Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Johnny Carson, 20 Years Later

20 years ago, people really didn't know what the internet was, facebook, blogs, and smartphones didn't exist, I was still driving my treasured red 1967 ford mustang when you could buy gas at a reasonable price, and on this very day all those years ago, Johnny Carson said "goodbye" on his very last "Tonight Show." And I got to watch it when it happened.
As I've written in the past, "Tonight" is one of those things I have close ties to. Years ago, on a summer family trip to Los Angeles, my parents and I almost got to see a Carson taping, but the line got cut off, and so did we. Comedian Robert Klein was one of the guests that night. I still have the ticket. Even though I didn't get to see the show, I did go on a tour of NBC studios and even got to stand on the star where Johnny stood for that famous opening monologue. I even took an imaginary golf swing.

"The Tonight Show" meant a lot to me when I was growing up. My parents let me stay up on school nights to watch the monologue, and I developed a Johnny Carson impression  (although I think it was based primarily on Rich Little's impression of Johnny). I even performed it at school, but I'm pretty sure my grade school counterparts had no idea what I was doing. It was still fun for me.
Johnny was a lot of things to this country, but perhaps most of all, he was a great source of comfort. No matter what, you knew that if you wanted a chuckle, Mr. Carson and his team would be there for you, night after night.
 Some years after that summer trip, I visited L.A. again, and got the rare honor of sitting down to talk with Steve Allen, the very first host of "Tonight," when it was based in New York City. Back then it was a longer show, and it was also live. Mr. Allen was a comic genius, and was very gracious when I met him at his office, and even autographed his biography for me.
After Steve Allen, Jack Paar was the next host. He took on more serious guests. I wrote to him to request an autograph, but never got a response. I later learned that he had become somewhat of a recluse. He was
followed by Johnny as host, then after Johnny, some tumultuous times as Jay Leno took over the show.

In later years, both he and David Letterman were vying for the spot. The story is told well in a book called "The Late Shift," by Bill Carter. It's an excellent read. I saw Leno's tonight show on another visit to Los Angeles, and was not impressed.
Of course, we all know about Conan O'Brien's brief stint as host. I met Conan in New York when he was hosting the show that follows the Tonight Show. Nice guy--very tall. I saw his show in NYC, then flew out to L.A. to see him host his 3rd Tonight Show. He was unfairly treated when NBC got Jay to come back and Conan eventually went to TBS. A real mess. Bill Carter wrote a book about that too. Also a good read.
I wonder what Johnny would say about our digital revolution, about the political scene, what jokes he would have in the monologue. I still miss his reassuring tone, his laughter, and Ed McMahon, Doc Severinsen and the band after all this time. But I sure am glad I got to stay up and watch the curtains part and hear the crowd cheer as Johnny took the stage, and felt the pulse of the nation. For me, and millions of others, it was magical. Thanks Johnny!

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