The Magazine

So Long, Johnny

Johnny Carson (1925-2005).

Feb 7, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 20 • By LARRY MILLER
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WHEN A PROMINENT AMERICAN IN any field passes on, it's front-page news. Some sneer at this and say, "The same thing happens to everyone. Why is it bigger if it happens to a star?" But I think it is bigger. Yes, thousands probably die in the same way at the same time, and each is a sorrow, but the passing of a beloved icon makes us all stop and think and reflect and remember, and gives a country with too little in common a great deal in common, if only briefly. So it is with Johnny Carson. Even in the hard-edged world of politics, for instance, I like to think that, when they heard the news, Howard Dean and Karl Rove and everyone in between stopped strategizing for a minute and thought, "Boy, I really loved that guy."

I've always felt the things written about comedians after they're gone come up short. "The low-key Nebraskan" is a phrase that's been bandied about already, which sounds a little like all the other low-key Nebraskans could've made America laugh for 30 years, too, if they felt like it.

Well, I loved the guy, and I mean, first, as a fan. I feel sorry for the younger folks who never saw him, who too often have to absorb their entertainment today in cynical bites, and think humor means anger and audacity and graphic descriptions of this and that. They will never know what it means when you take talent and hard work and mix it with grace, joy, class, respect, and forbearance.

I'm not any cleverer than the good reporters who've already written so much about him. For my part, I thought you might like to hear a story from my times on the Tonight Show, starring Johnny Carson.

There were a bunch of other shows, and those of us doing stand-up jumped at the chance to do any of them, but the Tonight Show was the one you wanted, period. The others were important, and good exposure, and big steps forward, but there were only two groups, really, B.C. and A.C.: Before Carson, and After Carson. A lot of good comics never got a shot, but I was one of the lucky ones.

My first time was in 1986, and I guess I was on 15 or 20 times till he left in 1992. As many of you know, there was a special place in Johnny's heart and on his show for young comedians, and there were a bunch of traditions surrounding those appearances. Every comic wanted them all.

You probably know about "The Big Okay." It was after you finished, and not everyone got it. We knew there was no way we were going to be invited over to sit on the couch--that was for another time; you didn't just go from captain to colonel, you have to be a major first. But what you wanted was to bow and say thank you to the audience, and look over to Johnny. If he liked you, you'd get a smile, and if he really liked you, you'd get a smile and a wink, and if he really, really liked you, you'd get a smile and a wink and The Big Okay. Once in a blue moon he liked someone so much--Steven Wright was one, I think--he'd wave you over on your first shot. I got the smile and the wink and The Big Okay, and that was heaven on earth right there.

A few appearances later, I got called over to the couch, and there's a bit of a story to that. A friend of mine had noticed I was wearing the same clothes on dozens of other shows and said, "You're doing the Tonight Show now, idiot. You need a better outfit." This was fine with me, and he took me to a fancy joint in Beverly Hills, one of those places that doesn't even have a name on it, you just pull around in back and someone lets you in. So they hooked me up with a black, double-breasted Armani suit, and a sharp shirt and tie, and I'd still be embarrassed, 19 years later, to tell you how much it cost. My pal was on the road on the day of the show, so my agent at the time, Tom Stern, went with me. We picked up the suit at the store, and drove to NBC.

Now, I'm always early for things, so there was plenty of time to walk out onstage while the studio was empty, and run the material, and check my notes, and have some coffee, and get made up. I said hello to Jim McCawley (the segment producer who hired all the comics; he passed away some years ago), and he said, "I'll see you in a few," and the band struck up, and the show began. I watched Johnny's monologue from backstage, and then strolled back to the dressing room, the picture of calmness, ready to roll. I took my sneakers and casual pants off during the first guest, and put the white shirt and tie on, and the dress socks and the shoes, and watched the intro for the second guest in my underwear. (A good comic never puts the suit on too soon: It wrinkles.) Then, cool and happy, I unzipped the bag from the store, took out the jacket, and stared at the other side of the bag for a few seconds.

There were no pants.

I turned to Tom, and said, "No pants." On the TV in the background, the second guest came out and shook hands with Johnny. Tom ran out to find Jim.