I watched Johnny Carson: American Masters last night and I have to say that I was captivated by every frame. It was a mostly honest look at all aspects of his life and shed new light on a celebrity that I thought I knew everything about.
I wish that I could recall the first time I saw Johnny Carson, but he’s always just been there. I do remember when the Tonight Show was 90 minutes though…I was never allowed to watch the last 30 minutes. I’m surprised that I was allowed to stay up that late at all, so I’m guessing my first exposure had to be at my maternal grandmother’s house. She was (and is) a night owl (as am I) and would always let me stay up with her and watch TV.
I can also remember watching it on a portable TV with a sheet pulled over me to block the light. I really liked the Tonight Show. It was still in New York back in those days and I’m sure that contributed to my life-long desire to live in New York. I remember Steve Martin was on once and he pretended that he had to leave the panel only to come back crying that he just wanted to seem important. I could not contain myself and my dad burst into my room and busted me. I recall the time Barbra Streisand canceled, and Johnny had a convincing impersonator come out and start singing until he walked over and pushed her through the famous curtain. I don’t recall ever getting bored with watching Johnny.
I never got to see him in person, but I did take the NBC Burbank tour and sat in his studio. The set had been removed and there was nothing but his star on the stage floor. Somehow, that was enough for me. Later in the tour, as we were walking down a hallway, there was the disassembled set. It was like seeing the Parthenon. I broke from the group and walked over and was able to touch his desk before I was scolded by the page.
I watched the last show in a bar. The night before Bette Midler sang and I sat at home alone and cried like a baby. And it moved me to tears last night as well. But the last show was on Friday and I always went out in those days. We were on the patio of a bar next door to my granddad’s restaurant and so I knew the manager and asked if he would switch the TV to NBC. He did, and there were a few groans in the crowd. But I stood there in front of the TV and strained to hear every word. By the time it was over there was a crowd of people standing with me. It was the first time I realized that time was going by faster and faster and that I was getting older at an exponential pace.
I was shocked when he died. David Letterman was off the week it happened and so he was the last talk show host to pay tribute to Johnny. It was worth the wait. I could tell just by the cadence of the jokes in his monologue that it was all Carson’s material. Letterman is the only person that can come close to holding a candle to Carson. It doesn’t matter that he didn’t get the “Tonight Show” because that show ceased to exist when Johnny left. It was comforting to spend a couple of hours with him again last night.