LEW GOODMAN'S THOUGHTS ON JOHNNY CARSON
Published: January 25, 2005
When I first heard (from Jonathan Schwartz) that Johnny Carson had died, I was instantly shocked and upset. I was not a big fan of his. For the last ten years of his show, which ended in 1992, I had thought that it was passé and that he had become too old to be funny. He was born in 1925, an era that produced unhip Vegas-like humortoo late for the likes of the Marx Brothers, who were born in the late 19th century; too early for the one-time sarcastic hipsters born in the 1940's, such as Chevy Chase and David Letterman. But two days after his death, after reading much about him and seeing many excerpts of his show, I feel compelled to write my thoughts and feelings about him.
As most of you know, I hosted a radio show from 1968 till 1973. In the latter years of my show, I liked to think of myself as a very bad boy on the air. Nothing was sacred. I used death humor, sexual humor, illegal drug humor, Helen Keller humor, repetitious humor, and extreme sarcasm that I learned from my then hero Steve Post of WBAI99.5 FMin New York City. When "Saturday Night Live" went on the air in October 1975, I loved it, but I thought that a lot of the humor in its first season was similar to what I had done on my radio showFranco is still dead, shouting the lead story for the hard of hearing. Then, when I was absent from work in 1980, due to mononucleosis, I watched David Letterman's daytime show daily and thought he was great (but totally out of place on daytime TV). Sure enough, he got his own late-night show in February 1982, luckily for me when I was unemployed, and I was able to stay up late and watch him every night (only Mondays through Thursdays back then). Again, I found a lot of the humor on that show to be similar to what I had been doing on mine a decade earlier and I often predicted the lines of what was coming in different skits. I thought that I should be writing for him, but he was in New York and I had moved to California, so I never attempted to send him any materialrather typical for me. Finally, when I was on sabbatical as a schoolteacher in 2000, I started a comedy Web site for which I wrote every single day for almost two years. I thought I was a really bad 50-year-old boy by thenannouncing every day that it was "the most downloaded site among Chassidic Jews who regularly masturbate," constantly making fun of all three Western religions, and having much more death and sexual humor. Yet I spent several days writing as Carnac the Magnificent, an homage to Johnny and a skit that I had always enjoyed. But my friends who "remembered me when" said that I had been much funnier on the air and especially in person than I was in writing. I had to come to terms with the knowledge that I was no Woody Allen.
Which leads us to Johnny Carson. Huh? He was a goody-two-shoesright? Let's see. When I was a staff announcer at WFUV, I occasionally was called upon to do mock interviews with famous people by reading questions while a vinyl record played their prerecorded answers. Carson had to do that, too. In 1949, at an Omaha, Nebraska radio station, he was assigned to "interview" Patti Page. He was supposed to ask her when she started singing but instead asked, "I understand you're hitting the bottle pretty good, Pattiwhen did you start?" To which Patti's prerecorded voice replied, "When I was 6, I used to get up at church socials and do it." Believe me, I never had the balls to do anything that daring. And he was clever as hell, too. In 1951 he persuaded a Los Angeles TV station to give him a Sunday afternoon comedy show, "Carson's Cellar." In those days, few people bothered to watch television in the afternoon. During one telecast, a furtive figure ran by in the background. He advised his viewers to pay it no mind; it was only Red Skelton, and there just wasn't time that day to have Mr. Skelton perform. As it happened, Red was home that day, watching Johnny in action and thoroughly enjoying what he saw. The next week he showed up unannounced and demanded to be seen and heard. Soon, Groucho Marx and Jack Benny turned up to participate in a show they thought was funny even though it did not have the budget to pay them.
When I was a high school student (1964-1967), I began to frequently watch "The Tonight Show." I loved "Stump the Band" and enjoyed Johnny's monologues. He was in New York then and had a different persona from the white-haired host that most of America remembers. He was downright sarcastic. And I was and always had been quite boring. I had never tried to be funny. But after three years of thoroughly digesting the show, when I was 16 I began to imitate Johnny in my actions. I'd sarcastically twirl my right index finger and say, "Whoopee," when I thought someone wasn't funny. I always seemed to know what to say that would make people laugh even if it were too biting. Sure, my mother told Yiddish jokes, when I was a child, at borscht-belt bungalow colonies that had hundreds of people in hysterics and my father told jokes to our fellow American tourists in Europe when I was a young adult, but it was Johnny Carson who was directly responsible for changing me from someone who was somewhat withdrawn to someone who thought he could be funny. I never mentioned this to anyone before he died. But when I told my wife, who has known me since 1988, she was stunned. She couldn't imagine me not trying to make people laugh. I even frequently made my non-English-speaking students laugh during my 17 years of teaching. At times it seems as if humor is the most important thing in my life. Well, I must give full credit to Johnny Carson for this. Sure, I became a Marx Brothers fanatic when I was an undergrad and soon after a Woody Allen fanatic, but it was Johnny who most influenced my life.
I believe that the greatest stand-up comics ever were, when they were in their prime, Woody Allen, Steve Martin, Jackie Mason, and Rodney Dangerfield and that Johnny Carson couldn't hold a candle to any one of them. When I was an undergrad (1967-1971), every intellectual hippie I knew said Dick Cavett was the one to watch and that Carson was dull and stupid. But I never agreed. Dick, to me, was pompous and I didn't think much about Johnny's intelligence. I just knew he was better at doing a late-night talk show. Then, I fell in love with Letterman in the early '80's and, eventually, Conan O'Brien. These were the guys who were hip, cool and funny. But now, I think Letterman is awful (something I never thought of Johnny even in the '90's) and after Conan's finished with his monologue and marvelous skits, when it's time for the guests, his show becomes boring. Last night, my wife and I saw a Conan rerun and there was a skit about an NBC employee who phones the NBC help-line for assistance with his computer and gets a live tech-support person who's located in India. So, what does he do? He takes his monitor and computer to India. What proceeded had both of us in stitchesthe skit kept getting funnierand I began to laugh so hard it hurt. Later, Drew Barrymore was Conan's first guest and it was time to turn off the TV. And that's the key that perhaps I never realized until after his death. Johnny Carson was not the best stand-up comic who ever lived. Johnny Carson was not the hippest guy in town. But Johnny Carson was a master at putting together a late-night talk show that was interesting and enjoyable from start to finish.
Last night we watched Jay Leno's first show after Johnny's death and I cried when Ed McMahon came out. Later, two others who knew Johnny well, Bob Newhart and Don Rickles, were on. After the show, I thought that it would have been a really great show if only Jay hadn't been on. He had been a very good stand-up comic, but when he got "The Tonight Show," he instantly became a scared, boring person. When Dave moved to the 11:30 PM timeslot, he soon became totally unfunny and his persona drastically changed. Johnny Carson never pandered to his audience. He was never afraid. He just grew older. And that is the difference between being mediocre, being good, and being a legend.