Remembering Johnny Carson, 1925 - 2005.
3:45 PM, Jan 25, 2005 • By LARRY MILLER
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, walk back to where the curtain had parted again (and where the same guy was waiting to pull you back off in case, for some reason, you just stopped walking), 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, too. A friend of mine you all know had noticed I was wearing the same clothes on dozens of other shows--we all went to each others shots, you to theirs, and they to yours--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 stand on the "X," and run the material, and check my notes, and have some coffee, and get made up, and do whatever I wanted. 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.
I picked up the phone in the dressing room and called the store, and when the salesman came on I repeated my new mantra, "No pants." He found them in the back and said, "Don't worry, I'll bring them right over."
I hung up and looked in the mirror at my fancy new shirt and tie and boxer shorts, and the high socks and wing-tips, and wondered how the Armani jacket was going to look over the pair of beige painter's pants I had worn to the studio. I was grateful the salesman was going to try and bring them over, but, please, Beverly Hills to Burbank on a Thursday at 5:33 p.m.? There was no way. By missile, in the middle of the night, it's still 20 minutes to Burbank. But I'll tell you, I don't remember being scared. In fact I was as calm as a vat of whiskey. Of course, maybe I was just in deep shock.
This outer calm hadn't yet translated to my speech center, though, since when Tom and Jim came racing back, all I could say, again, was "No pants." I kept saying it every few seconds. I had never seen Jim nervous before, but he was then, and he said, "I'll go to wardrobe and see what they have. It's a black dress suit, right? Right." And off he went. Like the good agent and friend he was, Tom didn't want me to see him throw up, or scream, so he pulled himself together and turned back out down the hall for a breath. Unfortunately, the direction he chose dead-ended in a wall nine inches later. He hit his head so hard it made a sound and instantly grew a lump the size of another, smaller head.