As I went to bed this evening, I turned on the TV to watch a little bit before I fell asleep and found out that Johnny Carson had died. I could not turn it off, as I watched clips of his shows and reminiscences from his friends. And I felt compelled to write something. Like half the country, I grew up with Johnny Carson. In a transient and temporary culture, he was for over 30 years one of the constants in our life. When he retired from the Tonight Show, it felt like losing a loved one. No one could replace him.
In my stand up comedy days, I can’t tell you how much he was revered among comics. Going on the Tonight Show was the rite of passage for a comedian for 30 years. It was every comic’s dream. Johnny had helped launch the careers of every prominent comedian for two generations, and there were well known traditions that surrounded that first appearance. The first time you went on the Tonight Show, you didn’t get to sit down and “panel” with Johnny. You came on and you did your 7 minute set, and then you looked over very anxiously at Johnny. If he had his thumb and forefinger together, giving you the sign of approval, that meant he liked you and he’d have you back on. If he was just looking into the camera and saying “We’ll be back after this commercial”, you bombed. So that was the most important moment of a young comedian’s career, it could make you or break you. And if I recall correctly, my old friend John Bowman, an incredibly funny comic from Michigan, was the last comedian to debut on the Tonight Show before Johnny retired.
I recall watching with great anticipation the debut of Drew Carey on his show. Drew was headlining when I went on stage for the very first time and we worked together many times around the midwest. I opened for him in Lansing the week before he moved to LA to take a stab at the big time, and it was only about 6 months later that he got his first on the Tonight Show. I made sure my roommate taped it so I could see how he did. He killed, absolutely brought the house down, and when he looked over at Johnny, he was being waved over. Drew was stunned, you can tell by his reaction on the tape, because he knew the tradition and the history and he knew that Johnny had only done that for a handful of other comedians in all the years he had played comedy kingmaker. Needless to say, a career was launched and he went on to become a major star.
Jay Leno is a very nice guy by all accounts and has been incredibly generous to his fellow comedians, but going on the Tonight Show is no longer the rite of passage that it once was. It’s a TV credit, so it’s important, but it just doesn’t have the same meaning it had for 30 years under Carson. No one could possibly replace him. He is held in such esteem that even David Letterman, so sarcastic toward authority in other situations, refuses to even call him by his first name, it’s always Mr. Carson to him.
So many memories come to mind from that show. The best shows were always the ones where someone managed to make Johnny laugh, really broke him up with something. I remember watching Jeff Dunham, a brilliant ventriloquist comedian, go on the show. He also got to sit down and panel with Johnny the first time, and he didn’t have any material prepared for that. He had one of his puppets with him – Walter, the crochety old man character – and as he sat down, Walter turned to Ed McMahon and said, “Stop sending me all your damn mail!” Johnny lost it. I remember seeing Don Rickles and Bob Newhart, who are best friends, go on the show together a few times. Rickles would be doing his schtick, rapid fire lines one after the other, and Newhart would be sitting there saying nothing. Then Newhart would interrupt and just deliver one deadpan line, and Rickles and Carson would both hit the floor laughing.
I’m sad that so many of the old guard of comedy have died. It feels like the end of an era. I’ve been very happy over the last few years to see many of the young comedians get involved with the Friar’s Club, which was so central to the comedy world for so long. But there are so few of the old timers left. And though many of them are missed, none will be more so than Johnny Carson. He was the undisputed champion of television comedy and there will never be another like him. I’m not the kind of guy who engages in cheap hero worship. I’ve met lots of celebrities and they’re just normal people. But there are a few that really stick out, the real giants whose passing really have affected me. The last time I felt that way was when Frank Sinatra died, and for the same reason I think. Because it really does end an era. RIP Johnny.