Saturday, June 17, 2017

My day with Johnny Carson (for those who remember Johnny Carson)

 On the Tony Awards last week (that no one watched), host Kevin Spacey did a Johnny Carson impression.  Sitting in the audience my first thought was "how many people even remember Johnny Carson?"   Probably very few, certainly very few Millennials.   Carson hosted THE TONIGHT SHOW for close to thirty years.  The Tony Awards drew an audience of just over 6 million.  In the '70s, every single night, Johnny Carson drew 17 million... at midnight.  But he's been off the air for over twenty years.  That's a long time.   And unfortunately, he's passed away, so it's not like he could guest on THE TALK. 

When he was the King of Television he rarely appeared on sitcoms.  He did a cameo in a MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW episode, but you just heard his voice.   And yet, he agreed to be in a CHEERS episode that my partner, David Isaacs and I wrote (called "Heeeeeeere's Cliffy!").

Networks love stunt casting and this was catching the biggest fish of all.

The premise of our episode: 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.



YEKIMI said...

Do you think any of the current late night hosts would do that for you today? {if he was still in late nights, I could see Jay Leno doing it. I'd think he'd do the grand opening of a Burger King if someone asked.}

Brad Apling said...

That is precious. To have no notes from Carson on a script or jokes - it's almost surreal but in a fantastic way. Truly the consummate professional.

Stephen Marks said...

And then Ed Ames threw an axe and accidentally cut off Ken's slauson, leading to Ken writing "Must Kill TV" (it's to the right of Ken's post, click on it and buy it now. He'll send you an autographed copy if you buy 2).

Weird that an old drunk like McMahon wouldn't stay around for a show called "Cheers."

Ken's excellent post has some serious name dropping in it, there must be some six degrees of separation in here somewhere. Let's see, Ken met Johnny Carson who worked with Mary Tyler Moore. MTM worked with Ken on "Mary", Ken is having lunch today with Earl Pomerantz, who wrote a few episodes of the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Earl's brother Hart Pomerantz worked on a show called "This Is The Law", which was taped just down the street from where I live in Toronto. Fuck you Kevin Bacon!

Jeff Alexander said...

Mister Levine:
Excellent post and I think you did relate this anecdote on one of your appearances on Stu's Show.
Your musing that millennials may not know who Johnny Carson reminded me of this little incident which I've related on Facebook but also is relevant here, I think.
About 10-12 years ago, I was at an optometrist's office and the doctor was raving enthusiastically to his 20-something receptionist about a patient who just left. Seems the man was a magician who, as the optometrist said, appeared on both Mike Douglas' and Merv Griffin's shows. I noticed (as the optometrist apparently didn't) that the receptionist was taking it all in with a blank stare.
After he was out of earshot, I said to the young lady, "you don't know who Mike Douglas or Merv Griffin were, right?"
She shook her head mutely.
I couldn't resist. "How about Johnny Carson?"
Again, a shake of the head.
"Jay Leno?" I interjected with a touch of hesitation.
Oh, yes, was the reply.
Ah, well, how soon they forget! And this was somewhere around 2003!

BobinVT said...

Born in 1951, I of course remember and miss Johnny Carson. He took the Tonight Show to heights not reached before or since. And he was a celebrity undisputedly at the top of the entertainment heap, even above major movie stars. So I'm guessing most of the Tony audience at least knew who he was. But your post recalls for me a time that Spacey really miscalculated the population's memory. Back in 2004, when he wrote, produced, directed and starred in a biopic on Bobby Darrin (Beyond the Sea). At this point Darrin, who was a pop singer of middling fame at his peak, had been dead for 31 years. It's almost a guarantee that the majority of the movie audience had never heard of him, plus music had changed so much since Darrin's day. Yet Spacey, who was a bit obssessed with Darrin, succeeded in getting his project made. Not surprisingly, very few people bought tickets.

Mike Barer said...

That's a WOW! story. Carson was one of TV's giants. Let's hope he is never forgotten.

VP81955 said...

From broadcasting the exploits of Tony Gwynn Sr. and two Juniors (Ken Griffey and Cal Ripken) to having Johnny Carson tell your jokes and spend an hour with Elizabeth, you've had a fabulous life. (And I haven't even brought up your Top 40 career.)

