From Esquire magazine....10 years after Johnny went off the air.....
TEN YEARS AGO, THE KING OF LATE NIGHT WENT AWAY FOR GOOD, VANISHED. THE GARBO OF AMERICAN COMEDY. BUT NOW, JUST ONE LAST TIME, HERE'S JOHNNY.
There are nights, he will tell you, that he finds himself back where he was, back where we had him, before we could not have him anymore. "I still, believe it or not, have dreams in which I am late for The Tonight Show," he will say. "It's a performer's nightmare, apparently. I've checked with other people, and it occurs to them frequently. And it's frightening. Because I'm not prepared. It's show time and I'm going on--and I've got nothing to say! Jesus! I wake up in a sweat. It's now been ten years since I've been done with the job. But I will be back there--it was two thirds of my adult life, remember--and people at the show will be as real and fresh and current as ever in the dream, and all of a sudden, I'm having to go on and I'm not prepared. You think you're on the air. And you're not ready. You hit the wall."
He persists, as such, in the subconscious, his own and also the collective one that is ours. He is ingrained, burnished, lodged deep. Like no one else in a lifetime, his was the last face flickering onto the brain before so many billions of slumbers. Like sun and moon and oxygen, he was always there, reliable and dependable, for thirty years. Then he wasn't anymore. And he didn't just simply leave: He vanished completely; he evaporated into cathode snow; he took the powder of all powders. He did not even wean himself away. Granted, in that first year or so afterward, there were a handful of televised glimpses--a brief presentation at the American Teacher Awards, followed by a fleeting, obligatory walk-on to pay birthday tribute to nonagenarian Bob Hope (truly the final monologue he ever delivered), followed by the Kennedy Center Honors (he wore his new gleaming medal in the balcony, enthroned beside the Clintons, and was shown reacting, inaudibly, to platitudes issued from the stage below), and then a pair of sly, wordless cameos on Letterman's Late Show (and one voiced cameo on The Simpsons), beyond which there would be nothing more, since there will be nothing more. He is gone, quite definitely. He is mum, almost intractably. He has told me this, and many other things, privately and generously and always hilariously. He is the Garbo of Comedy, the Salinger of Television, and, I will attest, one hell of a rollicking lunch. At lunch, he sips red wine and spins golden tales and imparts biting commentary and pays with a C-note. Also, he can do without lettuce on the turkey burger. He is gone, yes, but he is also still right here, flashing the mischievous wide white enamel, eyes twinkling in bright steely blue. He looks like a warm, sun-soaked monument--impervious and noble and, per his preference, partially veiled.
Here, but of course, is John William Carson, civilian, president emeritus of American Humor, seventy-six years in life, one decade in remove, sharp as a shiv, all-knowing, all-seeing, all-omniscient, and a potential consultant for the federal witness protection program. Here, indeed, is Johnny, and he is fine, thanks. Or, as he will tell you, should you ask: "I'm fine, thanks." (He is shyly succinct like that.) Since his elegant abdication from public view--on the woeful night of May 22, 1992--I have occasionally borne personal witness to his fineness during visits to the Santa Monica office suite that until weeks ago housed his production company, a small enterprise that has masterfully archived his legacy. (I had made friends with his loyal staff of three and would drop by for semiregular fresh fixes of Carsonian proximity.) Usually, he was not around, but sometimes he would come ambling along the quiet corridors and pop through a door and make funny banter--and, in an out-of-body sort of fashion, I would banter back while realizing that this lively, compact, white-haired man in blue jeans was Johnny @#$%^^&# Carson and that, like a thousand fools before me, I was trying to make him laugh and, when he did laugh (he is very polite), I felt new reason to continue living. I recall one such bull session in 1996 when the topic turned to the forthcoming HBO film The Late Shift, which dissected all Leno-Letterman dramaturgy as prompted by his own retirement. "Can you believe that awful **##? It's just ridiculous," he said, chuckling, fully bemused by the shambles left in his wake. Whereupon I kidded about the casting of impressionist Rich Little, who played him in the film. He rolled his eyes, as only he can, thus implying volumes, as only he could. Largely, what he would imply most in such moments was that the world--while hardly utopian during his long reign--had merely gone straight to hell during his absence.
"I think I left at the right time," he says now. "You've got to know when to get the hell off the stage, and the timing was right for me. The reason I really don't go back or do interviews is because I just let the work speak for itself." Inasmuch, I have come to know that he is far better than simply fine; he is supremely self-assured of his place in the firmament, secure about the lasting worth of that which he quit doing for television cameras and for his country. He is contented in a way wise humans can only aspire to be but rarely are. Always with a shrug and a whiff of final punctuation, he regularly repeats to friends and family three short words: "I did it." Nobody argues.
Living as a satisfied apparition, however, offers small solace for wistful masses that are forced to subsist solely on a strict limited diet of refreshed memory--on wee-hour infomercials for videotape and DVD compilations of his spriest Tonight Show moments, or on the interactive pleasures pulsing within www.johnnycarson.com. Still, people wonder about him--about what exactly it is that he has been doing with himself since disappearing. Therefore, as the tenth anniversary of his Final Night began to draw near, I did not ask Johnny Carson so much as warmly inform him in a letter that I would be commemorating that milestone by collecting tales of his retirement years from cronies and colleagues. If he wished to offer me any ground rules, I urged him to please do so. He called shortly after reading the letter and said, "There are no ground rules at all. If anybody wants to take a shot at me, I don't care anymore." He also cheerfully started telling me things about his life of late. As suddenly as that, the King sounded ready to play again.
