Remembering Johnny Carson, 1925 - 2005.
3:45 PM, Jan 25, 2005 • By LARRY MILLER
Now Jim came running back with the wardrobe guy, and a pair of very nice black dress pants which went well with the jacket. Jim had a big smile of victory, and it made me feel ungrateful and churlish to point out there was just one tiny problem: The pants had, apparently, last been worn by William Conrad, and were at least 75 inches in the waist. We looked at each other: Jim, the wardrobe guy, me, Tom, and the lump on Tom's forehead (which I'll call Tom Jr.). The wardrobe guy said, "Try them on. I can nip them in the back." I did, and he could, but the nip was two and a half feet long. I don't want to judge, but I think that's too long for a nip.
I took them off and we all glanced up at the television as Johnny went to commercial. "Okay," Jim said, "Johnny's going to do one more segment. Let's get you behind the curtain. If the pants don't get here in time from the store, you'll go out in these." Fine, and off we all went, Tom and Tom Jr. bringing up the rear, their motor skills still noticeably impaired.
I got behind the curtain, and the guy holding it didn't even blink when he saw me in my underwear and Jim holding a pair of enormous clown pants. After all, this was the same guy who had pulled the curtain several times for Tiny Tim. Tom and his lump said, "I'm going to wait for the guy from the store," and off he limped. I really admired his spunk, since I didn't see any chance at all that either the pants or Tom would make it to the front gate.
"I think you better put on the pants," said Jim. The star being interviewed was wrapping up his last story, and Johnny was laughing. I held a finger up and tried desperately to remember what my first line was. They went to commercial, the band kicked up, and Jim said, "Okay, I really think you have to put on the pants." I finally remembered my first line, and Jim said, "Larry, please put on the pants." Well, I had no choice, and I pulled them over my shoes as the band came back from commercial, and my heart sank a little as I buckled the front and felt the tent-sized piece of material in the back. I was going to look like Quasimodo in a jet pack. And then . . .
Suddenly something crashed behind the backstage partition, someone screamed, and around the corner came poor, dazed Tom shouting, "I GOT THE PANTS. I GOT THE PANTS." The only reason Johnny and the audience couldn't hear him was because the band had just blasted out their last big, long, brass lick. We all looked at each other like Easter Island statues. The only one who took it in stride was the guy at the curtain.
A low moan started in my throat, became a shudder, and ended in a shrug. I ripped the fat pants off and kicked them down as fast as I could and grabbed the new ones from Tom just as we heard Johnny saying, "Our next guest is a very funny young man . . ." I pulled one leg in and started the other, ". . . who's been with us before . . ." The other leg went in and I stuffed the shirt down. "He'll be appearing at the Punch Line in Atlanta on the 25th . . ." I clipped the pants, looked at the belt in my hand and threw it away hard, stage right, and heard Jim mutter, "Oh, Jesus. Oh, Jesus." I started buttoning the inner button on the double-breasted jacket, and missed it, and tried it again, and missed it again, and the stage hand started pulling the curtain and put his hand on my shoulder. "So please welcome . . ." I growled at the inner button and abandoned it. "Larry . . ." The hand began to push, and I closed the jacket and fastened the outer button. ". . . Miller!"
I guess I love this business and always have, and maybe we're all a little nuts, and maybe you have to be, but all I remember is strolling around that curtain without a care in the world and out to the "X," and having a great time and a great set, and when I bowed and waved goodbye, that's when I turned to Johnny, and that's when he waved me over to the couch for the first time.
IT WAS PRETTY GREAT. I shook his hand, which was even better, and he said, "Good stuff," which was the best of all, and I shook hands with the other folks on the couch, and Ed (who I loved as soon as he smiled at me), and then they went to commercial. And as the band started playing, Johnny leaned over and said, "Funny. Funny stuff." (Can't you just hear that sharp rhythm of his saying those short phrases?) And I said thank you and then he picked up a pencil and started tapping it on the desk to the music--remember how he used to do that, too?--and then we came back from commercial, and he wrapped it up, and thanked everyone, and we shook hands again, and everyone stood, and the band played, and the credits rolled. And he came around the desk, and I guess I was looking down at my suit, kind of amazed at how close it had all been, and I saw him coming over, and I shrugged and said, "New suit." And he said, "Sharp."
You all know how good Carson was. In an era that seems to grow coarser each day, he radiated manners and virtue. Everyone used to say that Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America when he was on, but I think it just might have been Johnny Carson. I know who I'd trust more, and I sure know who was funnier.
There's an old Jewish saying that every man's heaven or hell is determined by what people say about him after his death. It's a good thought, and if it's true, Johnny Carson is soaring very, very high.
I guess Ed is supposed to lead us now in shouting, "How high is he?" Johnny would have a good line for that one.
One thing's certain. I'll bet God just waved him over to the couch.
Larry Miller is a contributing humorist to The Daily Standard and a writer, actor, and comedian living in Los Angeles.