Monday, June 04, 2007


I had been locked out of my blog for four days because robots looking for spam erroneously flagged this blog. And there was no tech support to call and no way to alert my readers. It's back now but I've got a backup site now because if this ever happens again I'm moving. So just for your files, if I disappear again for any length of time, you can reach me here.

Again, thanks for your patience.

And here's my actual post for the day:

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 I 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 more 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.



Anonymous said...

I've often read that Carson was a classy guy. Thanks for confirming that.

Anonymous said...

I've always wondered when there are cross-over type shows whether the set was re-created at the site of the "host" show or if the host show went on location for the necessary scenes. Did you then show these scenes to the Cheers studio audience so they would have the closure of seeing a full episode shot?

Anonymous said...

Great post! - I loved watching Carson. I remember one show, he comes on and his pencil box is broken. Turned out Don Rickles had guest hosted the previous night and busted it. Johnny realizes that Rickles current show is being filmed on the same set, so he takes a camera crew over and walks in on the filming. Classic!

Keep up the great posts about sitcoms - drop that Idol stuff, it is crap

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the story. Johnny Carson was an important sanity check for me during my adolescence and probably kept me from murdering my mother. Your blog is extremely enjoyable for me; please continue the wonderful writing.


Alan Tomlinson

The Curmudgeon said...

(Said just before inviting the comic over to the couch) "Funny, funny stuff."

It's wonderful to read that a guy who always seemed down to earth and genuine really was.

Now, why do you suppose Blogger flagged you? There's a conspiracy out there waiting to be unearthed I think.

Jon Badeaux said...

We were all getting a little tired of commenting on National Bingo Night. But just in case you missed the riveting banter...

...oh, never mind!

Jason said...

Please don't leave us again!

Max Clarke said...

Carson had a license plate that sort of told it all about him: 360GUY. All around guy. I still recall how Norm wants to pay the man who held the cards up with the jokes, since he's going to put Cliff's joke on a card, but the man tells Norm, "Buy me a beer after the show's over." To Norm, that was like the universal language. No matter where you go....

Carson didn't go through the motions, either. I recall how he asks Cliff, standing at Carson's mark on stage, all alone with the audience and crew gone, "Feels good, doesn't it?" A nice moment.

Anonymous said...

I remember the joke: It was something to the effect of him mentioning it being Doc Severinson's birthday and saying "There probably weren't any candles on Doc's first birthday cake. Fire hadn't been invented yet..." I may be a little hazy on the original joke, but I remember it was so corny and predictable that I started laughing anyway...

I was always a big Carson fan. The show just seemed to undergo a clean break from a lot of its tradition when Jay Leno took over, and a lot of the guests, whose interplay with Johnny made for some classic moments in TV comedy, were gone forever...

BTW, Ken, If you can ever get around to it, I'd love for you to write about Woody's wedding episode (I believe it was called "An Old-fashioned Wedding", for which David Lloyd is the credited writer, but I'm sure the entire staff must have contributed to the non-stop action in the pantry). If anyone wanted to see how a script with just about every comic element and technique included should be written, that episode is a writing clinic.

Anonymous said...

Love this story! Liz Taylor always seemed like she'd be a great "broad" to hang out with. And no one compares to Carson. He had listening skills which are sorely lacking in most other talk show hosts.

Anonymous said...

I'm not surprised you had such a problem with SPAM after your return from a week in Hawaii, it was probably oozing out of your pores. They make everying out of SPAM, in Hawaii.


jimhenshaw said...

You weren't held hostage by Blogger robots. You mentioned the Stanley Cup Playoffs in your last post and NBC was spamming their affiliates to prove somebody had actually noticed.

Mary Stella said...

Welcome back, Ken. We missed you!

So... what IS your favorite ride at Disneyland?

Anonymous said...

Ken, what season was the Carson episode? Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Jay Leno's appearance with the Cheers gang wasn't quite the same.


Anonymous said...

I met Johnny Carson when I was fifteen, during his opening night rehearsal at the Sands, back in '65. Haven't washed my hand since.

What I miss about that era is the courtesy and kindness people seemed to share, with the possible exception of John Wayne Gacey; but, I hope you know what I mean.

Johnny had class. Who else today does?

Emily Blake said...

Oh thank God. I haven't been able to get out of bed for days, I was so afraid you were gone for good.

I guess I better try to get my job back now and maybe pull this needle out of my arm.

Anonymous said...

Love to hear the "behind-the-scenes" stuff. I remember that episode well and its great to hear how it came together, and better how it made you feel while you were doing it. I think that it is moments like these that we got "into" the industry in first place.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

If I remember correctly, this episode also had the great opening gag with Norm filing their arrival at the studio and asking a passerby to film him with his friends... after which the guy runs away with the camera. Such an easy joke, but the first time I saw it and for some reason it stayed with me for a long time.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your story about Johnny. I have such fond memories of watching the Tonight Show with my son who is now 28. I would allow him to sit up late during the summer to watch when he was young. He sent me your blog with this article.
Again, thanks for reminding me of some fun days, we all miss Johnny, he was "one of a kind"!

Anonymous said...


I was there that day at Studio 1. I probably said hello to you in passing.

Elizabeth Taylor was on the TS in February (22?, 23?) of 1992. She wore a motor cycle outfit. The reason she spoke to you about Disneyland is that she was renting it for her 60th birthday to "celebrate her inner child."

The only other guest that night was Michael Douglas who told a neat story about seeing Taylor and Burton on their yacht when he was a boy and thinking it was simply royalty. Neat moment.

She really does have violet eyes.

And when Larry Fortensky and Jose Eber walked by a writer turned to me and said, "I feel like I'm at Altamont."

See you later,

Mark Bennett

Anonymous said...

"You have to hit the word "have"! I think that's the line, right?

I'm a big Burrows fan.

Keep up the great posts about sitcoms - and keep up that Idol stuff too, it's crap.

Mef said...

great post:
love any and all cheers anecdotes.

I should imdb the episode but the one where Frasier and Lilith have Sam and Diane over to their house was perfect.


Whit said...

Johnny Carson had the sense to exit television just before it sunk into sleaze.