There is sharp focus in his look, even right now. His eyes brighten widely as they absorb what you say. Those steely-blues, as Ed calls them, are nowadays set in a somewhat fuller face, but a face poised to laugh as ever before. The genial countenance is unchanged from memory as he answers innocent questions and asks some of his own. Has any man asked more questions with more people watching him do so? So many thousands of those questions he gave not one **## about, but it looked as if he did, as if he really wanted to know. And now, here we are, making with the small talk, at his conference table, early on a February afternoon, sitting kitty-corner, a few feet between us, him tilting back in his chair, sunburned fingers laced behind his head; he reaches for his hot coffee mug once in a while, then resumes laced-finger recline. Because he knows you have been learning things about him, he asks: "So who have you talked to?" He likes asking questions when no one is watching, it turns out. He likes hearing the latest still.
WHEN A FAMOUS MAN fades from view, you presume dark reasons for such. You gather that grave illness has befallen him. You suspect he is no longer who he was and therefore wishes to enshroud that which he has become in secrecy. Those who know Johnny Carson know better. Even when he was on view regularly, he was barely seen anywhere other than on television screens. His gift for hiding in plain sight has never diminished. Nonetheless, when his heart was refurbished by sudden necessity (via quadruple bypass) three years ago, widespread speculation concluded that health had been the cause of his invisibility all along. His friends, on the other hand, shared a much different reaction. Said television producer George Schlatter, who had been whale watching with Carson two weeks before the operation: "I didn't know whether it was for real or whether he was just trying to get out of going to a party."
Parties, absolutely, have forever been his scourge. If forced to attend any gathering, he is usually seen in a corner performing sleight of hand with quarters. But since he is rarely present in sizable company, his profile stays near subterranean. "He's great with ten million people; he's not great with ten," says the ever-gregarious Ed McMahon. ("Ed's always been a guy who thrives on social contact," Carson will note. "I'm just the opposite in personality, you know.") But there is one exception he makes gladly, and that is for the occasional convergences of the Gourmet Poker Club, a kibitz klatch of exalted show-business pedigree. Besides himself, the membership includes only seven others: Steve Martin, Carl Reiner, Neil Simon, Chevy Chase, mogul Barry Diller, and producers David Chasman and Dan Melnick, the latter of whom originated the game in New York during the sixties and began hosting it in his Beverly Hills home in the early seventies. (Because Melnick employed a sublime personal chef, the club earned its gustatory moniker.) When games occur, which is barely more than six times in a year, they occur always on Wednesday nights at seven-thirty, with dinner served at nine, then back to the table until after eleven. They sit and bet and needle like a circular Rushmore.
"It's the most feminine game in the history of cards," says Martin, who has taken over hosting chores from Melnick. ("I'm the low-fat host," he asserts.) "It's really about socializing and eating. We're exhausted by ten-thirty." Says Reiner, "Actually, the card game becomes secondary the minute somebody has a good story to tell. There's a lot of 'Come on, fellas, let's get back to the cards!' " As women have never been welcome at the table, Chasman notes, "We refer to it as our only homosexual pursuit." (Chasman designed the club logo--a King of Clubs wearing a toque--which has been affixed to baseball caps, sweatshirts, coffee mugs, blazer pins, and the like.) At the most recent game, held February 13, Tom Hanks came to play back-up chair, and as with all guest backups, he was given the coffee mug stenciled THE PIGEON. (According to Melnick, by the way, "Johnny won't show up if he knows there's going to be more than one outsider at the table.")
As for the poker-night proclivities of member Carson, member Chase says: "He folds, and then mumbles throughout the rest of the game while everybody else is betting. He mumbles and hums tunes. It's pretty cute. His mind is always at work. If it's not at work on a tune, he's mumbling about a world event or something. When Johnny's not there, we don't laugh as hard. But there are things said at that table that can never be said in public. Nobody is safe."
There hangs a forlorn photograph outside his office. When jokes died worst, he smelled burnt almonds, he said, or somebody said it and he liked it. That was the stench of comic death, acrid and bitter, for sure. And that would be the epitaph. At the end, they hung a CLOSED sign on the corner of his desk as a gag. They dimmed the studio lights and snapped the picture. Below it are the words THE SMELL OF BURNT ALMONDS. He stands before this tableau now, with his back turned to it. He has seen it so often, he doesn't see it at all anymore. He smells nothing but his own cologne and the coffeemaker and, sometimes, the sea on his clothes.
HOW IT CAME TO THIS: On his 4,530th night, which was his last one, he left the air and climbed into clouds. Per his instruction, an emotional-rescue mission was deployed to swiftly pluck him, via helicopter, from the teary backwash spilling through the Tonight Show studio, where he had just tendered his on-camera resignation. Within minutes, he and his blond bride, the former Alexis Maas (the fourth Mrs. Carson), had risen high above NBC's Burbank quadrant, leaving behind lachrymose staff members and a puddling audience of invited guests. (More to the point was dodging thick flocks of media buzzards eager to pounce.) "When he finished, off he went," recalls Ed McMahon, Gibraltar of all TV sidekicks, deskside balance beam nonpareil. "He grabbed Alex and walked right by me without a look, so intent was he on getting the hell out of there." The Carsons thus choppered away home to Malibu, presidential-exit style. At their Point Dume bluff-top compound, the tennis courts had been tented for a massive bacchanal immediately to follow, an event of unprec-edented proportions on Carson grounds. (Hosting was what he did only on television, not in actual life.) This was to be the King's final gesture of gratitude to his devoted subjects, a lavish, grand Irish wake: Everyone associated with the program, including studio pages and security guards, and all of their families, would come and feast and dance and drink and try to begin making sense of what exactly had just happened. Les Brown and His Band of Renown, meanwhile, swung up the joint till the cows came home. "It was, I tell you, one helluva party," says McMahon, who knows from revels.
