Saturday, September 01, 2012

My day with Johnny Carson

Back in Los Angeles. Travelogue of my road trip with the Mariners will follow sometime next week. In the meantime, got a Friday question yesterday that I get receive often.  It's from Thomas Tucker:

Did you ever meet or work with Johnny Carson?

A few years ago I did a post on this but it's been awhile and I've picked up three new readers since then so I'm re-posting it today. Plus, it's one of those stories that makes you want to become a writer. 

Networks love stunt casting. Getting stars and celebrities to guest on your show... especially during sweeps does increase ratings. There have been some classic ones -- Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt on FRIENDS (good chance you won't see him on a reunion show), heavyweight boxer Sonny Liston and opera diva Marilyn Horne on THE ODD COUPLE, Madonna on WILL & GRACE, and of course Frank Sinatra on the SOUPY SALES SHOW. One of the toughest "gets" was always Johnny Carson. The King of Late Night rarely guested on sitcoms. Yet amazingly he did agree to do a CHEERS.

My partner, David Isaacs and I wrote the episode (called "Heeeeeeere's Cliffy!"). The premise: Cliff's ultimate goal in life was to have Johnny Carson read one of his jokes during a monologue. The man reached for the stars! Alas, his endless submissions kept getting rejected. Finally, as a goof, Norm intercepts one and turns it into an acceptance letter. Things get out of hand when Cliff flies to Burbank to be in the audience the night of his big triumph. And he brings his mother. Norm must tag along for damage control.

Norm bribes the cue card guy to include Cliff's joke. Johnny reads it in his monologue, it bombs, Cliff stands up and corrects his delivery. He winds up in custody while mom ends up on the couch with Johnny.

Come on. It could happen!

We wrote the script, sent it to Carson, who approved it. We arranged to film it right after a TONIGHT SHOW taping. The audience was asked if they'd like to stay for an extra half hour and be on CHEERS. Nice folks that they were, they were willing to make that sacrifice.

The crew and I arrived at the studio at 3 (my partner was out of town). The TONIGHT SHOW taped from 5:30 - 6:30. I introduced myself to Mr. Carson and said I'd be happy to make any adjustments he would like. He said, no, he thought the script was great. He'd do it just as written. I almost fainted.

During the TONIGHT SHOW taping I sat in the green room and kibitzed for an hour with that night's guest -- Elizabeth Taylor. She could not have been more approachable and fun. It was almost surreal to be chatting about life with Elizabeth Taylor.

After the taping, director Jim Burrows set up our four cameras and blocked the scenes. Not only is Jimmy the best multi-camera director, he's also the fastest. All of this rather complicated stuff was accomplished in fifteen minutes in front of the audience. Indy Pit Crews could learn a thing or two from Jim Burrows.

We had hoped to also get Ed McMahon but he wasn't interested in sticking around (a whole half hour) so we wrote him out. Guess he had to get to that Budweiser.

Now the filming began. Four film cameras were positioned on the stage. I was standing next to one, essentially between the curtain and the band. Jimmy calls action, the band (right behind me) struck up the familiar theme and Johnny Carson steps through the curtains. He's maybe five feet from me. He begins delivering our monologue. This was maybe a month before his final TONIGHT SHOW so I knew this was a precious experience that would never come again.

We tried to write jokes that would get solid laughs so that when Johnny got to Cliff's it would be noticeably bad. Much to my sheer delight, our jokes worked. The King of Late Night was getting laughs doing our material. This was more surreal than Elizabeth Taylor asking me which Disneyland ride was my favorite.

The scene played great. We shot it a couple of times. And Johnny was the ultimate professional. Happy to do re-takes, whatever we needed. So often legends and idols disappoint if and when you actually meet them but the reverse was true here. I wound up even more in awe of Johnny Carson.

After we wrapped I got a picture sitting at Johnny's desk interviewing John Ratzenberger.

Woody Allen made a movie called ZELIG where he played a normal guy who somehow managed to mingle with every important figure of his day.

Well, Zelig had nothing on me, certainly that night -- a night that will live in my memory forever... and hopefully in reruns.

Hey-ohhhh!

27 comments:

normadesmond said...

johnny carson AND elizabeth at the same time.
how did your head not explode?

Mo Ryan said...

Amazing story. Always cool to hear that legendary people can actually cool human beings.

Jeff said...

Great to hear that story again.

Got to see a little bit of Carson as they dedicated the Bob Uecker statue in Milwaukee yesterday. They played clips of Uke with Johnny, two guys with killer deadpan deliveries. Doc Severinsen and his band were there, too!

Uke's one-liners from yesterday: http://atmlb.com/TJ6kpA

The entire 1-hour, 39-minute ceremony: http://atmlb.com/PymSzp

JED said...

And how's that for a bit of "stunt casting"? In a story about your working with Johnny Carson, we get guest star Elizabeth Taylor!

You couldn't have written her into the script at the last minute?

The Curmudgeon said...

