Monday, January 24, 2005

Johnny Carson

Passed away yesterday, age 79.

Carson wasn't my favorite comic, not by a long shot. But I did respect his quickness and ease on camera. His panel banter never seemed forced, and he could keep up with or save pretty much anyone who sat next to him.

I also admired him for featuring authors like Gore Vidal and academics like Carl Sagan to comment on contemporary events. (Carson came out of the TV world of the 50s, when writers regularly appeared on talk shows like Jack Paar's "Tonight," whom Carson succeeded in 1962.) But beyond all the authors, animal acts, Hollywood stars, little old ladies who played the spoons and other novelty bits, Carson's "Tonight" was primarily a comedy vehicle.

For established comics, Carson's show was the prime spot to hang-out and try new material. My two faves growing up were Don Rickles and Rodney Dangerfield, each of whom would take over the show while Carson played the subtle straightman, feeding them stray lines as they tore through their routines (though Carson would occasionally, casually match Rickles' barbs with a few of his own). Albert Brooks was also great on "Tonight," making Carson gasp for air with his absurdist bits. When a comic was rolling, Carson knew to stay out of the way, applying the slightest aikido to transitional jokes.

For young stand-ups, Carson's "Tonight" was the stage. You had 5-6 mins to make Johnny and his audience laugh consistently, and if you succeeded, chances for a showbiz career were great. Dunno how many stand-ups passed through those curtains -- thousands? Wouldn't surprise me. But the "Tonight" gig was as tough as it was golden, and very few comics impressed Carson enough to be invited to sit next to him after their first appearance. Freddie Prinze, Steven Wright, David Letterman, and I believe Roseanne (but not, "ironically" enough, Jay Leno) were among that select group, as was Ray Combs. I was writing for Ray when he got his "Tonight" shot, and I remember him calling me from the coast after he taped the show, telling me that I'd be pleased when I saw it that night. After the opening monologue, Carson's audience participation bit "Stump The Band," and an interview with Lily Tomlin, out came Ray, confident, smiling, full of energy. The man killed. Absolutely killed. He owned the audience, who gave him a standing ovation. And the two jokes of mine (one of which I'd written the day before) didn't get laughs, they got applause --

"Man, I'm glad they cancelled 'The Love Boat.' I watched it each week just hoping it would accidentally drift into Soviet waters."

"Never get into an argument with a schizophrenic and say, 'Who do you think you are?'"

If that wasn't a high enough for me, then Johnny's motioning for Ray to join him desk-side made me hit the floor. "Oh my God, Ray," I told the TV, "do you know what company you're in?" Dreams of writing for Ray's sitcom, talk show, or whatever he was sure to get clouded my mind. Instead, he ended up as host of "Family Feud," making millions before his career and life slowly, sadly slipped away. Like so many others, Ray's "Tonight" appearance was the highlight of an otherwise so-so career.

With the arrival of "Saturday Night Live" and then "Late Night with David Letterman," Carson's show began to betray its age. As smooth as he remained, Carson was behind the humor curve, and he paid for it when Dana Carvey performed a merciless Carson impression on "SNL." The nastiest cut came when Carvey did Carson trying to be Arsenio Hall in a desperate attempt to regain young viewers. "Carsenio" made the old master look foolish and senile, and apparently Carson never forgave those who allowed this sketch to air. He made anti-"SNL" cracks till the end of his run, saying things like "I hear that next season, 'Saturday Night Live' is going to do a comedy version of the show." A timeless line that, esp if you've seen this year's edition.

Given all the noise and rush of current late night talk shows, Johnny Carson's style of letting the guest set the tone, of quietly guiding him or her through a segment and weaving it into the larger fabric of the show is long, long past. We the living seem to prefer a shovel to the face than a raised eyebrow or a silent take. Carson was the master of the form. In the larger scheme, it means little. But I'm sure that if anyone knew that, it was Johnny Carson.