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Remembering Johnny Carson, 1925 - 2005.

3:45 PM, Jan 25, 2005 • By LARRY MILLER
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Editor's note: Larry Miller has been on hiatus recently, working hard on both a book, which will be published soon by Judith Regan, and a pilot for a television show for Sony and NBC. He will return regularly to THE DAILY STANDARD in a few months.


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, both 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 seem to 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. It's as vague as a police report: "Johnny Carson, Caucasian male, medium height and build."

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. Their words are enough, and their prominence and volume show their respect. For my part, I thought you might like to hear a story or two from my times on The Tonight Show, starring Johnny Carson.

There were a bunch of other shows, and we all jumped at the chance to do 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 that first time. Every comic wanted them all.

Number one was your first introduction. It was always the same for everyone. You were waiting behind the curtain, and the same stage hand was always with you to pull the curtain open from the middle and guide you out. Now that I think of it, "guide" may not be the proper word. Maybe "push" is better. He was a nice guy, and there for many years, but you always knew that his main job was: You were going out there, whether you wanted to or not. Doc Severinsen and that great band would play during the commercials, and when they stopped, you knew this was it, and could hear Johnny on the other side saying, "Welcome back. You know, folks, there's nothing more rare than a funny comedian . . ." (Remember?) ". . . and this young man is making his first appearance on our show . . . "

That was it, the one you wanted--the "nothing more rare" intro--and it was a blessing, too, because it made the audience sit up and want you to be good. When he said your name, the guy pulled the curtain, gave you the, er, nudge, and off you went to the taped "X" on the floor that you'd practiced hitting all afternoon. (There was a tiled star a few feet away, but that was for Johnny. Even if they didn't have a separate "X" for the comics you wouldn't want to stand on his spot anyway. It'd be like going up to bat in Babe Ruth's spikes.)

And the band had a special few measures they played as you walked out, the New Comics' theme. I can't sing it for you, obviously, but every comic knew it, note for note, whether they ever got to hear it for themselves or not. If I make it to being very old, and lose memories left and right, and get down to where I really don't know anything at all, I believe The Tonight Show band playing that intro will be one of the last things to go.