Celebrities talk about Johnny Carson -- With the icon leaving the air we ask Milton Berle, Bob Saget, and others, what they will miss most
For 30 years, a low-key Nebraskan has been the night’s brightest light — a good talker, a good listener, a good companion. His masterful monologues could set the nation’s mood, and everyone was welcome on his couch, from film stars to a zookeeper. After May 22, he’s gone, and our midnight hours will never be the same. On these pages, 60 memorable guests salute the mighty art of Carson.
Dr. Joyce Brothers (psychologist and one of Carson’s earliest guests) ”He was wonderful right from the beginning. He set up just the same format — the golf swing and all of that — from the first week or so. As shy as he was off camera, on camera he was totally relaxed, and he made you look good. It’s like skating with a great skater. You do twists and turns and pirouettes and things you didn’t know you were capable of.
”We got into a discussion one time about coffee being an aphrodisiac, and Johnny said, ‘That explains why Mrs. Olsen always shows up and goes, ‘Hi, there!’ And we were talking about power as an aphrodisiac. I said, ‘Johnny, you’re such a powerful man, women must throw themselves at you.’ He took a beat and said, ‘Yes, but they miss.”’
Why has Carson been popular for such a long time? ”It’s because we know so little about him. He’s familiar, but at the same time you don’t know all that much about his personal life, so you can project onto him what you want him to be. He can be your cute son, the dad you wish you had, your lover, the man who got away, your best buddy. Johnny has made himself into a Rorschach for America.”
Gore Vidal (author) ”Sometimes I feel I am a surrogate for him on The Tonight Show. He’s very politically minded but doesn’t feel it’s wise to be open himself politically on the program. So he can look bewildered at the radical things I have to say. Meanwhile, he’s delighted it’s coming out on his show. A few years ago, [executive producer] Freddy de Cordova came up to me prior to my going on the air and said, ‘For Chrissakes, don’t talk about abortion. We just had somebody on and now we’re getting all these letters. Please don’t.’ Well, it was like, ‘Do not push peas up your nose!’ I had no intention of pushing peas up my nose. It was about the last thing on my mind. I went out there, and Johnny said, ‘What do you think about this right-to-life thing?’ and shoved me straight into the water. There was a great scream from de Cordova from behind a camera. That’s the Carson mischief.”
Dr. Ruth Westheimer (sex therapist) ”Johnny Carson has done more to ruin America’s love life than anyone else in the country. On any given night that he’s hosting The Tonight Show, there are 10 times more couples watching his monologue than making love. By the time they’ve exhausted themselves laughing at his jokes, they don’t have the energy for sex and simply turn out the light and go to sleep. Though I wish Jay Leno the best of luck, for the sake of America’s libido I hope he never quite fills the master’s shoes.”
Ted Koppel (anchor, Nightline) ”When I did the show [for the first time, in April] they wanted to do a pre-interview to see what we would talk about. I said, ‘Come on, if two guys who have been on TV, combined, almost 60 years have nothing to talk about for 10 minutes we should both get out of the business.’ The main reason I came on was to pay my respects to a man who has done [the same show] for 30 years. I’ve done mine for 12 — not close— and I know how hard it is to keep the energy level up.
”To do really good topical comedy, you have to have the eye and the mind of a good newsman, and Johnny would have been a superb reporter. You can’t do good satirical commentary unless you understand what’s going on and pay attention to it. Clearly he has this great interest in the world around him.”
Betty White (actress who has been a friend of Carson’s since 1951) “The joke has always been that if he wants to take his clothes off [on the show], he calls me. That’s why we did sketches like ‘Adam and Eve 25 Years Later’ and ‘Tarzan and Jane 25 Years Later.’ But my favorite bit was five or six years ago, when we played lovers in a romantic seaside café drinking wine and listening to violin music. Suddenly, a little splash of water came through the window. Pretty soon, 550 gallons of water let loose and washed us all over the stage. I was supposed to pretend to fall off the chair. Well, I’d have been at CBS if there hadn’t been a wall there. So I kept playing the sketch out with my face down in the water. Johnny was scared to death. He thought, ‘Oh, my God, she’s hurt, she’s drowned, she’s dead!’ We laughed about it many times since.
“Because he knew I had a pretty great marriage, he used to make Betty White and Allen Ludden jokes on the show all the time. One of them was that we gave a wife-swapping party and nobody showed up. We thrived on all these terrible put-down jokes, of course, because you only tease the people you like.
“One of the nicest things that happened came after he had married Alex [Maas, in 1987]. Between commercials, he leaned over to me, took my hand, and very seriously said, ‘I know what you had [with Ludden, who died in 1981]. I finally found it — I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life.’ It was a lovely moment.”
F. Murray Abraham (actor) “Standing behind the curtain waiting to be introduced for my one and only appearance on The Tonight Show, all I could think of was that this shot would make my mother and father very happy. Being on television with Johnny Carson meant to them I had finally arrived. My validation. I’ll never forget Johnny’s opening line: ‘So what do I call you — F?’ And it was all uphill from there.
“I agree with [critic] Kenneth Tynan’s assessment that Carson has defined what television really has to offer — simply that he brought people into other people’s living rooms in an intimate, even though electronic, way. And he didn’t get in the way of, or between, the people and what they had to say.”
Argus Hamilton (comedian) “He had Midwestern manners, New York brains, and Hollywood ambition — the best of three worlds….Johnny’s the fourth in line of the great Anglo-Saxon comedians, following Samuel Clemens, Will Rogers, and Bob Hope.”
