What Johnny Means to Me

A decade after Johnny Carson's final show, we asked thirteen of his showbiz pals to pay tribute. Here's what they had to say.

By Bill Zehme

Photograph by Harry Benson

Of all the hosts, Johnny was the most generous. He loved it when people scored. I remember when I was on the first couple of times just feeling his timing. He knew what he had to do to set you up, and he always knew how important it was that the setup be exactly right. Any time you made him laugh—even today—you get a really warm feeling inside. You can't quite get past the feeling that it's a privilege to be with him in a social situation.

The other night, the infomercial for his tapes happened to come on, and I was transfixed by it. It really made me realize what a strong time that was and how important that show was to our mental health. Its tone wrapped us up at the end of the day and made us happy, and it had no cynicism. It was the last stand of sincerity in comedy—no irony. It was just totally, totally funny. Johnny says he walked away at the right time. Maybe the right time for him, but not the right time for us.

Johnny Carson is a wonderful guy, a great guy, a funny guy, a moody guy, and a pain in the ass with three or four wives—who gives a crap? Now go kiss his ass and leave me alone! Actually, when all is said and done, Johnny had two lives. He was magic when the light was on. And when the light was off, he was another guy. Not that he wasn't a fun guy to be around, but he had his moments when he would either be with you or be by himself. Being around functions was not his happiness. When he had to get up to perform, he loved it. When we were alone or in an intimate group, he was great fun. But at a big party, he was like, 'Let's go home!'

I think he's the only man who has retired and meant it. He's gotten so much adulation for so many years. However, there's nobody in the world who doesn't want to be remembered for what he did so well. There has to be that gnawing at him. But he's also a smart theatrician. He knows what he did and he knows how good it is. The other day, I played the DVD of his best stuff for my wife and me. I called him three days later and sincerely said it was the best entertainment we'd had in a long time. We had really laughed at it. And the thing is, I could hear in his voice that he really appreciated that he was appreciated.

John would always throw me curveballs on the show. He knew he could trust me and I knew I could trust him. You'd do the pre-interview and he'd get the notes: 'Rickles and I just got back from a trip to southeast Asia and Bob has a funny story about Hanoi.' I'd come out and sit down, and Johnny would say, 'Do you ever ski?' And I'd look at him, like, 'You son of a bitch! I don't have any funny stories about skiing!' He wouldn't do that to somebody he didn't know well. But he'd get that look in his eye and I knew. I was on a couple weeks before the final show and, as I moved down the couch that night, I realized that an era was over. Just gone. We were never going to do it again. He said to me at the end of the show, 'Bob, what can I say?' It was over.

He's incredible, because doctors will tell you not to retire unless you have something really good to do. Johnny has beat all those odds. He's gone off to Africa, he's gone to Wimbledon, he travels so many places with his wife. We ask him, 'Do you miss it?' He says, 'Once in a while, but not much.' I think that's why he likes the poker game—he's got an outlet to be funny for us. [The above refernce is to The Gourmet Poker Club, a kibitz klatch of exalted show-business pedigree with only eight members: Steve Martin, Carl Reiner, Chevy Chase, mogul Barry Diller, producers David Chasman and Dan Melnick, Neil Simon, and Carson.]

The one thing about Johnny that no one has right now and probably never will have is that when he laughed and liked you, you had a career the next day. He ordained the culture because he was so open to it. He would say, 'You're good', and was very unpretentious about it. It was exciting to watch The Tonight Show because of that. You wanted to know who he was going to okay. He would decide not just about comedians, but everybody. You would feel the buzz the next day. If there had been a great show the night before, everybody would be talking about it and it would always be, 'Carson really liked that guy!' But you never said, 'Carson was great last night,' because he was always great.

The first six months after we went off the air were painful. I was busy, but I felt out of place, like something was wrong. I began to feel like the Birdman of Alcatraz. For all of the years we did the show, it was during the last ten when you started wondering, 'God, how's this going to end?' I always thought that maybe Johnny would be driving to work one day and run into traffic and turn around and go home and tell NBC: "I'm not coming in today or tomorrow or ever again. I'm through.' But he did it in such a classy way. Every place I travel, all people want to know is: 'How's Johnny?' 'Is he going to come back and do a show?' He is missed. No two ways about it.