But what had happened, of course, had been happening for months, as exodus encroached, as those who had ever taken the fluid Carson constancy for granted started to slowly envision a nightscape without him. His imminent flight--after twenty-nine years, six months, and three weeks of unflinching servitude--riled deep abandonment issues across the land. A nation bargained and rationalized in vain. David Letterman told me months afterward: "It was sort of like a doctor telling you, 'Well, we've looked at the X rays and your legs are perfectly healthy, but we're still going to amputate.' You think, Whaaa? Why is he going?" Carson, for his part, gently soothed amid the panic. Two nights before the end, Roseanne Arnold plaintively asked him, "Why do you have to do this? Why do you have to quit?" He blushed and replied: "I'll tell you why. I want to quit when I'm on top of my game. Beverly Sills, who's a wonderful opera singer, once said, 'I would much rather have people say to me at a party, Beverly, why did you quit singing, rather than why didn't you quit?' You know? So I think you go out when everything's going great and you still enjoy it." (To which Roseanne blurted back, "But what are we supposed to do?") Nevertheless, even he showed wry flashes of ambivalence: That same night, in his monologue, he said queasily, "I feel like the last lobster in the tank and the waiter is rolling up his sleeve." Or, weeks earlier, commenting on the presidential primary campaigns: "They say today that Paul Tsongas may get back in after quitting. ... Can you do that? I just wondered. ..."
Largely, however, he remained the picture of Nebraskan stoicism that spring, while famous guests came to crease his couch and pay farewell homage. During his march toward oblivion, he gave no soul-searching goodbye interviews, even as media-keening saturated the zeitgeist. ("My God," he said, slightly mortified. "The Soviet Union's end didn't get this kind of publicity!") Only in his penultimate broadcast, on May 21--a bravura hour that would earn an Emmy award--did the armor visibly buckle.
On that night, mist rolled over him and snuffling ensued. This was the night Bette Midler serenaded him twice, once at the desk with special lyrics to "You Made Me Love You," once from the stage at the very end, heartrendingly so, with Sinatra's saloon signature, "One More for the Road." ("Well, that's how it goes / and, John, I know you're getting anxious to close. ...") But then, somewhere in between, they softly fell into a quavering little impromptu duet of his favorite song, "Here's That Rainy Day"--and no dry eye beheld the spectacle. (Johnny, suddenly freed of self-consciousness, was singing--leading, really--a wistful torch lullaby to himself!) Robin Williams, who sat beside Midler on the panel, recalls the frisson of it all: "When she leaned in, you could see him well up. I was three feet away, thinking, Uh-oh, the King is about to go! You felt the whole place get a group goose bump. It was the most intimate big moment you will ever see." Says Midler, still overcome: "We all just about passed out. It was so electric and gorgeous; I couldn't watch it for years. I wanted to remember it the way I remembered it."
Carson has since watched the tape more than once--he reviews every Tonight Show video marketed to the public--and each time feels the same emotions rear up. Privately, he considers it the most magical hour of his televised life. Indeed, the truth is, he wanted to end his career that very night and forgo the ultimate farewell show. In the aftermath, his brain trust of producers, all nearly as spent as he was, descended to his dressing room and half-jokingly declared, "We can't come back tomorrow and follow that!" He fixed them with a look that meant business and said, "You're right. Let's not come back at all. Let's just not even come back."
"Feel like grabbing some lunch?" he says, and quickly rises and lopes, for he is a loper, into the next office to ascertain reservation plans from wondrous Helen. And then you follow him past the hanging magazine covers featuring his younger face, and you enter the elevator with him. His sweater is camel colored and snug across his broad chest. He wears black pants into whose pockets he jams his hands, just as he often did between monologue jokes. You notice that he goes unnoticed, that perhaps because he has conditioned people to no longer see him, they cannot see him even when he is right in front of them. Heads do not turn, really. Outdoors, tucked in a corner table, facing the rest of the patio, he lifts his cabernet and says, "Well, cheers," and clinks glasses.
OF COURSE, PER DUTY and closure, he came back the next night, very quietly. The audience that packed into the studio was strictly limited to friends of the show and families of the staff. By dint of minor miracle, I was there, too. It was, I will tell you, a surreal affair, at once momentous and triumphant and pristinely solemn. The room crackled with schizoid apprehension: We were there, with great privilege, to see something we really didn't want to see. For me, it is a nervous memory, mostly blurred. I remember only that I closely watched a man do that which nobody had ever done better and which he would never do again. Also, I watched him lower his drawbridge and dispatch his guard. Here was a man taking himself off the air, alone. (His faithful supports--i.e., Ed and Doc--kept to their stations but for one final convergence at the desk.) Perched on a center-stage stool, at outset and end, he uncased himself and unshelled all sentiment. During commercial breaks he would josh toward the audience to soften self-consciousness, focusing his gaze near his wife and sons and sister and brother. During montage reels showcasing his pantheon of guests, he studied his monitor and chuckled or gave private smiles or merrily mouthed along with time-capsule moments stuck in his head. But there was no real escape from naked truth.
"And so," he said, at very last, "it has come to this. I am one of the lucky people of the world. I found something I've always wanted to do, and I have enjoyed every single minute of it." Then: "I bid you a very heartfelt goodnight." And so all of us stood and he stood as well. And Doc and the band played "I'll Be Seeing You." And no one stopped standing or applauding. And he absorbed the affection, never once trying to quell it, and his eyes glistened and he did not wipe them at all. And the broadcast ended, which meant people at home could not know that he remained standing there, with tears now about to trickle down, looking at us continue to give him his due for several more minutes. He aimed the silent words I love you at family a few different times. And then he was gone. Once at home, he would dance into the night.