Michael said...

What makes this especially nice is the rush there has been over the years to demonstrate Carson's faults and flaws. All of us have them, and it's good to encounter a story where the stars you meet are the way you would like them to be.

Jorge González Belmar said...

I was born after Mr. Carson ended his Tonight Show tenure (and really far from the USA), but I've been able to watch his charm and wit thanks to the many videos of his monologues and interviews that are uploaded on Youtube.
The excitement of the experience comes throgh your writing.
Thanks for sharing.

Andy Rose said...

Ironically, there was an episode of ALF a couple of years before set at the Tonight Show where Ed appeared, but Johnny (after much vacillating) declined to participate.

Cal said...

Reruns of Carson's TONIGHT SHOW run (the ones NBC didn't erase, at least) are on one of the "Classic TV" subchannels most nights. MeTV maybe. I watch them from time to time. They date, inevitably. Celebrities you've forgotten about plugging projects that vanished ages ago. And the show's pace seems rather leisurely by current standards. I'm always impressed, though, by Carson's skill as a monologist. There are lot of would-be stand-up comics who could learn some things from him. Carson comes across as very much as class act. He always seems totally dedicated to making his guests look good.

I always liked that when Carson retired, he retired for good. So many performers tend to linger in the spotlight too long. They can't give it up and they end up looking rather sad. People like Bob Hope and Milton Berle. There are a lot of performers who would benefit from following his example.

He made a lot of television appearances but rarely did sitcoms, and most of those were little more than cameos. Other than CHEERS, the only really extensive sitcom appearance of Carson's that I'm familiar with was on Lucille Ball's HERE'S LUCY, in the late 1960s.

James Prichard said...

Johnny Carson? Elizabeth Taylor? You have a seemingly unlimited supply of incredible stories. What a life!

LouOCNY said...

I believe you have told the story before - but I never tire of reading ir! I was born in 1959, and I was (occasionally) staying up to watch at least the monologue when i was 10/11 years old - sometimes watching the Saturday night repeats they used to show (Johnny hated that, by the way, and when he finally said Enough in 1974, NBC needed something to fill that slot - wonder what they did? ;) )

Nobody like him, and will never be anyone like him, or have his power. I occasionally watch the repeats on Antenna, but it's a weird experience, as almost everyone from Johnny on down is dead. The comedy is still fine, so all hail the Carnac the Magnificent!

Jeff Maxwell said...

Great story. Were Elizabeth Taylor's eyes as beautiful as they say?

I hope there's a story in thirty years about Louis C.K. showing up on somebody's virtual reality show.

Brian said...

That's one of my favorite Cheers episodes! The other is Cliff on Jeopardy.

My earliest memories of Johnny Carson was watching the tonight show at my Grandmother's house when I was 8-10 years old. One of those 17 million viewers was a grandmother at a rural farmhouse in south Texas. Every night.

MikeN said...

>Were Elizabeth Taylor's eyes as beautiful as they say?

He didn't notice.

Buttermilk Sky said...

I believe Carson provided his voice to an episode of THE SIMPSONS which also featured Bette Midler. Another Tony connection!

Friday question: On MASH characters often rhapsodized about their home towns -- Crabapple Cove, Mill Valley, Ottumwa, Boston. Only Toledo was characterized in a consistently negative light. My favorite joke:

Klinger: Toledo is crying out for another four-star restaurant.

BJ: The last one closed when all the pin boys quit.

Did you ever get complaints from the Chamber of Commerce, or from individual Toledans?

Never been there, just curious.

tb said...

He was on Get Smart too! And let's not forget those skits with Carol Wayne ;-)

Hilary said...

I went to his show a couple of times. Once, some teenagers in the audience were goofing at him during his monologue, and he incorporated their disinterest into his routine, right there. But MAN, when it was time for a break, a few minutes later, he had security escort them out of the studio. He was justifiably mad. Around that same time, I was invited to a Beverly Hills book party for Jill Ireland, who was battling cancer and promoting her memoir. Carson's ex-wife Joanne came up to me and introduced herself. Silly me, I did the same, then told her I worked for STAR magazine (yes, we were invited!). She gave me a tight smile and completely ignored me the rest of the evening.

singabob said...

