Johnny Carson’s last opening monologue was missing only two things: Ed McMahon responding to the punchlines with a ”Hey-o!” and Carson himself to deliver them. Instead, the set of jokes was delivered Monday night by David Letterman on his Late Show, during an hour that paid tribute to Dave’s late mentor, who had retired in 1992 but had been quietly sending Letterman new topical jokes in the months before his death last week at age 79.
The months-old jokes got laughs from the audience, despite their no-longer-fresh subject matter (Paris Hilton’s briefly missing chihuahua, the contrast between John Kerry and George W. Bush’s Vietnam War records, President Bush’s trip to Rome). One joke explained Tinkerbell Hilton’s absence by saying that Paris’ dog had been ”with the Taco Bell chihuahua making a sex video.” Another joke, about a craft built by civilian rocketeers that sent a test pilot 50 miles into space, noted that two man-made objects can be seen from that altitude. ”One is the Great Wall of China, and the other is Donald Trump’s hair.” Not until several minutes later, when he was seated at his desk, did Letterman reveal that all the opening jokes had been written by the former Tonight Show host. He went on to praise Carson for giving him his big break, performing as a stand-up comedian on Tonight in the 1970s, which led to his appointment as the host of the Carson-produced Late Night following The Tonight Show on NBC.
Just two weeks ago, a few days before Carson succumbed to emphysema, longtime Carson and Letterman producer Peter Lassally revealed to the press that Carson had been secretly feeding jokes to Letterman. Appearing as a Late Show guest Monday night, Lassally elaborated, noting that the retired Carson missed being able to turn the daily news into a monologue and would write topical quips for his own amusement, then read them to Lassally over the phone. Lassally said he convinced Carson to forward them to Letterman, despite Carson’s demurral that to do so would put Dave in an awkward position where he felt he had to use the material. But Letterman said that to receive jokes from Carson was ”like Christmas morning, for God’s sake.” Carson, in turn, ”was delighted that you did them and that the audience laughed at them,” Lassally told Letterman.
Letterman’s show had been in reruns last week, which is why his Carson tribute came seven days after the one staged by current Tonight host Jay Leno. Leno’s guests last week included McMahon, Carson’s sidekick of more than three decades. Letterman booked Carson’s other longtime foil, trumpeter Doc Severinsen, who was the Tonight bandleader for 25 years. Along with two Carson band mainstays, saxophonist Tommy Newsom and drummer Ed Shaughnessy, Severinsen performed the lush ballad ”Here’s That Rainy Day,” which he said was Carson’s favorite song.