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Johnny Carson's Brilliant Career

Last Monologue in Burbank

by FRED GARDNER

Note: This column was written in April, 1992, as Johnny Carson prepared to retire from The Tonight Show.

One of the most disappointing phrases in the English language, "Johnny’s guest host tonight is…" becomes permanently applicable May 25.

We’re going to miss Johnny Carson. He’s one of the few comedians who isn’t an obvious neurotic. He never gets a laugh by scaring or upsetting us. His material is funny more often than not, and when it falls flat, nobody knows how to recover so nimbly. He has a sunny disposition and a mischievous air. His political perspective is one of bemused disgust. Over the years he has mocked Lyndon Johnson, Nixon and Agnew, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush, usually for the right reasons. He has utter contempt for Quayle, and has done his best to make sure the American people do, too. "Did you see that story in the papers today about Dan Quayle using military planes to fly to his golf matches?" Simply by basing a joke on a news story, Carson enters that story into the national consciousness. By rolling his eyes in contempt or shaking his head in dismay he can convey his opinion of a political aspirant. He’s had a lot of influence.

Clinton’s "didn’t inhale" line struck Johnny as particularly lame. He shook his head and grinned at the audience as if to say "there are so many things wrong with that statement I don’t know where to begin." What he said was: "Can’t the Democrats do anything right?" He joked that Jerry Brown, too, had once smoked pot in the ’60s, "but he forgot to exhale." In the nights that followed, Johnny never once did a monologue without getting in a "forgot-to-inhale" shot. He doesn’t like Clinton. Said he was glad Clinton came down with laryngitis and he wished they all would, through November. The audience concurred.

On April 15 Johnny’s monologue began with a joke about taxes (of course). He said he got a note from the IRS: "It’s April 15th, so send in your form, or next you’ll be sleeping in Leona’s dorm." [Leona Helmsley was then an automatic laugh.] Then hereported that Daryl Gates was out as chief of police in L.A. -scattered applause- and had been replaced by the police commissioner from Philadelphia, "a much nicer guy" with a very good reputation. It was a flat-out statement of political support for Gates’s successor, a black man named Williams. Gates, Johnny added, had described himself as "passing the baton." He shook his head at the insensitive choice of phrase.

"How many of you have voted on the Elvis stamp?… At last, an election the American people are interested in… Well, the returns are in and the voters have chosen the younger, thinner Elvis over the older, fatter Bill Clinton… Bush was in Detroit yesterday. He asked ‘Where do they make the cars?’ So they flew him to Osaka… Did you see that there are going to be 12 weddings on prime time TV series this year? Apparently fans like to see the stars getting married. (Turns to Ed) That’s been our secret for 30 years." The monologue ended, as always, with "We’ve got a great show tonight" and a run-down of the guests. "We have Rodney Dangerfield here tonight," said Johnny, his hand adjusting his tie in the Dangerfield manner, shrugging his shoulders nervously, doing Dangerfield’s voice for a couple of seconds, just a little reminder that he’s a brilliant impersonator (not to mention a professional magician).

Over the years, when I caught the Tonight show, I usually liked the monologues and I sometimes liked the guests, but most of all I liked Johnny’s second bits, the ones he did before bringing on the guests -routines like Carnac the Magnificent and Stump the Band and the very-little-known holidays… On a recent second bit he was reading letters kids had written to him regarding his retirement. A little girl wrote: "My daddy says he doesn’t know how he’s going to fall asleep when you’re gone." Johnny looked at the camera and said, "There was one night daddy didn’t fall asleep."

For his second bit April 15 Johnny donned a mortarboard and gave a graduation speech consisting of cliches and non-sequiturs. "As I look out on your shining faces I recall what my dear mother said to me as I left home: ‘How far do you think you’re gonna get in that dress?’… Be industrious. Don’t let your future go up in smoke. But if it does, tell people you didn’t inhale… Remember, charity begins at home. And so does unsightly shower mildew… No man is an island. So never tie a boat up to a guy… The eyes are the mirrors of the soul. But the nose is the cabinet of the sinuses… Cultivate a serious attitude: I’m okay, you’re okay. But Mr. Blackwell’s got some serious problems…"

The guests April 15 were Bernadette Peters -fast-forward through two torch songs- and then Rodney Dangerfield doing a series of one-liners about his ugliness, impotence, aging, etc. Rodney presents a total contrast to Johnny in that he’s all schtick and his jokes rely on humiliation and discomfort. He’s much more enjoyable in the movies, when he can get away from playing the loser. With Johnny’s last show approaching, the guests have been saying their goodbyes. Liv Ullman was on and thanked Johnny for all the enjoyment he’d given her over the years. In a serious tone she added, "And I just want to tell you that I’ve always known that you really respect women." Johnny was taken aback and smiled. He seemed moved, but some in the audience took it for a reference to his well-publicized divorces, and laughed. Johnny turned to Liv and asked why, if he had such respect for women, his three marriages had failed. She said, "You chose poorly." He nodded thoughtfully.

Marshall Brickman was a writer for Carson in the late ’60s, when the show was still produced at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York. On Marshall’s second day he got hepatitis and wound up in the hospital, where he received a telegram from Johnny saying "Don’t worry, we’re saving your job." Three months later he came back. Walter Kempley, the legendary head writer had left after a contract dispute. Nobody wanted the job so Marshall took it and inherited Kempley’s office, his file cabinet full of jokes and his half-full box of Macanudo cigars.

"It was a great period for me," says Marshall, who stayed through 1970. "The place was full of energy. The writers were divided into two groups. One group worked on the monologue almost exclusively. They came in, read the newspapers and periodicals, banged their heads against the typewriters and submitted monologues to Carson. Johnny would then select from those. The other guys worked on all the other stuff– sketches, interviewing odd guests, thinking up what we used to call the five spot [the second bit as defined above]… Everything that wasn’t the monologue was stuff that I was in charge of organizing. Then I’d run the meeting at five o’clock to go over the upcoming show and come up with some last minute gags. There was a lot of pressure but it’s what that psychiatrist who distinguishes between good and bad stress would call good stress. The train left at 6:30 everyday [i.e., the show went on live]. You got instant gratification. It wasn’t like a movie where you write something in January and then find out 18 months later if it worked.

"Carson was fair, honest, professional –not like my uncle Murray, who would hug you and kiss you. Carson was not a kisser. I think his greatest skill was his intuition. He never gave away a whole lot –in a sense he’s a minimalist. He would not grab you by the lapels and force you to laugh. Twenty years ago he was brilliantly playing a character –the guy asking the question you wanted to hear. He’s actually much more sophisticated, much more literate and knowledge able than he lets on. He put a damper on it because he sensed what the general audience expected of him."

FRED GARDNER can be reached at journal@ccrmg.org