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.
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
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.