DAN’S NOTE: I wrote this post last week, but mistakingly forgot to post it. It was originally intended to run last Wednesday, January 25 – the one-year anniversary of Johnny Carson’s death.
When I was about 11 years old, my parents bought me a tiny black & white Sylvania TV for my bedroom. I remember feeling more independent than ever before, since I could choose what programming I wanted to watch without my father walking right on over to the living room TV and turning the channel to “Hee Haw” or one of his shows. For the first time, I could lay in bed and watch the shows that I liked. It was around 1980 (my freshman year of high school) that I started laying in bed all hours of the night watching “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”
Johnny died one year ago today. I remember hearing the news – I was painting my living room with my TV blaring in the background. The NBC News made Johnny’s death its top story. I listened and dropped my paint brush. An icon that I had always admired was gone.
I know that it is strange that I have an obsession with Johnny Carson. You see, ever since I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a talk show host. I used to set up a mock Tonight Show set at my house growing up and pretend that I was Johnny. My brother and assorted other friends would make their entrances as my featured guests. I made a TV camera out of a cardboard box, used toilet paper roll, and a yardstick and assigned someone to be my camera man. I selected flashy disco songs from the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack to play as I came through the living room drapes for my monologue.
When I was 22 and a dormhead at a prep school in Vermont, I set up a talk show set in my apartment and actually videotaped the program we invented. I had a live band (fortunately the kids were musical), my own Doc Sevrinson, and we ran through the dorm with a camera to perform “musical in-dorms.” Boy, if only I could find that tape now!
Now I have a blog and perform podcasts.
You see, Johnny may have been a dirty old man, but he was funny while being respectful of his guests. It is a rule that I live by, and it has treated me well. Back when I was 11, I watched Robin Williams imitate gay people for the first time on Johnny’s show, and it took me years to figure out the jokes. I watched Drew Barrymore at 8 years old put her retainer on Johnny’s desk and loved his reaction – shock with a smile. I enjoyed my own late night version of old man dirty jokes without my parents editing my programming choice. In a strange way, Johnny Carson helped me overcome my shyness over the years through my odd imitations of him.
One of the best shows was the next to the last one in May 1992 when Bette Midler serenaded Johnny about his impending retirement. You could see the tears in his eyes as she brought down the studio. Bette won an Emmy for this appearance and it remains a television classic.
In April 1992, a month before he left the airwaves, my college roommate and I met at NBC in Burbank to attend a taping of “The Tonight Show.” As we sat in the audience and the countdown started for the show, I remember experiencing a rare excitement as Doc and the band started playing the theme song. I got goosebumps. I remember cheering and applauding wildly as Johnny came through the curtains. He joked with us during commercial breaks, and the hour taping went by too quickly.
Johnny was pure class. We miss you, Johnny!