He forgets nothing. Begin to mention the title of an obscure medieval sketch he performed in 1969: "The Black Shield of--" and he will finish for you: "--of Frelman." Things he did on local television half a century ago he describes with acute detail, stories of working with Red Skelton and radio great Fred Allen. ("Nobody knows who the hell Fred Allen is anymore.") He will tell you the first line he spoke on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1955 and what he was paid for the appearance and do hilarious impressions of Sullivan--and re-create his favorite Sullivan faux pas: "One night, he said, 'Ah, yesss, right here in our studio audience tonight we have some young-sterrrs back from Vietnam. Some of them are amputees. And we've invited them to come see our shooeee tonight. I'm not going to ask them all to stand up'--I rolled off the couch screaming! 'I'm not gonna ask them all to stand up!?!' Because they would fall on their asses! He was marvelous." And then, in the next breath, he will say, "But nobody knows who Sullivan is now. He had the biggest show in America that went off in '71, thirty-one years ago. Why should they remember him?"
HIS VOICE IS DIFFERENT now. It has climbed in register, sounds a little cottony, and it throws you for a second or two. It is, after all, an underplayed instrument, a reed long out of practice. Through seven presidential administrations, his edgy rasp essayed the perfect pitch of national incredulity, always with subtle phrasing and precise shading. Like Sinatra, he knew just how to swing slightly ahead of the beat, seemingly without effort, and make the music of his monologues feel definitive. (The Carson version of events was the version you danced to first.) Once his chords ceased flexing over public air, they began to husk up, catching friends by surprise. But the inflection and elocutionary crispness remain intact, as does his instinct to mine headlines for fresh absurdism. "You know what's still happening to me?" he told Ed McMahon several months into his new life. "I wake up in the morning, have coffee, start reading the newspapers, and then I reach for a pencil. I start circling items: 'This would be perfect for the monologue.' Turn the page: 'That could work for a sketch.' And by the third page, I realize: Who the hell am I going to do this for? The fish? Am I going to stand out here on the cliff and yell jokes over into the ocean?" Dan Melnick tells me: "He constantly says that's the only frustration in giving up the show, that when something huge breaks in the news, he can't jump on it. During the last election, with the chads and the recounts, he was going crazy. Then he finally sighed and said, 'Well, it's all too easy.' "
But in truth, the new material still flows from him, because he is unable to quiet that corner of his brain. "Can you believe this Enron mess?" he will lately start in, then go off on George W.'s flip-flopping: "I love how his good friend 'Kenny Boy' suddenly turned into 'Mr. Lay.' ... Give me a break! It will be a long time before we ever understand what's going on behind that story." He culls topicality at his own pace, toys with setups and payoffs, then waits to unload the arsenal on confidantes, usually over the telephone. NBC chairman Bob Wright and his wife, Suzanne, longtime travel companions of the Carsons, get regular doses. "He calls us frequently, or we call him," says Wright, "and he's always got current jokes that come so unexpectedly, so rapid-fire, four or five in a row like bullets, that I forget them. We ask him all the time, 'Do you regret it now? Do you regret leaving?' And he says, 'No. No, I don't.' " Sometime in the middle of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, however, Wright answered his phone and heard: "It's John. I regret it now." Then: "I haven't seen such an abundance of material in my life! This is just unbelievable. It's almost funnier than any jokes you could make."
On the other hand, he did not envy the task laid before his late-night progeny--Letterman, Leno, et al.--after cataclysm befell the nation last September, when each one of them roiled with self-doubt and nonetheless wondered, What Would Johnny Do? Leno, in fact, reached out for advice, calling Jeff Sotzing, the former Tonight Show producer who oversees Carson Productions and whose mother is Johnny's sister. Sotzing relayed back his uncle's only suggestion: "Whenever you feel comfortable, just go back and do what you do best. And don't make jokes about the president." (Leno returned on the night following Letterman's first gut-wrenching September 17 broadcast from a shattered New York.) Carson's own tenure, for certain, withstood a grim spectrum of atrocity and strife, encompassing the Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam, the explosions of Apollo 1 and the space shuttle Challenger, the Gulf war, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and two Kennedy brothers, amid so much more. The murder of JFK, in particular, resonates as the most devastating event from which he worked to help his country recover. On November 22, 1963, he was not quite fourteen months into the job and had that day been solo piloting a small plane around the skies of New York. (Find your irony where you wish.) He learned the news upon landing at Teterboro--"Somebody said to me, 'Kennedy's been killed,' and I thought it was like a joke"--and then quickly knew he would not be doing a show that night or any night soon.
"I think we stayed off for close to a week," he will tell you. "What could you do? It just wasn't right. You've gotta lay back in the weeds and wait till things cool down. You know when it's time to go back. You just feel it. There are no rules. The Kennedy assassination, the death of a young president--it was terrible, but I don't think it compared with the loss of three thousand people. When we did go back, though, I remember getting a letter from some lady who wrote, 'How dare you? How could you go back on the air?' So I replied to her on the air, 'Why are you watching? If you're so deep in grief, why are you watching television?' But you had to go back. You go on. That is your job."
As with most all of his first ten years of New York--based broadcasts, the tapes of those tentative nights were long ago erased. But he will tell you that he watched tapes of the new boys going back and that he was pleased that they did, because that is what you are supposed to do.
He went back four weeks after his son Ricky was killed. This was the July before he ended his career. Rick Carson was just thirty-nine and a scenic photographer whose Pathfinder had plunged down a coastal mountainside while he positioned for a picture. At his desk, at the close of the show, the father commemorated the son's life: "When Rick was around, you wanted to smile. He had a laugh that was contagious as could be. He tried so darn hard to please. ..." He selected some of his son's beautiful nature photos for a montage that quietly ended the program. "Probably the most difficult moment of my life," he has said of that piece. In 1995, when Ed McMahon lost a forty-four-year-old son to cancer, he called to tell his large friend, "Not a day will go by that you won't think of him."