Carson’s best moment, he says, came after the 1971 California earthquake. “The whole country was watching, waiting for Johnny’s reaction.” It came in the form of a joke: “The ‘God Is Dead’ rally has been canceled.”
Orson Bean (humorist) “I never have socialized with Johnny, but I always thought we had a really wonderful friendship for the 12 minutes we were out there.
“Johnny went to bat for me one time back in the ’70s. It was after I told a story on the air about an experience my wife and I had after coming home from a neighborhood bar, three sheets to the wind, throwing off our clothes, and making love on the floor. The next thing we knew, there was a third person in ( the room, our son, Max, who was 7 at the time. He was standing there in his Dr. Denton’s and a grin as broad as the Snake River Canyon. It was a funny and sweet story, but some of the [network affiliates] raised all kinds of hell, and there was pressure on NBC not to have me back. But Johnny stuck up for me and I returned quite a few times.”
John McLaughlin (host, The McLaughlin Group) “I got in under the wire. After 30 years of watching Johnny, last June I finally met this gifted performer. When I did The Tonight Show, I called Johnny a great American institution — like Broadway or baseball or Congress. Johnny said I was doing just fine until I mentioned Congress.”
Bill Clinton (Arkansas governor) “Those 20 minutes on The Tonight Show did more for my career than speaking for two days at the Democratic National Convention.”
Peter Jennings (anchor, ABC World News Tonight) “I was on once, about a year ago. We had a wonderful time. I was nervous…very nervous. See, he is not a talk-show host. He is a national institution. We all watch him late at night to see how things play. I looked the other night and I thought, ‘How does he do it that long?’ Good writers help, but longevity belongs to those who are natural, and he was-and is-completely natural.”
Joan Embery (San Diego Zoo’s “ambassador,” who in 22 years has brought more than 300 animals on Tonight) “I can trust Johnny. He knows when to back off and when to jump in, and how to handle an animal. He knows they are sometimes potentially dangerous, but he also wants to be involved; he is braver than most people think. When we go on, he flies by the seat of his pants, and I like that. Animals are spontaneous. In his own way, he has done more than anyone else for wildlife on network TV.
“The most remembered animal, of course, is the marmoset that sat on Johnny’s head. Probably the ones that played the best with him were the gorillas and the chimps. I also liked the time I took this elephant on the show. She was 8 feet tall and weighed 8,000 pounds, and I had her pick up Johnny with her trunk. He wasn’t exactly in the right position, so she had this death grip on his leg. I’m sure he appreciated she held on tighter.”
Dick Cavett (talk-show host and onetime Tonight writer) During an early appearance, when Cavett was the “least illustrious” guest and anxious to say something funny to close out the show, Carson asked the guests what they’d be doing next. “I said, ‘I’m working on a series.’ He said, ‘Oh, yeah?’ I said, ‘It’s a humorous version of Gilligan’s Island.’ And he went off the chair.
“He’s an extraordinarily complex man who’s been oversimplified by people trying to figure him out. I know him to be a man with feelings, even though there’s almost an industry of people trying to write that he hasn’t any.” Cavett recalls one “quirky” but kind gesture by Carson. The two were going to meet in a bar to chat, but Cavett called to say he’d be late because he needed to go home to change out of his white sneakers. “He said, ‘That’s all right, Richard.’ I got there feeling self-conscious, and here was this lone figure at the end of the bar wearing white sneakers with his otherwise nice clothes. He wore them just so I wouldn’t look conspicuous.”
Charlton Heston (actor) “I love to watch him work, playing to the audience. He couldn’t do it without a live audience. That’s how he does the interviews as well as he does, too — using himself and playing to and with the audience. He is a brilliant interviewer because he never leaves you hanging, always listening and responding while at the same time figuring out where the conversation is going the next minute. And he never, ever forgets the plug. Johnny is a very private guy and I wouldn’t call him a pal. You feel closer to Johnny when you’re sitting on the couch on his right than when you see him at a party.”
Elizabeth Ashley (actress) “He’s the definition of a gentleman — a very graceful, very private, somewhat gallant man. Unlike 99 percent of the people in the business, he doesn’t have a coarse bone in his body. Carson has a very specific genius, which is an ability to spontaneously cast whoever it is who sits in that chair in the best possible way. If you just follow his lead, he will make sure that you look wonderful.”
Ashley’s favorite appearance was in the late ’70s when she came on after a long party at her house. “It wound up going on for a couple of days almost. But the thing was, I had totally forgotten that I was supposed to do The Tonight Show.” Shortly before 4 p.m., she got a call saying a limo was coming to pick her up. “I thought I would die. It was like, when your face is in that condition where nothing is going to help. Surgery wouldn’t help. I dove into the shower, threw my face into the ice bucket, tried to put on makeup — but when you get to a certain degree of tired, makeup won’t stick. Your face just spits it back. You look like a burn victim. So I threw on a Japanese kimono over my jeans and some dark glasses, and was throwing back coffee from a thermos on the way there.”
When she walked out and sat next to Carson, “he said, ‘How are you?’ And I said, ‘Hung over. Just so hung over.’ And Carson turned that to my advantage. He said, ‘Let’s see under the glasses.’ I said, ‘No, no, no. Even the lighting guys said don’t do it.’ Carson just looked at me and smiled that way he had. ‘What you’re telling me is basically you shouldn’t go out in public until you’ve gone to Earl Scheib.'”
Beau Bridges (actor) “What makes him different from the other talk-show hosts is that his main objective seems to be to make the guest come off good…he understands the teamwork ethic.
“Here’s this huge powerhouse, and yet he’s maintained his Everyman persona. He makes you feel as if this fan of the movies just stepped out of his living room and found himself hosting a show.”
