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Missing the inimitable Johnny

May 6, 2002  •  Post A Comment

All us poor souls who try to make a living by writing about television might as well admit it: We’re very, very jealous of Bill Zehme, the free-lance writer who landed the first interview with Johnny Carson since Carson’s untimely retirement a long, dark decade ago. Oh don’t get me started on Johnny. Or-wait-I’m already started. OK, then, don’t stop me. Please.
Zehme’s Carson piece, in the June issue of Esquire, isn’t actually an interview in the normal sit-down sense. Zehme wangled a lunch with Carson and apparently asked, either in the course of their conversation or after it, whether he could write about it, and Johnny said OK. The writer had already worked hard to land this biggest of big ones, hanging around Carson’s offices in Santa Monica for days and days and getting to know, and ingratiate himself with, the small staff there.
He kept circling his prey, persistently. He also wrote imploring letters. And finally it worked. Those of us who are jealous aren’t just envious of Zehme landing a “scoop”-or a “get” as they call it in TV news. We’re probably more envious that he simply got to spend time with Johnny, because for three previous decades, spending time with Johnny was a particular pleasure that we got very accustomed to. When it was taken away, it seemed worse than (if not unrelated to) sleep-deprivation.
Carson’s charisma
Carson began hosting the “Tonight” show a few months after Jack Paar’s spectacular abdication (Jack did everything spectacularly), and when he did, one of the first jokes from his first monologue was along the lines of, “I want my na-na.” Forced to face the fact that Johnny really was retiring, and that this wasn’t some Andy Kaufman prank, and that Johnny really was going away-leaving us feeling strangely defenseless without him-we wanted our Jo-Jo. We wanted our night light, our teddy bear, our old friend. We wanted our baby bankee back.
We were right to be panicked, because no one has come close to replacing him, not really. If you add up Letterman plus Leno plus Conan O’Brien, you still don’t have a Johnny Carson. The sum is greater than those parts, however smart and bright Dave and Conan may be and however many cracks the terminally charmless Jay squeezes into his monologue.
A couple of years back, some poor fool at the New York Post did a column saying this is really the golden age of late-night TV, praising not only Letterman but also Leno, whose recent 10th-anniversary celebration in prime time was a ratings bomb and arguably the non-event of the year. In addition, around the time of Leno’s fifth anniversary, a misguided S.O.B. working in the David Geffen empire took out a full-page trade ad to ask the snotty rhetorical question “Johnny who?”-a poorly worded thank-you to Leno and his staff for booking all the lousy rock acts that Carson, a member of the Greatest Generation, eschewed.
Some people may watch Leno for the music acts. (In a recent interview, Leno took a tactless bow for booking rap and Hispanic artists, implying his predecessor was, at least musically, racist.) But nobody watched Johnny for the music acts. Nobody watched Johnny for the bright young comics, like Jay Leno, that he introduced. Nobody watched Johnny for anything but Johnny.
It seems to confound and hugely frustrate Letterman that he cannot duplicate the disarmingly casual Carson charisma. Dave and a monkey is bound to be funny. Johnny and a monkey was funnier. We were more likely to be delighted by Johnny’s reaction to a spider or a cute kid or a rascally geezer than we are to Dave’s. That Dave will never be Johnny apparently will haunt Dave to the end. Well, he deserves to be haunted.
We sensed at Johnny’s core a sense of compassion and fair play and a nearly unerring instinct for knowing how far to take the show-biz dictum “anything for a laugh”-which is, of course, not to take it literally. Dave doesn’t appear to have that kind of character. Carson was very good, until the very end, at concealing his emotions; Dave doesn’t have to try as hard because there’s less to conceal. It was almost breathtaking when Letterman finally did confess to being a human being, first when he movingly thanked the medical staff who saved his life during heart surgery and second when he returned to the air, emotionally and commandingly, following the obscene tragedy of Sept. 11.
I certainly don’t mean to suggest that Carson would have handled such occasions in a way superior to what Letterman did. But we probably would have cared more how Johnny reacted and felt more of an investment in what Johnny said.
Maybe it has to do with the fact that being on television, especially in the context of hosting a talk show, is a very unnatural thing-and Johnny made it seem more natural than anyone before or since. He belonged there, and we belonged wherever we were watching him. He wasn’t, and isn’t, that much larger-than-life. He is television-size, a perfect fit. His is the perfect portrait for that frame. What if he’d been born a century earlier and there were no television? I wonder about pointless questions like that. He probably would have been the most entertaining astronomy teacher in the universe.
Unfillable void
The absoluteness of Carson’s exit from the spotlight stunned people and continues to amaze us, as Zehme points out. He calls Johnny “the Garbo of comedy.” He also describes the effect of his disappearance on we, the faithful: “Like sun and moon and oxygen, he was always there, reliable and dependable, for 30 years. Then he wasn’t anymore. And he didn’t just simply leave: He vanished completely.” Various schemes to lure him back-merely to take a bow or to provide the human punch line for a joke-were politely and self-effacingly declined.
Zehme was nice to me in his article, for which I am grateful. He mentions I did the last pre-retirement interview with Johnny (I had also interviewed him many years earlier, when he still lived in land-locked Bel-Air and not on a Malibu cliff overlooking the Pacific) and that Johnny liked it when I skewered Kathie Lee Gifford’s Christmas specials.
For the 1993 piece, I interviewed Johnny at his home, though not exactly in his house. I did get to set foot in it, though, and I stood at the spot where Bob Newhart, upon first beholding the enormous glass-and-marble Xanadu, had famously asked, “Where’s the gift shop?”
But then Johnny suddenly said he felt more comfortable across the street in the tennis house, so we went over there. On one wall he showed me photos of particularly fondly remembered guests, including some from his first years hosting “Tonight” from New York. Tapes of those shows were at some point cruelly “wiped” and re-used by NBC as part of a cost-cutting campaign.
Anyway, when the interview ended we walked back across the street, past the little perch where a guard stands duty to keep tourists from climbing over the wall, and Johnny escorted me to my car. I said goodbye, feeling sad about leaving, and he walked back toward the house. And then, as if this were a scene from a movie, maybe a corny movie, I called out “Johnny” one more time, and he turned around, and I said “Thank you” again, only this time, I was presumptuous enough to think I was speaking for everybody, for all my fellow Americans, for everyone who couldn’t be there thanking him themselves. And one more thing: There were tears in my eyes.