There is a new girl attending to him today, who takes his turkey-burger order, then returns flustered to ask how he would like it prepared (medium). "They never asked before!" he says, tickled by this. "How long have I been ordering that here?" It arrives under a towering alp of shredded lettuce, which he begins to scoop off with a fork. "I really don't want all this lettuce," he says, and the girl stammers apologies. He tells her sweetly, "That's all right, darling. It's not your fault. It's just too much stuff." And he gives her a wink. He always winked, by the way, when complimenting comics on their stuff. Good stuff, he'd say, which meant the comic could expect the offer of a sitcom deal the next day, solely because of the Carson benediction. Meanwhile, your own entrÃ©e arrives, a piece of meat the size of Utah, and, winking again, he says, "You can come back and finish that tonight if you want to."
"JOHNNY, I WANT to give you a little advice: When you retire, get dressed every morning. You don't want to sit around all day in your pajamas--you lose some dignity." Such was the pearl dispensed to him by the elderly mother of postal worker Cliff Clavin on an episode of Cheers titled "Heeeeeere's ... Cliffy!" broadcast two weeks before the end. "Thank you, Mrs. Clavin," he said, playing himself, a role no one else would presume to attempt. In retirement, he has played himself almost entirely in casual wear, knotting a necktie next to never after having been required to do so for more than four thousand nights on television alone. (Consistently the epitome of sartorial snap, his signature line of suits and sport coats for years filled racks at better haberdasheries everywhere.) Nowadays, he is all open collar and crewneck and denim, although his comportment remains as formally ramrod erect as in fond memory. Still, he has grown into one loose and carefree customer, shambling about without schedule, taking his wife to afternoon movies, playing morning tennis with a neighbor, consuming hundreds of books (cleaving toward nature, science, and history), going for long lunches near his office, most often in a patio corner at Schatzi on Main (opened by Arnold Schwarzenegger) or next door at the somewhat stark and fancier Chaya Venice. Also, he has given up his beloved sleek white Corvette (in which he famously drove himself to work each day) in favor of cruising around town in a silver-gray Lexus SUV, which followed a most happy stint with a Ford Explorer. (He discovered in retirement that he likes riding up high; on The Tonight Show, by the way, his chair always sat him a tad higher than his guests.) He keeps a Mercedes as well but barely ever ignites its engine.
Because man in repose needs possibilities to ponder, he signed a new long-term contract with NBC seven weeks after leaving The Tonight Show--a so-called housekeeping deal to develop or star in various specials and such. Upon signing, however, he told entertainment chief Warren Littlefield, "I'm not ready to go to work on Monday." ("Fine," said Littlefield. "I'll call Tuesday.") "That's why we set up this office," says Helen Sanders, his executive assistant and majordomo of Carson Productions headquarters in Santa Monica. "He fully intended to do new projects, but once he got here, nothing appealed to him. After a while, he said, 'You know what? I'm not going to do anything.' " He had reached that conclusion in very short order, rationalizing: "What would I do that I couldn't do on The Tonight Show, and do it better?" The idea of hosting specials, in general, had long made him queasy. ("Dear John, all of your shows are Specials," the famed critic Kenneth Tynan wrote to him in a beseeching 1979 letter, when Carson first flirted with the idea of quitting for new pursuits. "What other TV format would give you the freedom to improvise, to take off and fly, to plunge into the unpredictable? Carson scriptbound would be Carson straitjacketed.") Moreover, he feared the specter of actually losing in the ratings, of risking the embarrassment of failure after a life of only dominating. As he told Tom Shales in The Washington Post on the eve of the December 1993 Kennedy Center Honors (his one interview in the last eleven years): "So you go on at nine o'clock at whatever night and you get killed and you say, 'What am I doing this for? For my ego? For the money?' I don't need that anymore. I have an ego like anybody else, but it doesn't need to be stoked by going before the public all the time." Which is to say, it is his ego--and only his ego--that has, in fact, kept him away from the public all these years. As with so many mere mortals who tried for decades, he knows no triumph can come from competing with the legend that was Johnny Carson.
Resigned to launching no future projects, his production company thus rededicated itself to protecting the posterity of his Tonight Show canon--not that it mattered to him one way or another. Nephew Jeff Sotzing proposed an elaborate process of preserving the storehouse of tapes. Carson replied, "Why don't we just make guitar picks out of them? I couldn't care less." More than four thousand hours of remastered tape are, nonetheless, now archived in a climate-controlled, fire-resistant, earthquake-resistant vault located 650 feet underground in a Hutchinson, Kansas, salt mine. "It's probably the largest, most comprehensive television library in the world," says Sotzing, who, via digital cataloging and Federal Express, can retrieve any tape within twenty-four hours. And it was from this vast trove that golden nuggets were sifted into the mail-order likes of The Ultimate Carson Collection and the twelve-volume Classic Carson Moments, which have sold millions of units, greatly due to late-night infomercial lure. (Per said infomercials and their ubiquity, Doc Severinsen told me the following true story: "A couple of months ago, my wife and I had fallen asleep with the television on. About 2:00 A.M., I hear the sound of The Tonight Show, and I wake up and this thing is running and it looked like the show was actually on. I bolted up in bed and thought, Oh, my God! I'm late for work!")
Typically, Carson is both proud and self-conscious of the video packages that showcase his art. He alone deems which clips are worthy of resurfacing in the marketplace. "We don't want to make it look like a rendering plant, digging into the marrow," he will say cautiously. "Whatever we put out, we want to have some decent quality. I don't just want to put the stuff out because we have it." Even so, he was intrigued to learn that sales had jumped in the wake of September 11: "Very strange. People want something to laugh at, I guess." As a man who earned an estimated $25 million per year at the end of his reign, he is loath to be perceived as profiteering on his backlog. But in his heart, he also knows that his life's work is not exactly disposable, either. Bob Wright avers: "He feels that his history is in those tapes. He does live through his shows, even now."
