Channel surfing the other day (May 14th actually) I “stumbled” onto a PBS channel that was showing a 2 hour documentary on Johnny Carson… narrated by Kevin Spacey. Watching it threw me back into a boatload of TV memories.. having grown up watching that guy on TV off and on for the previous 30 years. I was recalling some of my own personal “coming of age” milestones and having an image pop up in my mind at how Johnny looked at that time. He was always somehow in the background of my growing up.
I was one of the millions who watched Johnny Carson’s last show… in fact, likely one of the millions who taped both his last regular show and his send off show by those guest celebrities. It was truly an end of an era.. or maybe end of an epoch in our lives. We all grew up with Johnny. Actually… my earliest memories of the Tonight Show include some images of Jack Paar, Johnny’s predecessor. My dad tended to like dry wit and Jack seemed to provide a measure of that. I vividly remember dad in his typical TV watching position (usually sitting on the floor in front of the old black & white TV so he could reach up and give the channel selector a spin to avoid commercials) and occassionally laughing when Jack would mumble off a little quip I didn’t quite understand (my father laughing, in and of itself, was usually a unique event; not that he was grumpy.. he wasn’t, but he wasn’t prone to spontaneous laughter either).
When Johnny took over The Tonight Show it was apparent that Johnny’s wit was far from dry… and many times tetered on the edge of what parents thought might be a little “objectionable” to us impressionable little Boomers. So when 10:30pm came along, after the evening news, (Chicago time) it was usually bed time for me and my sis… or we were simply banished to our rooms as we got a little older. It was still easy to listen from my room and I don’t recall a whole lot that seemed “adult” and I just blew it off anyway. Apparently Johnny’s double entendres were more effective with the adults than us kids.
Now, oddly, Johnny, having been born in 1925, was pretty much the age of the average Boomer’s parents but his persona never hinted anything that he was in the least a parental authority type. He still appeared young to me on TV and compared to other aging comedians at the time Johnny was very young by comparison. So we didn’t really associate him as being “old”. His humor and delivery style was not what we were used to as traditional comedy; it was a new “contemporary” comedy; showing facial expression (or lack thereof) was equally as funny as delivering a punchline .
I was 11 years old when Johnny started on The Tonight Show… 1962. Our family TV at the time was one of those where the black & white image would shrink to a little dot when the set was turned off.. and us kids would try and watch the little image inside the dot fade (we were often told that our eyes would somehow be zapped with radiation when we’d do that). Over the years there were those milestone shows.. the classic one’s with memorable guests or unintentional events. The big one, of course, was when (1965) guest Ed Ames (“Mingo”, the native American sidekick of “Daniel Boone”) was asked to throw an indian-style tomahawk at a human figure target to illustrate his prowess at that skill (during practice he did perfect heart shots continuously). When the tomahawk struck the figure smack between the legs, with the handle in such a position as to suggest the figure might be a sexually excited male, Johnny quipped, “I didn’t even know you were Jewish.” The subsequent audience laughter became the longest laugh in Tonight Show history. I actually remember watching that show (see it here).
In the mid to late 60’s I had a hobby of audio tape recording; I loved using magnetic reel-to-reel tape to record anything and everything. Some years back I discovered a segment on an old audio tape that included Johnny’s guest for the evening, Professor Irwin Corey (a popular comedian who’s schtick was sounding intellectual, using long words that made no sense). It was about 1968-69; the country still wrestling with the after effects of the Democratic National Convention riot in Chicago.
(back from commercial)
Carson: Well, Professor… we have about 60 seconds. Care to wrap it up with any final thoughts?
Corey: I’d rather be brief.
Corey: I want to leave you with the words of Al Capone… (or was it Mayor Daley?) who said… ‘You can get more from a kind word and a gun.. than with just a kind word.’
(audience and Carson laughter as show closes)
Then I recall an evening where Carson had as guest Rich Little, comic impersonator who did a popular routine imitating Carson. When the show started and everyone expected to see Johnny come out from behind the curtain to do the monologue it turned out being Rich Little acting like Carson and did the entire monologue to the roar of the audience.
Of course… there were also those “questionable” events… perhaps inspired more from legend that fact. There was one Tonight Show guest event that went around the high school that I have never been able to confirm or deny. A “warm up” guest for the evening was Mrs. Arnold Palmer… wife of the then golf great (the “Tiger Woods” of his day, for those readers who can’t relate).
Carson: When your husband goes out to play at an Invitiational or other major golf competition is there like anything you do for good luck to send him on his way.. like a lucky rabbit’s foot or something?
Mrs. Palmer: Well, I kiss his balls. <meaning golf balls>
(audience begins to chuckle… Mrs. Palmer looks toward the audience seemingly confused as to the response… side camera takes shot of Johnny’s blank expression…)
Carson: I bet that makes his putter rise.
Mrs. Palmer stands up and slaps Johnny across the face and walks off the set.
Now whether that little exchange ever occurred or not, it certainly would have been classic Carson.
I’m sure each Boomer reader of this post could easily recall their own favorite episodes and guests. In later life Carson’s trademark bits, like “Carnac”, became water cooler fodder and even emulated as passive humor in day-to-day society (much like Trump’s “You’re fired!” is today). Ed McMahon’s “Heeeeere’s Johnny!” will forever resonate in our ears.
As us Boomers entered the adult years Carson was there with us. No one knows how many children were conceived by us Boomers to the background of The Tonight Show (always when he had somewhat boring guests). You usually had to catch the monologue, if nothing else (much like we continue to do with Leno or Letterman today).. and if the guests for the evening didn’t appeal to you, you would flip the channel or toss in a tape or DVD.
Of course you can’t forget the careers Johnny has launched.. names forever a part of Boomer entertainment. Jerry Seinfeld, David Letterman, Drew Carey, Tim Allen, and Ellen Degeneres, to name just a few that continue to entertain us today.
Johnny’s own three boys were our age (sadly one died in a car accident in 1991) but for some reason you never saw Johnny as a parent. He was just there.. a part of our lives… and no one ever expected he would ever retire much less pass away. I was 11 years old when Johnny started. I was 41 years old when he retired from The Tonight Show. I was 54 years old when he died. Letterman is reported to have said that Carson “tucked us in at night”. He was right. He did it 4,531 times.