Tim Conway (comedian) “I enjoyed watching Carson most when the monologue was bombing because that’s when he’s at his best. His recoveries were some of the funniest things ever done on television. I also think his genuine sense of Midwest humor was a key to the success. The television camera is an X-ray machine. You don’t fool that machine.
“I came on the show 15 times or so. For me, the most memorable evening was a few years ago when we introduced my sawed-off Dorf character on his show. What I appreciate the most is that he worked on it with me and participated in the sketch. It worked because of him, but it could have gone either way. He could have told me to do my piece, wave to the people, and get off. But he participated — not because he wanted to be in it, but because of our friendship. He is one of those generous human beings who pitches in automatically, and that’s what made the show successful.”
Roy Blount Jr. (humorist and author) writes: People ask me what Johnny Carson is like. They must assume that before or after the taping, or during the commercial breaks, talk-show hosts and guests generally kick back and let down their hair with each other. This has not been my experience.
The first national talk show I appeared on, years ago, was Dick Cavett’s. At the end, when the cameras pulled back and I could feel the credits rolling over us, we leaned closer for a private chat, and I said, “I always wondered what the guest and host — at this point, when you can’t hear them anymore — are talking about.”
“Frequently,” said Cavett, “this.”
Maybe I am too self-conscious a guest to learn much about the host: Being on a talk show makes me wonder what I am really like. I don’t have quite the right personality to be a personality, and I’m afraid it shows. Once I was hustling toward the wings, trying to look like a person who in a matter of seconds would be brought out onto The Tonight Show for his 14th or 15th appearance, when a security guard stopped me and asked me what I was doing backstage.
“I’m a, you know, guest,” I said.
“Johnny’s,” I said.
“What do you mean, Johnny’s?”
“On the…show.” Only when the guard saw that I had makeup on the backs of my hands (I tend to wave my hands around my face, so they have to be color- coordinated) did he let me proceed.
Another time, I forgot to move down toward Ed, and Linda Hopkins very nearly sat in my lap.
Once I followed Carl Reiner, who had presented Johnny with a loud tie, and Johnny had donned it, loosely, right there on camera, and it had been good friendly television, and as I was about to walk on, someone whispered a suggestion: “Trade ties with Johnny.”
I didn’t do it. Quips, hey, my privilege. But ties? I kick myself now, because someday when my grandchildren are rummaging through my antique neckwear, I won’t be able to say, “And that one…oh, Johnny Carson gave me that one off his own neck.”
I mean, Johnny had probably traded ties with Bob Hope, Morgan Fairchild, Fernando Lamas, perhaps all in the same night. My tie was one with small, tasteful boll weevils on it, which my sister had bought me in Memphis. And I was cognizant of what Bob Dolce, the talent coordinator who has always booked me on the show, told me once when I was a bit too casual about a long story I planned to tell. “Remember,” he said, “this is a performance, not a visit.”
On the screen, talk-show hosts seem eminently comfortable. Seeming that way is their job. Not until a host has looked at you with eyes that at close range are crying out to the fates, “Please, please let this guy hit something resembling or halfway setting up a punch line within the next couple of split seconds, please,” do you realize what a performer he or she is, and how pressed. At the chuckle, the feed, the reaction, the setting of tempo, Carson is a less ebullient Magic Johnson. He is there to keep you rolling, and he seems genuinely glad to see you score. Yet I have often had the feeling that he was sharing with me, in a gracious but indelibly professional manner, his deep-seated awareness that we could both die right here any moment, doing this.
At one of our breaks together, he told me, “So many funny writers aren’t funny talkers. S.J. Perelman.”
I was struck dumb. Perelman is one of my literary heroes. And I had seen him on television, and to be sure his discourse had not fit the medium. (“One of the things I sometimes distrust about myself,” Norman Mailer once wrote, “is that I am fairly good on television.”) It would have been a far better thing for me to be compared favorably, or at all, to Perelman as a writer, but I did feel sort of thrilled by this oblique compliment, and I wished I could keep the ball rolling, but Johnny didn’t seem to have anything else to say on the subject, and now the break was over and we were back in the presence (or near-future) of late-night America, who would not be interested in this topic. And in closing, we guests were telling where we would be appearing soon (the others, the Sands or somewhere, I, back at my own desk), and that was that.
Then one evening as I began to expand on having written something about the 39 things that make a woman sexy, we ran out of time. Johnny wrapped up by saying, “Come back and we’ll pick this up again.”
Just politeness, I figured. Four or five months later when I was on the show, and had gone over with Bob Dolce what I had written most recently and was assuming as usual the questions would come from that, Johnny opened our segment by saying, “The last time you were on, you were telling us the 39 things that make a woman sexy.”
I just barely managed to recollect a couple. (Fortunately or not, I was sitting in a chair still warm from Joan Collins.)
So Johnny is thinking, does remember. Maybe part of his secret is that he doesn’t have quite the personality to be a personality either.
Richard Lewis (comedian who has been on The Tonight Show more than 40 times) “The first time, I dressed like a puppet — I looked like a Jewish puppet. I wore this blue corduroy suit with yellow stripes. I looked like a tennis referee in Boca Raton. Also, this was when the show was still an hour and a half, and I had to go on at six minutes till one, literally. And I followed George Peppard, who — I forget why — all I know is I heard the word ‘cancer.’ I think he was telling people not to smoke. It’s five till one, I’m following a lung cancer rap, and I’m dressed like a puppet. I did a decent shot, but Johnny felt I was a tad frenetic. So I was in the Tonight Show prison for a year. I used to practice my routine with handcuffs.