He sips his wine and speaks with disdain about what has become of Las Vegas, about how it has become a family destination, about how it was much more fun when the Boys controlled the town, since the Boys knew how to treat people right--" 'Hey, Mista Carson! Do you want some liquor? Do you want to meet girls? Can we getcha a steak? Aldo! Get Mista Carson a coupla steaks!' And you knew these guys were not Boy Scouts. But they were lovely. 'Whaddya need else? Get 'im another steak! Heyyy!'
"One night they brought a guy back and said, 'Mr. So-and-So would like to meet you.' So this guy came in--I can't tell you what he looked like, but you could tell he had rank-ing, if you know what I mean. I yelled out, 'Godfather!' They all took a beat, and then they all started laughing. Because he was."
At ten o'clock every weekday morning for the last ten years, he has called his office. "Until that call, we don't know if he's coming in or not," Helen Sanders told me before the office closed in April. ("As I settle more into my retirement, my business is winding down," he began his letter of recommendation for Sanders, who will continue to assist him part-time. Sotzing, meanwhile, will shift company operations to his home in Fullerton.) Until then, his habit had been to drop by no more than thrice weekly--usually on the way to doing something else--in order to sign papers and gather briefings from Sotzing; also, every Friday there were regular meetings with his accountant and attorney to assess the state of his fiscal universe. (A millionaire midwesterner's prudent vigilance in action.) The offices themselves existed as a last bastion of rare Carsonia--a quietly beige warren whose walls were flocked with scores of framed magazine covers and editorial cartoons and photographs chronicling the impact of one man's career arc. (When calling there and placed on hold, you heard his Tonight Show theme music played on a loop.) Nestled in a courtyard building above a yogurt shop, a cigar emporium, a one-hour-photo store, and a Starbucks, this was where he went to remind himself of how he had made a living. The sprawling room he occupied therein had no desk but rather a large coffee table in front of a long sofa--the nerve center from which he conducted business. Also, there was a conference table stacked with books and jazz CDs, and various artifacts on display, including a bronzed rubber chicken presented to him by his writers at the end. My favorite curio in the room, however, was a rectangular Plexiglas box containing an actual old disintegrating rubber chicken, symbolizing Comedy, and a wooden arrow, left over from a bad Custer sketch, symbolizing Failure; he had kept both hidden behind his Tonight Show desk since very early on as a private irony check. Last year, he also brought in his bounty of awards and trophies--among them six Emmys, a Peabody, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Kennedy Center laurel--because he didn't want them around the house. Upon vacating the office, he sent the whole cache, plus all wall hangings, to the Elkhorn Valley Historical Society in his hometown of Norfolk, Nebraska. "Awards and such make me uncomfortable," he will say, blanching. "I figured if these nice people in Norfolk want them and can do something with them, then fine--take 'em." (The chicken and arrow, meanwhile, went back to his house.)
All this divestiture is borne of fresh plans, however, for his life over the last six years has increasingly become a seafaring one. He is lately a boatman possessed, the serious captain of a brand-new, custom-built, triple-decked, 130-foot vessel that is his joy. "I spent three years in the Navy," Carson told me before its assembly was completed, "and I've always liked the water. So I'll move my office onto the boat, where I'll have all the satcom and computer stuff. I can do everything from there that I could do from here." In mid-March, he flew up to fetch it from a shipyard in Westport, Washington, and with a small crew piloted it back to his Marina del Rey slip inside of three days. ("I asked him if it was everything he thought it would be," Sanders told me on the day he returned. "He said, 'It's more!' ") This boat replaces the eighty-foot luxury rig on which he had cruised the coastline since late 1995 and rediscovered the call of the sea. He loves watching water from the water, knows where to find whales frolicking, leaps to take loved ones on excursions short or long. Last summer, he floated for more than two months around the San Juan Islands, north of Seattle, welcoming friends and family members who jetted up to come aboard. "The Tonight Show was his passion for thirty years, and now he has the water," says Sanders. Or, as he will say, "In my time of life, this has worked out perfectly for me."
He glances at his watch, and a story comes to mind. At the far end of the deskside couch was the clock on which the host kept track of time left in the broadcast. Some nights--and these were agonizing nights--time would stand still, because Bob Newhart and other couch-bound pranksters would move the minute hand back when he wasn't looking. "You'd be talking to some dullard and you'd look up and the clock hadn't moved. You talk another three minutes and look up again--nothing! No movement! So the show never ends! Finally I caught on."
Both of his boats, by the way, were christened the Serengeti--for the primitive plains of Tanzania that first captivated him in January of 1993. Ever the malcontent traveler, he said before retiring: "Now I'll have a chance to travel--but I probably won't." He soon enough changed his mind after "sitting out in Malibu watching hummingbirds mate," as he described his early months off the job. With his wife, Alex, his sons, Chris, a golf pro, and Cory, a songwriter and guitarist ("my boys," he calls them, now fifty-two and forty-nine, respectively), and his friend, the wildlife expert Jim Fowler, he made a three-week pilgrimage to the African countryside, an experience that liberated him as never before. "He said that Africa changed his life," says Fowler. "We had some real adventures--plenty of lions, leopards, hyenas, wildebeests. Elephants coming right into the camp. And Johnny loved the skies of Africa. Son of a gun even took the controls of the plane when we left Tanzania, flying right beside Mount Kilimanjaro. He didn't hesitate at all." ("When the plane's in the air, it's easy to fly," Carson told me. "Landing is the big deal.") Anyway, so taken were they with the open wild, the Carsons would return again, the reason not least being that he can speak blue streaks of Swahili, which he taught himself at home before his first journey. (Likewise, he learned basic Russian before traveling, preretirement, to the Soviet Union with Bob and Suzanne Wright.) "It keeps the mind sharp," he explains.
