Tuesday, January 25, 2005

TRIBUTES FOR JOHNNY CARSON

The tributes continue to roll in for Johnny Carson from fans and from people who appeared on the Tonight Show during his long run as host.

On Monday Jay Leno hosted a special edition of the Tonight Show devoted entirely to Carson, and said in paying tribute to him that if you tuned into Carson during his 30-year tenure as the host, "consider yourselves lucky", because we are not going to see his likes ever again.

He spent an hour playing clips of old Carson moments, and Ed McMahon was a guest, recalling his favorite Carson memories. Leno also brought out Don Rickles and Bob Newhart to talk about Johnny. It gave them an opportunity to play back a clip from way back in the 70s, when Rickles destroyed Carson's favorite cigarette box on air when Newhart guest-hosted. Carson then found out about it and went in to interrupt a taping of Rickles' own sitcom, just to ream him out for comic effect. It was hilarious. And I think I remember watching that episode live years ago- it was back in the days when we had just gotten cable TV, and I was watching Carson every night because it was one show we'd been deprived of for the years we didn't have cable.

I must say that Leno's show did Carson justice last night, and it was a masterpiece. I've been critical of Leno's show over the years but last night's show was exceptional. It was probably the best Tonight Show Leno has ever done.

Craig Ferguson paid tribute live on his CBS show at 12:35, saying that as an immigrant from Scotland the one thing that helped him feel at home in America was Johnny Carson hosting the Tonight Show, and that Carson helped make this big scary country feel like a small town, and made America seem like a less frightening place.

Today we will have a tribute from Ellen DeGeneres on her show, and I'm sure we'll see tributes from Dave Letterman and Conan O'Brien as soon as they come back on with new shows; I think Conan's set is where the old Carson show used to be when it was in New York. (Last night's Letterman and Conan shows were reruns.) I'm sure that we'll see a big tribute at the Oscars this year as well, as Carson hosted that show several times.

I also heard former late-night host Mike Bullard on CFRB the other day paying tribute to Johnny. Fans are also talking about the funniest moments from the show, including Art Fern, Carnac the Magnificent, and the other great characters Carson played on the show. And they all talked about the great DVD collection from Carson's shows, which must be selling like hotcakes today.

The one reason why there has been this outpouring over Johnny's death has a lot to do with the fact that a lot of people in Hollywood, and particularly in the comedy community, owe their careers to Carson. For countless top comedians the Carson show was their big break. They'd appear on the Tonight Show and the next day they'd get $10,000 worth of job offers to keep them going. They'd be able to move to LA and start their careers and go on to fame and fortune. Letterman, of course, looked to Carson as a mentor, and Carson's production company produced Letterman's show and Carson even submitted jokes to Letterman in his final years. Leno, of course, appeared as a standup on the show many times before he was named the permanent guest host. Leno and Letterman and Ellen would probably not be where they are today, hosting talk shows, had it not been for Carson's show. The same is probably true for Jerry Seinfeld, Drew Carey, Tim Allen, Bob Saget and all the rest of the big time comedians who got their start on the Carson Tonight Show and whose careers were launched because of it. True, Lorne Michaels had a similar impact in helping make young careers, but he was a behind the scenes player. Carson had the ability to let his guests be the star, and that self-effacing manner defined his tenure as a host on television. When Carson gave his stamp of approval to your routine, your career was made.

For me personally, Carson's Tonight Show helped inspire me to get into broadcasting and to even get into comedy writing in university for the charity variety show they had going. And I always wanted to host a talk show, just like Johnny Carson. So I guess you can blame my lousy career(?) in broadcasting on Carson. So, thanks a lot, Johnny!!!! Thanks for nothing, eh?

Seriously, I did manage to fulfill my dream, guest-hosting a talk show on cable TV (yes, they did allow me to host again), and I was a guest on talk shows a couple of times. I can say this from my own personal experience: hosting a talk show on TV is the toughest gig in entertainment. You have to be really good at it to survive, let alone thrive.

I was lucky enough to go on the NBC Studios Tour back in the early 80s in beautiful downtown Burbank and the highlight for everyone was getting to see the old Tonight Show set- which was pretty small to say the least, a lot smaller than I expected. I expected this big hall and we were in... this room! With a shabby little set, with a couch! In fairness, the set for Real People wasn't up to much, either. In fact, it was even worse. The revelations of live TV; amazing what mirrors can do. Still, that trip to California was one of my fondest memories.

My biggest regret is that I never saw one of Carson's shows live. That would have been something. I did, however, sit in the studio audience during one of Ralph Benmurgui's better efforts. But that hardly counts, and no, I never did get to see Conan O'Brien when he was here in TO. I did see Mike Bullard perform live- not on his show, but yes, he was live.

Letterman's right; everyone else is a pretender. Johnny, we'll all miss you.

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PERSONAL ITEM: I want to wish my sister-in-law Jody a speedy recovery after her operation the other day. Jody, get well soon, hope you're feeling better! OK, that's it for today.

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