“I finally came back, and he was right. He’s knowledgeable and he truly is the greatest at what he does. It’s great to make him laugh. There were a couple of shots — I would watch them on video and show them to my friends, almost like the Zapruder film. I would look at it slo-mo, and say, ‘He didn’t fall off the chair, but I made him twirl.'”
Ruth Webb (agent) Webb, whose clients include Joey Bishop and Mickey Rooney, ended up before the cameras herself in 1970. While dog-sitting for Broadway star Gaylea Byrne, Webb saw a man sing with his dog on the Carson show. “I called up and said, ‘I’ve got dogs who can sing better than that.'” So the producers scheduled an entire show devoted to dog acts. But Byrne refused to sing with her Yorkie, so Webb told the Tonight Show people, “‘I don’t know how good this will be, because I haven’t sung in a long time, but I guarantee I’ll make the dog sing.’ So I sang a duet with Higgins, the Yorkshire terrier. We sang ‘Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.’ Higgins sang right along with me. I didn’t win, but it was a hysterical show. They ran it year after year in their anniversary shows.”
Tiny Tim (singer whose wedding to Miss Vicki made for the highest-rated Tonight Show ever) “December 17, 1969. It was a great moment. A great moment personally and for TV history. It was satellited all over the world. It was written up in three encyclopedias.
“He asked us that September. People think I asked him, but he offered. NBC was going to take care of the bill. Bets were going that it would never happen. They almost paid off. [Miss Vicki and I] were not getting along. I almost called it off two weeks before the wedding. I didn’t want to break her heart. But I came very close to marrying someone else. Three days after we announced the engagement, I asked Miss Iris — she was 18 at the time, so beautiful-to elope with me, but she said no. So I married Miss Vicki instead.”
Miss Vicki (ex-wife and now a store manager in a small New Jersey town) “I didn’t really want to do it (on TV). I just got swept up in the events of the time and went along.” Does she ever think about that night? “No, not really. I try not to. It was — what? — 22 years ago. It’s been a long time. I have a new life.”
Joey Bishop (comedian) For many years, Bishop held the record as Carson’s most frequent guest host. “On his 10th-anniversary show, I said, ‘It’s only your 8th anniversary — two years of those I did.’
“The first time I did his show, he said, ‘Good evening.’ I said, ‘Good evening,’ and we just stood there. He said, ‘That’s all you’re going to say?’ I said, ‘For 320 dollars’ — which is what they paid back then — ‘that’s all you deserve.'”
Buddy Hackett (comedian) “If ever there was a perfect feed, it’s John. You know what I mean? To call him a straight man is undignified. He’s better than a straight man. I try to put him out of control. Sometimes I will tell a real dirty joke when we’re in commercial; then when we come back I’ll sound like I’m going to tell it again. He knows I’m not going to do it, but he’s also just a little frightened because he knows I’m crazy, and he’s not so sure I won’t.
“He’s got a purity to him — an unbelievable honesty, a naïveté and innocence — and he truly cares about the world and people. The audience can tell it. He tries very hard not to show that tenderness, I think, but he is a tender, sweet man.”
One of Hackett’s favorite appearances came early in Carson’s tenure. “It was Oscar time. We went out and did the show at 5:30 and the Oscars weren’t for five more hours. We started discussing the Oscars as though we had seen the show, and we picked every single one correctly. People from the company — the one that keeps the ballots — and [columnist] Earl Wilson came by my house and said, ‘How did you know? Who told you?’ I said, ‘I can’t tell you,’ and I never admitted — and neither did John — that we were only guessing.”
Gene Siskel (movie critic) “I don’t think there’s any major movie star that I haven’t met other than Marlon Brando — it takes a lot therefore to get me to be a little startled. And I was startled when I met him [Carson].
“I wanted to be on [with him] one more time, and we were on this last time, [in] February. I’ll tell you what Roger [Ebert] and I say when we’re waiting behind the curtain. We said it the first time and now it’s a running thing: ‘We should be home watching this show. We should not be on it.’ I mean, we’re scared to death.”
Patrick Duffy (actor) “The first time I went on, I was doing the [NBC] series The Man From Atlantis. I played a guy with webbed feet and webbed fingers, who ran around in a little tiny bathing suit and could breathe underwater. Johnny made jokes about it in his monologue, but it wasn’t malicious. When you do the show, it’s serious sweating time — you’re a mess backstage. You know you’re not going to go out there and dazzle Johnny. What hasn’t he already seen, or heard? But once you get out there, he puts you at ease.”
Richard Crenna (actor) “My one particularly memorable show took place 10 or 12 years ago, when I was on with [comedian] Dick Shawn, who was in one of his manic moods. After doing his fabulous Watergate bit, Dick went nuts, telling the audience that the Tonight Show set was the ugliest piece of crap he had ever seen. He proceeded to tear down the Hollywood picture behind the desk, tip Johnny’s desk over, and throw aside all the plants — claiming they were nasty, disgusting, plastic fakes. He literally tore the place apart while Johnny just sat there, laughing like crazy. It was wild.”
Shelley Winters (actress) “Once I was on with Oliver Reed in the mid-’60s, and he was kind of baiting women — and putting me down. In those days, if you were nervous, they’d give you a light Scotch. I hadn’t touched mine, and when I had left the stage and was standing in the wings, I heard Reed call me a typical example of a liberated woman. So I went back out and poured the Scotch over his head. Reed didn’t know how to handle it and pretended nothing had happened. Johnny said to him, ‘Ed McMahon can lick that off for you.’ I was so angry, and Johnny wouldn’t go to a commercial. I just said something like, ‘Next time it’ll be hot oil.'”