Herewith, I will attest, to behold Johnny Carson speaking Swahili is a remarkable thing. He has regaled me with dizzying waves of it and clearly swells with glee while doing so. Usually, he begins such brisk spates thusly: "Mimi nasema Kiswahili vizuri kwa sababu inafaa na tunaweza kufumba na kubadilisha dunia!"--although I may be wrong. (A rough translation: "I speak Swahili quickly because it is fitting and we can mystify and change the world!"--although I may be wrong.) "It's a sweet language," he says. "It flows and it's relatively easy. Tafadhali--'please, please.' Isn't that a nice word? I had a lot of fun with it in Africa, learning just enough to communicate with people. Then one day the tour crew brought me the Nairobi Times, like I could read the goddamned thing. They thought I was that proficient, but I wasn't, of course. I had to con my way through it, like I'm enjoying my newspaper. But it was a nice experience." Somewhere in his home, by the way, film exists of him performing magic tricks and making Swahili patter for a cluster of wide-eyed tribespeople, who clearly believe they are in the presence of some white-haired witch doctor.
You tell him you have gone to see what is left of Carnac. "Mmmm-hmmm-hm-hm-hm-hmmm," he softly chuckles, a little self-consciously. In a divine and borderline mystical way, Carnac lives a disembodied life of magnificence. To become his signature character creation, the famous visitor from the East, he would don the feathered and bejeweled turban, the black turtleneck with encrusted broach, and the red-satin-lined cape. The great soothsayer's final prognostic miracle--answer: Green Acres; question: "What would Kermit the Frog be holding if you kicked him in the wrong place?"--was rendered three months before shop closed in Burbank. The costume rode home in the Corvette's trunk; later that summer, Johnny answered his doorbell and turned the pieces over to this excitable fellow, James Comisar, a noted television-relic conservator. "James," he said, "we did a little show and it was fine and we helped some people with their careers, but it was no big deal. Please keep it simple. Do not make a big deal out of this stuff." The ensemble is now impeccably fortressed for private view only in a West Los Angeles warehouse--secreted away with Captain Kirk's phaser and Gilligan's cap and thousands of other like treasures. To touch the turban, white gloves are required. Makeup stains still rim the brow. "This turban," says Comisar, most reverently, "is the FabergÃ© Egg of our shared television experience. He was the king and this was the crown." The king, by the way, has no interest in ever seeing his crown again. "If it serves a purpose or something," he says, mystified by the fuss, "we're happy to let him have it."
"I'm optimistic about television," he said when accepting the communicator of the year award in New York, in May of 1993, one year after he had stopped communicating. "Of course, you know, in the entertainment business, an optimist is an accordion player with a beeper." He is, in fact, optimistic enough to have mastered the programming of his TiVo machine so as to record all manner of television that appalls him to the bone. He delights in crap, if only perversely, and says that there has been no shortage of it to keep him amused. He lists such reality fare as The Chair, The Chamber, Fear Factor, and, especially, Survivor as among the most egregious crap he has ever seen: "These people are in just about as much jeopardy as I am having dinner. People forget that there's a crew there. There's a catering service. The crew has to eat! It's not like they are going to die out there in the jungle. These silly people will do anything the director suggests because they want to be on television! They want to be somebody! I say, take 'em and put 'em in the Congo for four days--see how they do over there. Give 'em some jeopardy. Reminds me of the great Sam Kinison routine where he's talking about making those commercials with the starving kid in the desert--'Couldn't the crew just give him a sandwich!' "
As such, you can safely picture him up there on his Malibu hilltop, wielding the remote, monitoring the decline of civilization via the medium he helped define. Just when he believes we have reached the abyss, he is ever consoled to find new evidence that proves badness is bottomless. For this reason, he misses Kathie Lee Gifford's horrible annual Christmas specials and, more so, Tom Shales's hilariously excoriating reviews of the specials. "We would read passages aloud to each other over the phone," says Peter Lassally, his former co-executive producer. "Johnny loved them!" (Carson once even called Shales to compliment him.) He is even more keen on outrageous live television--beauty pageants and telethons, in particular. (He and Lassally regularly trade calls of glee during The Chabad Telethon, broadcast in Los Angeles, on which comic Jan Murray, actor Jon Voight, and a dancing rabbi have frolicked for years. "Are you watching this?" they ask each other throughout.)
This year's Super Bowl entertainment also gave him great pause: "When you look at that production--give me a break! Norman Mailer said something about patriotism being a nice thing, but just ease up a little bit. He's got a point. It's a little overdone. It's nice to live in this country, but ease up!"
Because no development in televised art escapes his purview, he claims to have stumbled on another new affront: "Have you noticed that sometimes if you're watching the Playboy channel, it will suddenly switch over into hardcore pornography?" he will say. "The first time it happened to me, I was shocked. And two hours later, I was still shocked. And two hours after that--even more shocked!"
Suddenly, he stops talking because he is craning his neck, gazing toward the ground, where a pigeon waddles up. "Any messages?" he asks the bird.
And so it would come to this: Last year, Oscar host Steve Martin thought the time was right and he proposed the plan at a poker game. He recounts: "I would come out halfway through the show and say, 'I've just been reviewing the tape so far, and it turns out that I'm the greatest Oscar host ever! I'm so excited because a lot of great people have hosted.' I keep talking and then Billy Crystal comes out behind me and interrupts--'Steve, you know, I was reviewing tapes of the last six years, and it turns out I was the greatest Oscar host ever!' And I go, 'Oh, really?' Then we get into an argument--and Johnny would walk out behind us, which would bring the house down. And then we would turn and become very contrite and maybe hold hands, Billy and I, and we'd walk off sheepishly." But, of course, the five-time Oscar host Carson declined. "He said it would look like he's wanting attention, that critics would say he's out trying to get attention. I told him, 'There's not a person on this earth who would think that.' But that's his very midwestern morality and humility."