Wonderful story. Thank you for sharing!

Pat Reeder said...

To BobinVT: I think you underestimate how many people know Bobby Darin, who has actually become a bigger star in recent years because of the revival of the cool Vegas lounge/bachelor pad music of the Rat Pack era. I'll bet that at this point, more young people know Bobby Darin than Johnny Carson. I have a niece who absolutely loves Bobby Darin after I introduced her to him. She'd already loved his act before that, only she knew it under the name "Michael Buble."

BTW, I saw "Beyond the Sea" and enjoyed it, even though Spacey was too old to play Bobby Darin at that point. As the co-author of "Hollywood Hi-Fi," the history of recordings by celebrities, I rank Spacey as one of the very best of the singing celebrities. Check out not only "Beyond the Sea" but the soundtrack to "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," where he does a duet on "Accentuate the Positive" with Clint Eastwood, who's actually recorded far more songs than Spacey for some inexplicable reason.

Cap'n Bob said...

Bobby Darin was much more than an entertainer of middling fame. He was a top singer whose "Mack the Knife" was the top song of 1959. He was a songwriter and actor. If he hadn't died tragically young, who knows what greater heights he'd have reached?

As for Carson, I watched him almost every night from the mid-sixties on, except for the times I worked the night shift. He set the bar higher than any of the currant crop can even dream of equaling. Frankly, I can't watch any of the late night shows anymore.

And get off of my lawn!

phyzzique said...

First off, Bobby Darin (one 'r' numb nuts) was not of middling fame. He had quite a few hit records and movies to his credit. He had a marvelous voice which was not replicated by Mr. Spacey's middling performance in Beyond The Sea.

Anonymous said...

Watched Carson last night. Had Robert Blake and Fernando Lamas on. Janice B.

TMo said...

Blake was a great guest

Brian O'Connell said...

Check out this great episode at

Barry Traylor said...

I remember Johnny Carson Back then then were no vcr's etc. so if you wanted see The Tonight show you had to lose sleep and risk getting to work late the next morning. But he was worth the lost sleep.

Rob in Toronto said...

I attended two tapings of the The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson hosting. One was in December, and we were asked to remain in our seats after the show so Bob Hope could use us for his opening monologue for his Christmas special that was set to air in 5 days. This was late-career Hope, of course, but it was still BOB HOPE, who was as much of a legend then as Carson is today. We got about 20 minutes out of him, which was edited down for the final show.

MikeN said...

Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas I've only heard of them from Merv Griffin Enterprises on Jeopardy, and that Tiger appeared when he was 2 to golf on Mike Douglas show. I'm about the same age as Tiger. I never watched Carson.

Conan has been on TV for 25 years now, but now most people in high school and college don't know who he is.

Edward said...

Nice story I did not know that.

Maybe you can discuss it on "The Carson Podcast" dedicated to a certain show that ended 25 years ago last month.

Liggie said...

Ironically, if most youbgwf people know Carson, it's from Sana Carvey's impersonation on SNL.

sanford said...

Carson was the best. Off camera or at least away from the studio he was not always the greatest person.

As for Bobby Darren, a great entertainer. Died way to young. Just one thing he did not write Mack the Knife. The song is from the Three Penny Opera. The song was composed by Kurt Weill

JW said...

I just stumbled across a Carson cameo at the end of a Night Court episode, where he's sitting in the cafeteria. I hope those folks enjoyed their experience as much as Ken did.

Anonymous said...

When I was a junior in high school, 20 of my classmates and I, with 4 teachers went on a school sponsored trip to DC, NYC, and Philadelphia. My best friends father wrote for tickets to The Tonight Show. He received 4. My friend and I took two teachers with us. It was in the spring of '72' right before they moved to LA. The main guest? Don Rickles. They taped in real time and the commercial breaks were better than the actual show. Rickles was running up into the audience, yelling at people and Carson was on the floor. I will never forget that night.

Pam, St. Louis

Brian Phillips said...