Don Rickles (comedian) “Johnny Carson is a wonderful guy, very entertaining. I love him, he loves me, he loves you, he’s gonna retire, and I knew him well. Goodbye, so long, God bless him. Now he can go on with his tennis. It’s like a memorial. Why don’t we just get a chapel, all go there, do a stand-up, cry, and go home?
“They tell me I’ve been on with Johnny about 75 times, and it’s impossible to pick out that special moment. Of course, everybody mentions the bit where I broke his cigarette box and when he came into the studio with a camera crew when I was doing C.P.O. Sharkey across the hall from him.
“The chemistry has always been there — I being so aggressive and he being such a laid-back guy makes things funny. He’s like Jack Benny with his long takes. I come on like gangbusters, making fun of him at a fast clip. He, being on the reserved side, waits for an opening and then gives me a right hand to the jaw — a great clonker that wipes me out.”
Alan Thicke (actor whose own late-night show, Thicke of the Night, lasted for nine months against Tonight) “I belong to an elite club called Pretenders to the Throne. We meet once a week to watch The Best of Carson. We interview each other, then sulk a lot. We’re part of a larger group called The Fun While It Lasted Club, which includes Milli Vanilli, the guy who invented the lambada, and Liz Taylor’s ex-husbands.
“My fantasy was never to beat Carson but simply to join him. Even that was unrealistic. The only good thing about getting clobbered by Johnny Carson is that you are forever mentioned in the same breath. That in itself has been an honor. He is simply the best there ever was. He’ll have his own wing in the Talk Show Hall of Fame — a monument to wit, charm, relatability, and sophistication.”
Farrah Fawcett (actress) “I’ll never, ever forget the first time I did the show. I was in the dressing room when someone knocked on the door. It was Johnny. I’d never met him, and he was so charming and so nice. He asked me all these questions, and I was so startled that I think I answered every one of them with ‘Uh-huh.’ I remember I kept thinking, ‘Why did I just open that door?’ I mean, I still had curlers and pins in my hair and I was still in my jeans. When it came time for me to go on, I half expected him to say something like, ‘Well, you should have seen how she looked earlier!’ But Johnny doesn’t do things like that. He has such a way of putting you at ease, of being complimentary. I think he senses how far he can go with each guest — which is really what makes him special.”
Tommy Smothers (comedian) “Carson is the best in the business. He’s schizoid, basically, meaning he is a very good comedian and an incredible straight man. He’s a comedy team unto himself and can jump into either mode anytime. That’s Johnny’s gift, and when he’s working with comedians, he plays a straight man. If there’s some problem, he can switch right over to the comedian.
“On a commercial break [during the Smothers Brothers’ last appearance in March], I asked him how he felt about retiring. He said, ‘Great. It’s going to be so much fun because I won’t have the pressure of doing the monologue every night. But you know, Tom, I’m not retiring, I’m just retiring from The Tonight Show.’ There was a twinkle in his eye and I think any entertainer who has had the pressure of a weekly show knows what he’s feeling. But he definitely isn’t going to do nothing.”
Jeanne Dixon (psychic) Dixon appeared with Carson twice in 1964, when she claimed to have predicted the assassination of President Kennedy. When you’re interviewed by him, she says, “he keeps one step ahead of you. His mind works so quickly, and of course he’s a Scorpio, which is a magnetic sign. He was born Oct. 23, 1925. His birthday is one of the sexiest and most dissuasive signs in the world. On top of that, Johnny has great ESP, although he doesn’t know it.”
“Among my predictions for Carson:
* “There will be another very emotional incident on Johnny’s show. Either a guest or a member of his crew could go ballistic, and it will happen on the air.”
* “Events in 1993 will spark plans for a return to television in 1994 or 1995.”
David Steinberg (comedian) “In comedy, you don’t get points for being ahead of the times any more than you do for being behind them. Johnny was always exactly right on time.
“The most memorable moment for me was the second time I hosted the show. My guests were scheduled to be Paul Simon and Muhammad Ali. While I was introducing Ali, out walks Milton Berle. So I sit down and talk with him. Then finally, just as I get back to introducing Ali, Alan King suddenly walks out. So I sit down with him for a while. The audience was absolutely crazed — they loved it. So eventually I get back to Ali and now Jack Benny walks out. More pandemonium. Finally, Johnny himself walks out. And the place erupts. He had been orchestrating the whole thing from backstage. It was an incredibly generous gift to give a young performer.”
Ed Ames (singer, actor, and amateur tomahawk thrower whose misfire at a male figure in 1965 — and Carson’s reaction — prompted one of Tonight’s longest laughs ever) “He and I did a number of naughty things, but the tomahawk episode stood out. I was real surprised that it made it onto TV. Three minutes and 25 seconds of uninterrupted laughter. Finally, I said, ‘Johnny, do you want to try it?’ and he said, ‘Why? You can’t hurt a fella worse.'”
Vikki Carr (singer) “I did [my hit] ‘It Must Be Him’ so many times on his show that on one occasion during rehearsal, they played a trick on me. As I was singing, the curtain opened showing a phone booth with a placard on it that read, ‘Dial 0 for God.'”
Mel Tillis (singer) “Once I was sitting in the chair for makeup, and Johnny said, ‘Tillis?’ and I said, ‘Yessir,’ and he said, ‘How come when you stutter, you only stutter on the punch lines?’ I thought that was really funny.”
