey Bogart, Fred Astaire and many another otherwise vanished star have been.

Praise from Letterman

David Letterman, who once shared a Rolling Stone cover with Carson, was once, of course, expected to be Carson's successor. "There was a time when I was a kid when all I wanted to be was Johnny Carson," Letterman said in a 1993 interview. "But now that I've been doing it, I know every shortcoming I have that he never had. And this is not false modesty; I'm realistic. . . . This guy could get a bigger laugh by raising an eyebrow that I could get telling eight jokes."

Carson famously made a post-"Tonight" appearance on Letterman's CBS "Late Show," sitting at Dave's desk for a few silent moments (silent but for the audience's cheering) and thereby snubbing Jay Leno, whom Carson hadn't wanted to be his successor over on NBC. But things weren't always so cozy between Carson and Letterman, or at least between the Carson and Letterman camps.

It was that tension that led to the first time I ever heard Johnny speak directly to me, and not to All America. It was a phone call in the mid-'80s. TV critics and columnists had been heaping praise on Letterman for the seeming freshness of his approach and, in some cases, linking that to the tired old "Johnny is old and tired" stuff recycled every few years. In fact, though, it had sometimes seemed in the '80s that Johnny occasionally emulated Letterman's offbeat, goofball approach, partly by taking the camera out of the studio and looking for "found humor" amongst the man and woman on the street.

Soon it was being commonly bandied about -- and printed -- that Carson was imitating the young upstart who, it was also widely speculated, would eventually replace him at the "Tonight Show" desk (if only).

Carson's voice on the phone was preceded by that of a lawyer who asked if I would mind listening to Johnny while he spoke his piece, which sounds like even daffier a concept now than it did then. "Tell Johnny I'm busy; I can't be bothered!" Ha ha; of course I'd talk to Johnny, or just listen to Johnny if that's what he preferred, off the record as he requested.

When Carson materialized, he told me calmly but with irritation lurking that he was angered by allegations that recent bits he'd been doing on "Tonight" were faux Dave. For one thing, said Johnny, taking cameras out of the studio was nothing new; TV hosts and comics had been doing it nearly forever.

"I think I know who is spreading this stuff," Carson said.


"Letterman's writers," he said.

Johnny thanked me for the time, said I was "a good listener," and bade a polite goodbye.

Eventually the huzzahs for Letterman and his troupe died down and eventually, too, Carson seemed to win a renewed affection and respect from the viewing nation for the wonder that we finally realized he was. It's very hard to pinpoint such things, but throughout the '80s, Carson's renown widened and deepened, and when he announced the date of his final "Tonight" show (more than a year in advance), a kind of panicky adoration evolved, much as it had when we trembled at the thought of losing Walter Cronkite as anchor of "CBS Evening News."

Johnny came to seem like a retiring matador, or a U.S. president stepping down, or some cuckoo combination of both.

Much was made then of dirty tricks among Leno's troops designed to oust Carson even before he wanted to leave -- among them planting a malicious story in the New York Post. But Carson had a reason for leaving he never discussed publicly but did tell friends about: He didn't want to hang around too long, he said, and become Bob Hope. Carson not only disliked Hope; he hated those those phony "surprise" appearances that network executives insisted upon so Hope could plug upcoming specials. Personally, he felt Hope had no life beyond show business, that there was nothing else to him.

"I don't know one single person," Carson told me in an interview, "who considers himself a close personal friend of Bob Hope." That thought really seemed to chill him, even though Carson was known for a standoffishness of his own.

Every performer who can walk onto a stage these days -- pro or amateur on a "talent" contest -- is likely to be dubbed "amazing" by one admirer or another. Few of them are even half as amazing as microwave popcorn. But when you think about the simplicity of Carson's "Tonight Show" -- the absence of gimmicks and tricks now common on talk shows -- some designed to promote the illusion of entertainment occurring -- and consider the fact that it was really just Johnny, with Ed McMahon as a foil and most of the guests as foils, too, it's clearer than ever: He really was amazing.

The last interview

By a twist of fate rather than anything approaching journalistic enterprise, I did the last major interview with Johnny Carson. We sat in the tennis house he'd had built across the street from his main, architecturally chilly home on a cliff in Malibu -- the place with a round-the-clock security guard stationed in a kind of treehouse tower to keep tourists from scaling the high wall, and the house that caused friend Bob Newhart, upon entering it for the first time, to ask, "Which way to the gift shop?"

My rented car was parked in front of the main house, so Johnny walked me back across the street when the interview was over. We shook hands, said goodbye, and I watched him over the roof of the car as he headed for the front door. And then some impulse buzzed me and I called out his name -- certainly not "Mr. Carson," either, but the name by which the nation knew him.

"Johnny?" I shouted. "Yes?" he said, turning around one last time before going inside. "Thank you," I said, foolishly and sentimentally.

He knew very well that I didn't mean thanks for the interview. For one thing, we both had tears in our eyes. Honest.

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