I miss him very much. The late-night guys now—they're good, but with Johnny you were never tense. He was always someone you could be completely relaxed with and you knew that he was never going to let you down. He never did. There's something about him—tremendous personal charm. Before my last time with him, I was doing the sound check and thought to myself, 'I wonder what his favorite song is?' I turned to Doc and asked and he said it was "Here's That Rainy Day." I couldn't believe that I had forgotten to ask before that minute. But fortunately I knew that song, so it turned into an improvised moment, which was very sweet. He let down a lot of guard that night. When I was done, I put the red lei around his neck and fled. All those emotions—I just about died."

I hosted a birthday party for (producer) Danny Melnick last year and he made up the seating arrangements. He put Johnny Carson on one side of me and Steve Martin on the other side. I remember thinking, 'Oh, my god, this is truly one of the thrills of my life and I hope I can be witty enough.' They were beyond hysterical. They started talking and telling stories and sharing jokes. The dinner went on for hours and hours. I thought, 'Am I listening to these two men talk and Johnny complimenting Steve on what a good job he did on the Oscars and Steve saying, 'Oh, no, there's nobody who will ever be able to do it like you did it.' Johnny is handsome and adorable. He's got a twinkle in his eye and twinkle in his walk. He is the wittiest, most charming, warm, lovely, funny individual and he's both intellectually and emotionally curious, too. He wants to know what you're doing, what your life is like—and he can talk about anything, as we saw for thirty years."

He is a focused and centered person who appears to know what he wants. When he said it was time to quit, he meant it. Everyone thought, 'Oh, we'll be seeing him in six months, because he's got to have the adulation.' He doesn't need the adulation. That is a false image of this man. He doesn't need to be that way anymore. He's got a real life. He's a busy fellow pursuing that real life. I haven't been able to make our poker game in a while, but I called him some time ago because I heard rumors that his hair had grown completely long, like Lyndon B. Johnson, and that he was getting weird. And, of course, it wasn't true. He's the same as ever, only better.

I haven't seen him in so long. Does he have long hair now? I heard for a while that he had long hair and I went, 'I want to see that!' I did not know that! He should come back for one night just to blow people's minds. 'Look who's here tonight! Doc! Ed! Hi-yo! It's Johnny!' It's like where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Forget Cheney—where's Johnny?! Find Johnny in the crowd. It was a fine art form that he was the master of. It wasn't ironic and it wasn't cynical—it was just flat-out funny. When he had a guest he enjoyed, he would just let go and sit back. He would just go big with the laugh and I'd think, 'Oh, yeah, baby!' And you'd just keep throwing more at him to see him keep going. But the king has left the building. Turn the spotlight off, my friend. I did not know that!

Here is the biggest compliment I can give to Johnny: He's considered the best talk show host ever—and I still think he's underrated. He was just plain funny, night after night. He's a father figure to me, in a professional sense. A role model, a mentor, and a professional father. He called me once after I guest-hosted The Tonight Show and said, 'You were a little too funny.' And it was such a compliment. It meant everything to me. You've got to remember that the hosts of all the late-night shows now don't have guest hosts. Johnny would allow this select group of people to come fill in for him. For the rest of my life, I will be grateful that he allowed me to do that. I call him up every now and then because I genuinely miss him. He is ageless, a really special guy.

Hours after my show ended, I bought a house in Malibu right next to Johnny Carson's. I spend the days sitting out on the beach and walking back and forth across Johnny's property, hoping to bump into him so we can talk about our talk show experiences, but so far I haven't seen him. His friends insist he has a phone, but I haven't been able to get the number from anyone. I'm sure it's his attempt to respect my privacy. He knows what it's like to come down from the kind of whirlwind success we talk show hosts experience, and I appreciate his consideration. But enough is enough. If Johnny reads this I hope he will feel comfortable enough to come by and say, 'Hi, Larry, I'm a big fan and I miss watching you every night.'

Johnny, I leave the door unlocked on Tuesday nights, so just come in and sit down, because I would love to compare notes with you about . . . everything! Or even better, let's go to Disneyland sometime with Rickleses and the Newharts.