What a wonderful story. Don't know how I missed this one the first time.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

When I was 15, my dad snuck us backstage at the Sahara on the afternoon of Johnny's first Vegas opening night. Johnny was in the middle of dress rehearsal when he dashed off stage for a timed costume change. Pop smacked me in the head and said, "Go shake his hand." I scooted over and stood in front of his costume lady and asked to shake. Johnny was working two cigarettes at the time...one in the ashtray and the other twixt his lips. To my amazement now years later, the King of Late Night, stopped what he was doing, said, "Sure, kid," shook my hand and won a devoted fan for the next 40 years...

Phillip B said...

When Johnny Carson died, $156 million went to his charitable trust. His philanthropy continues now - as it was during his lifetime - quietly and without much recognition.

http://www.newser.com/story/97734/johnny-carson-estate-gives-156m-to-charity.html

Another reason to have respect for the guy..

Rob in Toronto said...

I was fortunate enough to attend two tapings of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and had a similar surprise at the end of one of them. We were asked to remain in our seats at the end of the show, and then Bob Hope came out and delivered a 20 minute monologue to be edited down for his Christmas special which was airing later that week.

Anonymous said...

we want to see that picture of you behind the desk!

Cap'n Bob said...

I never saw that one. Was this when Diane was still on the show?

Cap'n Bob said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Willie Rogers said...

According to IMDB, that was Season 10, episode 24.

GC from France said...

My favorite character on CHEERS was Cliff. i didn't know why till that episode "Heeeer's Cliffy". The first time Norm quotes Cliff's bad joke, i laughed. And then i got my answer. We talk about masterpiece sitcom writing here! that episode also showed how selfish Norm was.This is a foreshadowing of his most selfish line. In another great episode" The girl in the plastic bubble" written by Dan O'Shannon this time. when Cliff said to Norm "Our friend Frasier is on a ledge about to jump to his death, let's go" Norm said "gee, you're right, i gotta go move my car"

...and i just got my two books from amazon "The me generation by me..." By Ken and "What are you laughing at?" By Dan O'Shannon, recommended by Ken in earlier post. There will be no surprise... i already know that i'm going to enjoy!

Really great work guys!

Garrison Skunk said...

Wow...I can only think of two other Johnny Carson sitcom guest spots....the "Mary Tyler Moore" episode (A clip show of all things!) highlighting Mary's bad parties. Johnny accepts an invitation to one of said parties....only for the power to go out.

The other a "Newhart" episode in which we find out that Johnny pays Larry, Darrell and Darrell's gas bill.

Brian said...

That episode and the one with Cliff on Jeopardy are two of my favorites. Ken, I see according to Wikipedia you and David did not write "What is ... Cliff Claven?", but do you know anything about it?
Were you there for the filming?

Cap'n Bob said...

Thanks, Willie. That explains why I missed it. I don't watch the ones with Rebecca.

Roger said...

YOU BAWTCHED MY JOKE JOHNNY CAHSON!
One of the best lines in the entire series.

cadavra said...

One more Carson cameo, on one of my favorite sitcom episodes: as the conductor on the "Orient Express" episode of GET SMART.

Jeffrey Leonard said...

This post is absolutely terrific, Ken. I don't know how I missed it the first time. You're right, Johnny was pure CLASS...

Tom Mason said...

So happy reading this. Sounds like it was a blast! (I attended a Carson taping once, but nothing magical happened, other than a good time.)

Stan said...

Carson also did a guest shot on either a first or second season episode of HERE'S LUCY.

Donald said...

More on Elizabeth Taylor, please.

Also, Johnny also did a cameo on "Get Smart." If memory serves, he was a conductor on the Orient Express.

thomas tucker said...

Thanks for posting this; I missed it the first time and enjoyed reading it. Now, I will have to find that episode and watch it for I missed it too and it sounds hilarious. Now for a follow-up question- did you ever meet and work with Merv?

Jerry said...

My favorite Johnny Carson guest appearance was one he did on Jack Benny's television program around 1963. Benny and Carson worked together beautifully (Carson always acknowledged Benny as his primary comic influence) and the show is very funny.

Brian Smith said...

Carson also had a cute cameo at the end of an episode of "Night Court"; Bull passed along an anonymous note to Christine asking her to dinner, but she wrote it off as Harry's attempt to cheer her up, and she stormed out. Cut to Bull breaking the bad news to Carson, and then asking a question:

Bull: "Excuse me, but...aren't you married now?"
Carson: (long pause) "I don't know."

Johnny Walker said...

As a Brit, I only really became aware of Johnny Carson from watching the Larry Sanders Show and learning about the behind the scenes and its origin. Apparently Johnny was a huge fan of the show, and who can blame him? TLSS was amazing.

Steve Pepoon said...

I knew a couple writers who were on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson. Occasionally, they would have the audience fill out questions on cards for Johnny to read. Sometimes, they did not come up with enough good questions so the writers would make some up and use friends' names as the audience member. I got a call one day from one of the writer friends who said they were using my name that night. I was terrifically excited and set up my VCR, but Johnny mangled my last name so badly nobody I know would have recognized it.