I asked Carson about the bit when he first called me. "It was a cute idea," he said. "But I told him, 'Steve, it is almost an obligatory thing for a standing ovation' "--he pronounced those last two words, by the way, with great unease--" 'so, no, I'm going to lay low.' He understood. But he's a very bright kid." It was Martin, however, who assisted in flushing Carson out of hiding, somewhat, in October 2000. "Johnny told me he was writing something," he recalls, "and I said, 'Let me call The New Yorker for you.' " The published result was a short humor piece--not unlike the kind of business he used to do at his desk, after the monologue--titled "Proverbs According to Dennis Miller." (Among the list of ten: "8. People who live in glass houses ... are surrounded by a strange hybrid of solid liquids or liquid solids.") Two months later, a second piece saw print: "Recently Discovered Childhood Letters to Santa," which disclosed the lost holiday wish lists of youths like William Buckley, Peter Roget, and Donald Rickles. He told me that he has a third one in the works, based on a news item he spotted about an accredited college of astrology. "I start writing, and if it doesn't work, I put it aside for a while," he said. His friend, director and comedian David Steinberg, explains the quandary therein: "He only has one goal in mind that I know of: He wants to be funny in print." What is certain is that the printed page will be the only venue in which he ever deigns to reenter the public midst--and even then, in the quickest possible strokes.
"There's no way to ever induce him back," says Barry Diller. "Because, God knows, I've tried. Everybody has. I don't know anyone other than Cary Grant who left the stage with such dignity and elegance." (Cary Grant, incidentally, was the most desired guest never to appear on The Tonight Show, because Johnny Carson could not lure him out of retirement.) Even so, when NBC was gearing up for its seventy-fifth-anniversary May broadcast gala in New York, Bob Wright had long been vigorously entreating the retired one to make one last appearance on said program. "It's going to be embarrassing not to have him there," Wright told me. The retired one, however, had made clear that he instead would be ensconced on his behemoth Serengeti, charting a course down through the Panama Canal and into the Caribbean. He will be afloat for months, thanks. "I told him we have planes," said Wright. "We can catch him anywhere he is. The boat is not a prison!"
Of course, the Carson eyes crinkle defiantly, and also twinkle with chill, at mention of such foolishness. "That ain't gonna happen. That ain't gonna happen. Uh-uh," he says, bemused but firm. "He means well. I know NBC means well. But I am retired. I ain't going back on television. There's no need for me to go back. It's gonna be one of those self-congratulatory things. Come look at what we've done! Look how good we are! I'm just not going to do it! I made that decision a long time ago and it's served me well." And then comes a genial sigh of a man most confident, along with the bright dentition. "Anyway, they can send a plane," he says, shrugging. "I'm going to be in the Bermuda Triangle. Planes have been known to disappear there, you know." His body rocks while he laughs his laugh. He will laugh this same laugh on the high seas when he scans the Internet to read about what he missed. Because, you see, he misses nothing anymore.
[WHAT JOHNNY MEANS TO ME, BY DAVID LETTERMAN] When I was a kid, Johnny Carson was the guy I wanted to be. He was a role model. He was the only hip adult in my life. Later, he put me in business. I wouldn't have a career without Johnny Carson. He was always wonderful and generous to me. Everybody knew Johnny Carson and The Tonight Show. He was the greeter and spokesman for the United States. Johnny's show was America's television signature. Everything about the show was smooth and effortless. No yelling, no gimmicks. His retirement (perhaps premature--only Johnny knows) was handled flawlessly. When you see tapes of his show, you realize how regrettable his absence is. I really miss that guy. Television will never see the wit, grace, and greatness of a man like Johnny Carson again!
[WHAT JOHNNY MEANS TO ME, BY JAY LENO] When I was a kid, there were three people I wanted to meet: Elvis, Jack Benny, and Johnny Carson. I never met the first two, but I met Johnny. With the exception of Benny, he was the first comedian who looked like a normal guy to me. So many comedians then were actually funny-looking men, and then came Carson. When I was coming up, Carlin was cool, Pryor was edgy, Cosby was folksy. Carson was all of those things. And it's not just that he did comedy well; he did everything else well, too. Most people don't remember the early shows, but he would do a little soft-shoe, he would jump out of airplanes, he would drive an Indy 500 car. Remember the night Johnny came out in a bathing suit and got a massage from the two Japanese girls? Is there anybody on late-night TV today you'd want to see with no shirt on? He was the man men wanted to be and women wanted to be with. And his points of reference in comedy were always current; he never used old bits, yet he always played his age. He never pretended to be something he wasn't. Say there are ten points, ten essential elements to doing a show like this. When you watch late-night shows now, mine included, the best have about six. Johnny had all ten.
People say that he had no competition. That's not true. They put everything against Johnny Carson, and he beat them all with class: Joey Bishop, Merv, Cavett, Jerry Lewis. He is an extreme gentleman. And he always brought such joy to introducing new comedians to his stage. Doing your first Tonight Show was like your first girlfriend: You weren't very good, it was over pretty quickly, but you knew you wanted to do it again. Johnny is the best there ever was. Other people might have their names on the trophy, but Johnny is the America's Cup. We're all pretenders to the throne.
Test your knowledge of Johnny, Jay, Dave, and all things late night with The Quiz of Late Night, available at esquire.com.
“A friend is someone that will help you move............a TRUE friend will help you move the bodies." -- anon