Bob Newhart (comedian) “My most memorable moments with Johnny are almost disconcerting, bordering on cruel at times. In the pre-interview, I would always outline exactly what I wanted to talk about and prepare carefully. Johnny would take one look, then throw them away and toss curves like ‘How many uncles do you have?’ He loved the reaction on my face as I fumbled around looking for some kind of answer that made sense. It was a form of flattery because he thought I could handle it, I guess…
”He calls me ‘Blinky’ because he claims I blink a lot — especially after getting one of those questions I’m not preparing for. It also means that I have about five years of unused material. Sometimes I prepared too well, like an anecdote I had discovered about Jack Benny. Well, it took about five guest shots before I finally had a chance to get the Benny story in — and it bombed. But Johnny loved it because he could watch me squirm.
”Through the years I came back for more because he was great. For all the torment he gave me. He knew where I was going and tried to help me get there. Even if it was an old joke, he’d break up like he’d never heard it before.
”One of my favorite appearances was on a night when Johnny’s monologue totally bombed and I yelled from behind the curtain, ‘I’m not coming out because you’re gonna take everybody with you!” He said, ‘That’s right, everybody’s going down with me.’ Sure enough, he took us to greater depths. He’s an incredible artist who takes his time, has the quickest wit in the business and never panics. One of a kind.”
Jonathan Winters (comedians) ”I think Johnny is truly the best of all of them. You know, Johnny thinks funny. It’s not enough to write funny. You’ve got to think funny.”
Deborah Norville (radio talk-show host) Despite her stint as host of NBC’s Today show, Norville says she felt ”utter terror” before going on Tonight. ”You know that on this little piece of tape where you are standing have stood the feet of everyone who has ever done anything in the entertainment business — or any business. But Johnny was lovely, lovely. He came by my dressing room before. He said, ‘I’m a fan’ and he said, ‘You’re a trouper.’ and ‘hand in there, kid.’ It showed what a warm and gracious person he is. On the show he asked me to do animal sounds, and, you know, I’m game for anything if I don’t have to take my cloths off. I did a chicken and a pig.
Marilyn Michaels (singer, impressionist) ”For me, there was nobody better to work with than Johnny. I figure he must be a good lover, because he knows how to make someone feel they’re the only one in the room.”
Louis Gossett Jr. (actor) ”I guess I’ve been on with Johnny about 10 times. The funny thing is that I can’t remember a single of of the other guests — I was so focused on Carson and what he was doing. What I always appreciated about him is that he treated me with respect. During the commercial breaks, he usually asked me about Richard Pryor, who is a good friend of mine. I think it was a way for him to keep tabs on other comedians. The nice thing is that he wanted other comedians to succeed and never cut them up.”
Paul Anka (singer) Anka says he has great affection for the Tonight Show theme, which he dashed off 30 years ago. He says he tried to think of something ”indigenous to the feel of the show, and I sat down and knocked off the theme.” Of course, he had no idea it would be played five nights a week for 30 years, ”but it’s a great feeling to close your eyes and go to bed every night and know you’re going to earn two dollars or whatever it is.”
Erica Long (poet and novelist) writes: In November of 1973, I was a young poet with round granny glasses and navel-length hair whose obscure first novel, Fear of Flying, has just been published. Was it fiction or a manual on airplane maintenance? Nobody knew for sure. And nobody knew my name except the sort of people who hung around the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, waiting for the next hot poetry reading.
”Johnny Carson wants to see you!” came the call from my publisher. Astonished and thrilled, I had visions of midnight video banter with the host of hosts. What would I wear? What would I say?
I got myself into my least tie-dyed outfit and trotted down to the Tonight Show offices, hoping to meet the great man himself. But of course Johnny did not appear. Instead, a tough old bird of a talent coordinator kept me waiting as long as possible, looked me over as if we were at a white slave auction, grilled me about my book (”the story of a young woman finding herself,” I lamely said), and then pronounced: ”Johnny isn’t interested in human relationships.”
A year later, the obscure first novel was No. 1 on the paperback best-seller list. Discovered by John Updike and Henry Miller, it was a phenom — destined to sell 15 million copies in 27 languages. Suddenly Johnny was interested in human relationships. I was interviewed by another talent coordinator on the West Coast, and this time I made the cut.
The Tonight Show had a kind of electricity. Merv was cozy and chummy. 60 Minutes treated you like an indicted Mafia hit woman. But Johnny Carson was all show biz in the best sense.
The interview itself? Who can remember? I was wearing a very low-cut dress, and Johnny was attentive to my cleavage. Crackly and sharp, he smiled like a leprechaun and was utterly brilliant with the ad-lib. He was a master. Of what? That is harder to say.
What must it be like to have to be publicly brilliant night after night? People turn on the tube half asleep and Johnny’s is the last face they see before oblivion hits. He became part of their dreams. And dreams often determine the rest of their lives. What a responsibility and what a burden.
I try to imagine what it would be like to be Johnny Carson. I imagine waking up int he morning, knowing that at five in the afternoon I would have to make the entire country laugh. It’s not in the nature of human beings to be consistently, predictably funny. So the man who served as America’s court jester for three decades sometimes had to rely on a special intimacy with his loyal audience to get through bad nights. But the face of the jester, with its familiar dimples, its thatch of silvering hair, was always a comforting presence before the arms of Morpheus claimed us.
Thalassa Cruso (The Planet Lady) ”I knew when he was about to speak nonsense — it was something in the way he turned his head — and he rather liked me to snub him.”
Cruso says she was impressed with Caron’s skill at guiding the conversation. ”I could’ve made the most frightful fool of myself, but he always saw it coming and made it right. Sometimes I’d see him heading for disaster, but he always swerves at the end. I would pretend I was getting cross at him. In fact, he knows a good deal about plants himself. He knew what I was talking about.”
