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.
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.
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.