kay, that’s actually the theme song for Bob Hope, but it seemed appropriate for me today, having learned of the death of Johnny Carson. To many younger than 25, he is probably just a vague image of a bygone era, but for me, he was an icon of television and a familiar late-night face for many years. My mother would never let me stay up late on a school night, but Friday night was always Carson night, and summer, every night was Carson night.
As I watched the many tributes on TV last night, I saw the many familiar scenes that many me laugh so hard–Ed Ames who played an Indian in the old Daniel Boone series throwing a hatchet the landed in the crotch of the figure drawn on a wall; Johnny’s Copper Clapper Caper skit with Dragnet’s Jack Webb; his on-going Art Fern routine with the fork in the road.
While many of these scenes are funny, I sometimes wonder why they don’t a better job of setting them up. These scenes are funnier if you know the background. Johnny was good friends with comedian Don Rickles and he was a frequent guest. As a friend, I suppose Rickles felt it was okay to just walk on the set unannounced. Johnny didn’t mind I suppose, but he nonetheless made Rickles pay for his intrusion–or at least that’s how interpreted when I saw it on live TV. Johnny was doing a segment on getting a Japanese massage. When Rickles walked on and started tickling him with a fake massage, Johhny got up and threw him in the tub.
Another is his Carnac the Magnificent routine. This is the routine where he predicts the answer to questions contained in envelopes that had been hermetically sealed in a mayonnaise jar on Funk & Wagnall’s porch since noon that day–or so Ed McMahon would say as introduction. Johnny would hold the envelope to his forhead and provide an answer, after which Ed McMahon would almost always repeat. After years of this Carson would feign irritation at his repetition. And the jokes, while mostly corny, were funny. But funnier for me was his entrance. Everytime Carnac came on the show–about once a month, I think–he’d trip on the podium where the desk was. But one summer–I think it was 1969–I watched in horror to see the great Carnac trip and crash and break the desk, only to laugh out loud when we all realized it was a gag–this was the scene played over and over on TV last night. But to really appreciate it, you had to see the dozens of trips before then when he would grab the desk or chair to catch himself. But I don’t want to sound like a snob. It’s funny nonetheless.
One of the funniest moments I remember seeing–and for some reason never gets shown–is when the band leader Doc Severenson blew too hard. During comercial breaks, Doc and the NBC band would play jazz and big band tunes that would knock your socks off. I went to see the show about four times at the Burbank Studios–you had to request tickets by mail but they were free–and the band was amazing. Unfortunately, the TV audience only got to hear the Tonight Show intro when Johnny walked on stage, and the the last few bars of whatever song they were playing when they returned from comercial break. But occasionally, they’d schedule the band to play a piece for the TV audience. Doc was the band leader but he was also an accomplished trumpet player. At the end of one song, he blew his horn hard to hit a high note and, amazingly, the bell fell off. Everyone, Johnny, Ed, the audience and me, couldn’t stop laughing for a good five minutes. I guess when you’re on the air for thirty years, just about everything will happen.
One TV regret I have is not getting the opportunity to see Johnny retire. I was in Japan during the early 90s and so I missed it completely. It must have been intense the last few weeks of the show. Oh well…
Anyway, goodbye Johnny. You were great and provided me with a lot of laughs.
Speaking of the Tonight Show, there is a famous story that might interest you. It’s about Steve Allen, the original host of the Tonight Show, and why he left the show. It’s a bit off color, so ignore it if you want. Steve did not particualrly like cats, but one time Zsa Zsa Gabor was a guest on his show and she brought her cat along. Steverino interviewed Zsa Zsa Gabor but was obviously upset at the presence of the cat purring in her lap. Zsa Zsa picked up on his displeasure and said, “Don’t be so mad, Steve. Why don’t you pet my pussy.” To which Steve replied, “Get rid of the cat and I will.” Bu-rum-pum. I don’t know if this is true, but I first heard this story when I was in elementary school, back in the late 60s.