Cathy Guisewite (cartoonist — Cathy who has made 16 appearances) ”The most moving was the first time. He stopped by my dressing room to say hello so I wasn’t meeting him for the first time in front of 10 zillion people. It’s sort of like meeting God.
”It’s remarkable, the way he has of making someone like me, a normal person, feel respected. He takes what should be the most horrifying experience of yoru life and makes it astoundingly okay.
”Maybe our best rap was talking about the difference of life experience from the point of view of a men and women. I was on around Valentine’s Day a couple of times. I was talking about romance, and he said it was all ‘buy me, give me.’ My point of view was women deserve gifts, and men should look forward to it as an opportunity to give. He thought we already get enough.”
Zsa Zsa Gabor (actress) ”I was on many, many times — about five years ago the last time. He asked me, ‘How many husbands have you had?’ and I said, ‘Oh, how many wives have you head?’ And I haven’t been back since! But that doesn’t mean I don’t love him.
”Could we have been married? Probably, darling. We probably would have killed each other, although we would have had fun while we killed each other.”
Joan Collins (actress) ”I think Johnny was America’s answer to foreplay — he’s very American, very topical.”
Leonard Waxdeck (The Birdcall Teacher) Waxdeck, who has been on the show with his birdcalling students every year for the last 17 years, says, ”I worried at first that he would make fun of the kids. I told him, ‘I would like you to treat it in a serious vein,’ and he did. He always visits the kids before the show; he asks them questions — he treats them so nice. On the air, I would say, ‘What did you think of the Turdus migratorius?‘ and he would say, ‘Absolutely wonderful,’ and I would say, ‘And what of the feeding call?’ and he would say, ‘Oh, it was great.”’
The exposure has meant that the high school teacher from tiny Piedmont, Calif., is recognized worldwide. ”I mean, have you ever been to Dubrovnik? It’s in Yugoslavia. I’m there, and these two people approach and they keep looking, and this girl passes us and she runs back and she says, ‘Are you Mr. Waxdeck?’ and she tells her friends, ‘I told you,’ and the British guy says, ‘Oh, you’re on the telly, aren’t you?’ My brother is in Heidelberg, and he’s seen me on there. There was a monk from Piedmont working China. He told me he almost died when he went to this small village and there were the birdcallers with Chinese subtitles.”
Phyllis Diller (comedian) Diller’s favorite Tonight Show memory involved a performance by a musical quartet put together by the former mayor of Los Angeles, Sam Yorty. ”Johnny played the drums, the mayor played the banjo, Jimmy Stewart was on accordion, and I was on sax. You couldn’t get a worse combination.
”I hit some real high screechy note, and Johnny said, ‘Stop the music!’ And he gave me this dressing-down that lasted five minutes — How dare you come in with that note? and all that — joking of course, and it was one of the biggest laughs I ever heard. Just when we all picked up our instruments, I said, ‘Well, what was there about it that you didn’t like?’ He was brilliant at setting you up.”
Carl Sagan (director of the laboratory for planetary studies at Cornell University) writes: I never actually said ”billions and billions.” Honest. That was an imitation of me, a kind of doppelgänger, that went around saying ”billions and billions” a lot on late-night television, and the outreach of Johnny Carson was so great that, though he said it, millions of Americans are convinced that they heard me say it. Even today I meet people at a party or on an airplane who ask me, a little shyly, if I wouldn’t please — just for them — say ”billions and billions.”
It used to bother me a little to have some simulacrum of my persona wandering off on it’s own and saying things that friends and colleagues would report to me the next morning. But I’ve never had anything but admiration and affection for Johnny Carson. When he first invited me to The Tonight Show in the early 1970s, he gave me a chance to outline, in a little detail and without interruption, the modern scientific understanding of cosmic evolution — from the Big Bang some 15 billion years ago to the origin of the stars, the earth, and life, and the evolution of the human species. It wasn’t the usual fare on The Tonight Show, and I was surprised when I was invited back, not once, but 10 or 20 times.
I never asked him why he kept asking me back, but one night as we walked out of the Burbank studio together, a maintenance man, broom in hand, opened the door for us, and took the opportunity to tell me how much he had learned from my appearances.
”That’s why I keep inviting you back,” Carson said
The United States is in the midst of an educational crisis, especially in science and technology. We live in a society crucially dependent on science and technology, and yet have arranged things so that almost nobody understands anything at all about science and technology. Young people’s test scores are declining, we have a President who boasts about not having understood his science courses at Yale, and a Vice President who, well…
One of the things I liked so much about Johnny Carson is that he conveys a genuine excitement and enthusiasm about science. He has his own telescopes; he’s a knowledgeable amatuer astronomer. He even served for a while, with many distinguished scientists, on the Advisory Board of the Planetary Society, the largest space interest group in the world. When, in 1976, the Viking robot spacecraft — one of the triumphs of the American space program — landed on Mars looking for life, I was on the program showing the first pictures and demonstrating with a little model how the spacecraft worked. Carson was equally taken by the excitement of Viking’s achievement — but he knew exactly when to remove the heat shield from my model, place it like a beanie on his head, and start talking in high-pitched and very fast ”Martian.”
When my Cosmos series came out in 1980, that other ”Carl Sagan” began appearing on The Tonight Show. With a corduroy jacket, turtleneck sweater, and something like a mop for a wig, there I was. Despite the disguise, occasionally Carson made my imitation talk real science.
