Monday, January 24, 2005

The answer is: "I'll be right back"

and the question to Johnny Carson was, "What would you like your epitaph to be?"

Pre-SNL, pre-anything except bad old movies and a revolving cast of competitors on the other channels, the chances were you watched Carson if you were watching late night TV at all. And you either said, "Johnny Carson" or just "Carson." I don't think I ever heard anyone ever refer to it as the "Tonight Show" except in commercials or Ed McMahon in the intro.

I had a summer in my life, probably around age 15, where I never went to bed before 2 a.m. and seldom got up before noon. And each night, if I was home, I watched Carson alone in the living room of my parent's house.

One of the funniest live moments I ever saw was on the Carson show during that summer -- a guest appearance by Rose Marie (of "Dick Van Dyke" fame), whose age Carson had jokingly referred to in his introduction. Another guest - whose identity I've long forgotten - mentioned the joke to Rose Marie, and compounded it by saying that Carson had claimed that when they were building the first stage, Rose Marie held the hammer.

"Ooookay," a mock-angry Rose Marie said, smiled at Carson, stood up and walked off the set. In close order, each of the other guests got up, smiled at Carson, and also left, until only McMahon was there. And then he got up and left, leaving Carson with what must have been the living embodiment of a talk show host's nightmare.

"Is it time to go to a commercial?" he asked. "Not for five minutes," came the offstage reply as the audience roared.

A desperate Carson eventually went into a stripper act, peeling down to his bare chest, as the orchestra blared out "The Stripper." And then all the male guests returned to the stage, each of them bare-chested too, as the audience went into hysterics.

Well, you had to be there. And it was funny, funny enough to me that I can still remember the details from a show I saw only once nearly 40 years ago. They cut to a commercial, and when the show came back on, Carson and the bare-chested guests were seated and he looked into the camera and dead-panned, "Welcome to Rawhide."

I stopped watching Carson regularly long before he retired, as much because I had stopped staying up late as the fact that the guests he had on were of no interest to me. But there were moments: I made a special effort to watch the show when Robert Blake was a guest, back in his "Baretta" days. Carson seemed to have a special fondness for Blake and his war against "the suits." There was once a very funny interchange between Blake and Carson when Carson had Blake interview him in the persona of a sullen actor, who eventually dropped his pants and mooned the audience.

The first time I ever saw Andy Kaufman was on Carson, as Kaufman did his "foreigner does terrible imitations and then turns into Elvis" routine to an audience that had no idea where he was going.

Truman Capote. Robert Goulet. Carl Sagan. Bob Hope -- one of the few guests that could walk on to the set, say a few words, usually about whatever special he was flogging that week, and then leave without having to stay through the full show. An enormous Orson Welles. A very drunk Peter Falk, who told an endless story about drinking with Patrick McGoohan and who Carson kept encouraging to leave. "Well I know you have to go now." "I don't need to be anywhere," Falk replied.

Barbra Streisand reneging on her commitment to appear on Carson with opera star, Beverly Sills. After advertising Streisand's appearance for a full week, Carson told the audience, "Miss Streisand called and said she will not be on the show tonight. Nor will Miss Streisand be on any other night as long as I'm host."

The death of Robert Kennedy, and Carson doing a round table to discuss violence in America in lieu of the regular show. Carson in a Nehru jacket in the late `60s. The "Johnny Carson" line of clothing, which I always thought was pretty cool.

As one could expect, Mark Evanier has a slew of commentary and links about Carson, well worth reading, especially this article that Evanier originally wrote in 1990.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I remember that Tonight Show episode with Rose Marie, and I always wondered why it was never shown again in the highlight shows. I was literally on the floor laughing so hard that night.
The only thing I remember differently about it was that the fourth guest was George Lindsey ("Goober Pyle"), not Debbie Reynolds.