One more log on the Bobby Darin fire: he was also nominated for an Oscar for a supporting role in "Captain Newman, MD" and won a Golden Globe for "Come September". He also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

OK, but what of his musical career? He had numerous Billboard chart entries, including 20 Top 40 hits.

OK, but what does this have to do with the Tonight Show? Darin was on the show nine times.

I'd LOVE to have had this kind of middling success.

Andrew said...

Great story, but you really should at least mention Doc Severinsen, who unlike Ed actually stuck around. (What do you have against musicians, Ken?) It's weird seeing Doc do the "Here's Johnny" intro, but he made it seem natural.

From what I've heard, Doc is another celebrity who is a pleasure to know in real life.

Jahn Ghalt said...

It’s interesting to get reactions from those who didn’t know Johnny Carson when he was ruling late night.

If I saw the “Cliffy sells a joke to Johnny” episode, I‘ve forgotten it (and now I get to go see Johnny deliver Ken and David’s jokes).

(and Cliff “correcting” a Carsonian delivery has to be very funny)
I guess I’m not surprised that Carson had no “notes” – given that he did nine minutes every show on material that was often topical, he’d have to be flexible that way. OR not – does anyone know if he regularly reviewed the material beforehand?

(Occasionally, we would see Johnny skip jokes at the desk – skipping those index cards)

A Friday mini-question – what would you have done if Cliff’s joke has gotten laughs? Surely you didn’t let the audience in on it?
(AND - I’m NOT calling you Shirley)

How cool would it have been if Johnny had invited you to send jokes in? If so, would you have done it?

And one more question - did Carson deliver the monolog on the second take, too?

McAlvie said...

I miss Carson. Actually, I miss what Carson represented - the days when late night tv was worth staying up for. Even when it was silly it was clean and relatively classy, Guests were interesting. It was really worth staying up for, and people talked about the show the next day, which you could do because EVERYONE watched. He played across generational lines in a way they don't even try to today. Well, the network bean counters would never let them try for a broad audience, it always has to be some micro demographic they aim for. I have never understood that.

Todd Trumpet said...

As a former scriptwriter myself, it's always been easy to be incredibly jeal-- er, admiring of Ken Levine's career. But this story beats all. Or, as Ed McMahon might put it--

"Heeeeeeeeeere's... ENVY!"

Astroboy said...

The Johnny Carson cameo I remember is him playing a train conductor on get Smart.

Dan Berkes said...

Saw Carson once in the early 90s. Bob Einsten was on, in character as Super Dave Osborne, and then Paul Reiser, so it was somewhere after My Two Dads but before Mad About You. It was a nice show and one for the bucket list.

However, the night was just starting. There were staff from a show about to start taping in the studio next door doing their best to get as many people leaving the Tonight Show studio into their audience. I decided to go. It was a pilot for a comedy/talk show called Johnny B On The Loose, the host was a DJ from Chicago. There was audience participation, I ended up in a limo being taken to a location on Hollywood and... Cahuenga, I think? And then there I was, on Hollywood milking a cow and drinking the output in front of a camera. Ended up getting paid a thousand bucks for it. My only regret is that I never got to see my appearance. As far as I know the pilot filmed in LA (the show, for its blessedly short run, was done in Chicago) was never aired. I'd give a shiny quarter to see that.

But yeah. I went to see Carson, ended up getting a cool grand to milk a cow on a street corner.

Patrick said...

What a fun and exciting story!! I loved Carson as well....he was always about making his guests feel at home...

Blew Ayes said...

Great in a million chance. All I got was a seat at a stupid game show 1975 don't even recall the name but my girlfriend got on and wine a Broyhill I didnt make the try out cut but I tried out with Mell from Mells Diner. He couldn't answer any of the questions.. Oh well ..memories reeeeeesly wished I saw Carson

Blew Ayes said...

I lived in Seal Beach in 75 an lately been having "Johnny" moments.regrets I never saw him or drove by his house at 1pm to see him drive off with his sack lunch.ive been looking for days for little personal facts.havent found much... think I'll do a Google drive from his Wildwood house to his parking spot at studio 1.