The American people are smart. We often know quality when we see it. The popularity of Carson’s unscripted, free-form thinking and his skeptical attitudes towards politicians of all parties say something very healthy about the country. I’m sorry his 30-year run is coming to a close. I think his intelligence, his irreverent humor, and his genuine scientific interests are needed now more than ever. I guess I’ll even miss being told what my goofy alter ego was saying the night before.
Red Buttons (actor) ”I was on with Johnny his opening week and the second week, too. He was the new boy in town, coming out of his game shows with a lot of promise, young and cute. Now he’s old and cute.”
Pat McMormick (comedian and onetime writer for Carson who also appeared occassionally on the show) ”I did the New Year’s Baby, where I wore a diaper. And I was a crane, a turkey — every bird but a mudhen. I did a lot of those bits.” And then there was the infamous 1974 streaking episode in which McCormick ran naked across the stage after Carson’s monologue.
”NBC had a fit, and when they found out it was someone on the show, they really had a fit. They wanted to fire me, and Johnny stood up for me. They ran it with a black strip over me. Ask the band if the black strip did me justice. I didn’t see where I was running, and I almost stuck myself in a trombone.”
Tommy Newsom (Tonight musician) ”I’ve been there from day one, almost 30 years. There were so many things going on with Johnny over the years, it’s nearly impossible to pick any one memory. I do remember when they placed him on a landmine device that blew him up in the air — he was always a sport that way, willing to take a chance. He was at the mervy of the people who propelled him. And he once dove off a high structure onto an air mattress and barely made it — he hit right on the edge. It I had been NBC, I would have told him not to do that.
”We have a real interesting rapport. We never discuss anything before the show and nothing is written for me. That’s why it’s fun. It’s all on the spur of the moment.
”To say that my 30 years of The Tonight Show were the best gig in my life would be a big, big understatement. It was sensational. All I can say is, I’d like to do it again.”
Bob Hope (comedian) ”Johnny’s pretty fast. I’ve seen ’em all, all the hosts, and John is the king with his ability to ad-lib. He’s got a fast mind.”
Tony Papenfuss (actor) In 1981, during the Abscam scandal, Papenfuss, who later played the No. 1 Darryl on the Newhart show, worked with the Might Carson Art Players. In the skit, Johnny, as George Washington, accept wampum from an Indian (Papenfuss), who was really an undercover federal agent who then busted him. ”I remember thinking that after all those years, Johnny would be a bit jaded,” Papenfuss says, but instead, during rehearsals Carson offered advice: ”’Look, you’re going to get a big laugh — so be sure and wait for it.”’ Papenfuss took the advice and got that laugh. ”It was great to get a lesson from the master.”
Bob Saget (actor and host of America’s Funniest Home Videos) Saget, who credits his Tonight appearances with helping him get the job as host of Home Videos, says, ”I’m going out with a baker’s dozen — I did the show 13 times, I think. Johnny is a great guy and he really listens. I had this dream about a month before I went on once, and I was so excited to tell him the story: I was in a car, in the passenger seat, and Johnny was driving. He was thrilled to hear that. In the back were Buddy Hackett, Buddy Ebsen, and Buddy Rich — my three buddies (if that wasn’t a show business metaphor, I don’t know). Anyway, the car goes into a ditch and goes underwater. I saved Johnny first, which he was happy to hear, then Hackett, Rich, and then Ebsen. And we’re all in Johnny’s backyard, and he lent us a robe and slippers and we all had milk and cookies. Therapists put me on their ‘Don’t accept his calls’ list after that.”
Diahann Carroll (actress) ”The story I love was from a few years ago. I guess everybody was getting bored with big celebs coming in and demanding this and demanding that, and [Freddy] de Cordova finally told me representative, ‘I don’t understand why she needs to have her own hair and makeup people. We have our own hair and makeup people here.’ So I said, ‘Listen, I’ll do whatever you say.’ So I went in, and I was made up and my hair was done by people who didn’t know me. And during the first commercial break, de Cordova came over and said, ‘Go home immediately.’ And I said, ‘It’s that bad?’ He said, ‘You look like a lobster wearing a hat.”’
The Amazing Kreskin (psychic) For his first appearance on Tonight, ”I tripped as I came out, and all the relatives were watching. That’s why Carnac always trips when he comes out, and I was able to thank Johnny for constantly reminding people that I flopped in my first big TV shot.”
Before a later Tonight visit, Kreskin got caught in traffic and was late to the show. ”I was a wreck. They told me, ‘Johnny trusts you.’ I said, ‘Listen, I need to see him for two minutes before the show to get the right mind-set.’ And like eight minutes before the show I was told, ‘He’ll see you.’ That night I said, ‘Make your muscles rigid,’ and 30 seconds later, Ed and I put him between two chairs. There was no trickery, and a minute later Better Midler came over and sat on him. Ed was stunned. When we went off the air, Johnny would always say, ‘Damn it, how could that have been done?”’
Milton Berle (comedian) ”A comic is a guy who says funny things, and a comedian is a guy who says things funny. A comedian is really an actor who does comedy. Carson can be a comic — a stand-up comic with his monologues — and he can also be a comedian, where he can be another character and make it believable. That is a very difficult position to be in, to sit in a chair and do what he does. You have to be a good listener and be quite astute and educated and be able to converse on any subject matter. But above all, Carson was suave — he made it look so easy.
”Most comics make better guests than hosts. If they were to sit in that seat that Carson was in, they would not be listening well to their guests but thinking of what they’re going to say, a one-liner. That was not what Carson did. He was very attentive, and you could tell he was listening. He never interrupted guests until they came to a period, and then he threw in a line. John had charm, honesty, sincerity, truthfulness, and believability. What he did was a miracle.”