This blog is officially "retired," but my other blog,
"The Lair of the Silver Fox," is still open for business!

Sunday, January 23, 2005

JOHNNY CARSON, 1925-2005, R.I.P.

When Ray Charles died last June, I truly hoped that it would be some time before I would be so seriously grieved by another celebrity's death. After all, "Brother Ray" was not only one of "The Greats," he was a personal favorite of mine.

A friend sent an email to me a while ago, an email full of links to articles saying that Johnny Carson, the former host of NBC's "Tonight Show," has died. So much for my hopes. I don't really have a standard defining "some time," but folks... this ain't it. Nope, nowhere near it.

Johnny Carson didn't invent the talk show format, certainly. But it can be argued that he perfected it. As Burt Reynolds said, "If he laughed at you, America laughed, too. If he liked you, America liked you." And we Americans liked -- loved -- Johnny. For thirty years (1962-1992), Americans willingly invited Carson into their living rooms. Or bedrooms. Carson himself often joked that his show was "a nightlight for sex." In fact, Johnny's reign on late-night TV lasted a lot longer than the marriages or relationships of many of the couples whose intimacies the "Tonight Show"... illuminated?

Said "reign" certainly outlasted a few of his own marriages...

One year ago, almost to the day, Carson's "Tonight Show" predecessor Jack Paar died. In my David'Z RantZ memorial to Paar, I naturally made a couple of references to Johnny himself, adding "I am honestly dreading the day when the name of Johnny Carson himself tops one of these tribute columns of mine..."

Well, now Johnny's name is at the top of my RantZ page, and I feel sick. Really. As if I've lost a member of the family. I love comedy, and I consider myself a fan of a lot of comedians, past and present. But Johnny Carson was one of my two all-time favorites, the other being Jack Benny, a comedian both idolized and emulated by Carson himself. Now both are gone.

While I was writing this, two more emails arrived, from two other friends. And I'm expecting more. Many of them know how much I loved Johnny.

In a very real way, I grew up with Johnny Carson. Even as a young child in the mid-1960s, my bedtime on any night that wasn't a "school night" was non-existent. So, as an eight-year-old, a ten-year-old, a fourteen-year-old... I could stay up as late as I wanted. And in the days before cable, before 24-hour television (in the New England viewing area, anyway), and (who'da thunk it!) even before infomercials, there wasn't much to watch besides Carson.

Even as time went by, and the other channels started competing with him, offering other talk show hosts and late movies... Carson was still King. Sure, once in a while I'd watch Joey Bishop (Bishop's ABC talk show was on in the late '60s, and Joey's "Ed McMahon" was a little guy named Regis Philbin. Wonder whatever happened to him?), or Dick Cavett (whose '70s show was frequently entertaining and/or enlightening, as well), or whatever movie was on... but I never "lost touch" with Johnny until adulthood gave me "better" things to do than watch television all the time.

The highest-rated -- and one of the most talked-about -- episode in "Tonight Show" history was when singer Tiny Tim -- then in his mid-40s -- married his "Miss Vicki," who was still in her teens.

And anyone who saw the famous Ed Ames appearance, where Ames demonstrated how to throw a tomahawk, will never forget it. It provided one of the longest sustained audience laughs in TV history. And no, I won't just tell you about it. If you've never seen it, or even if you have, here it is. And as you do watch the clip, look for the part where Carson restrains Ed from "retrieving" the tomahawk. Carson was a master of timing, and knowing when he could and should get away with "milking" a laugh.

But I remember so many more "Tonight Show" moments from the years when I was a faithful follower of Carson's antics...

At the time (mid-1970s) that Glen Campbell's "Rhinestone Cowboy" was a Top 40 hit, Carson came onstage in an outlandish outfit, riding a pony. Or a donkey. Actually, I don't remember the animal. What I do remember is Carson's purposely-awful singing voice, almost what you'd expect Carson's Art Fern character to sound like, if he were to try his hand at singing.

Singer Vicki Carr once claimed that she had good teeth as a result of being breast-fed as a baby. Carson, in a loud aside to himself, said "Well, if it's not too late to start... "

George Gobel, a good enough comedian in his own right, was brought on the show after such superstar surprise guests as Dean Martin and Bob Hope. (Shortly after Gobel appeared, Carson asked "Exactly what time did I lose control of the show?") And on Johnny's show, guests usually didn't leave as soon as their "bit" with Johnny was done. They generally hung around on the long couch while other acts came to talk with Johnny. Gobel walked into the middle of this insanity, sarcastically thanked Carson for making him a part of the madness, and then quipped, "Did you ever get the feeling... that the whole world was a tuxedo... and you were a pair of brown shoes?"

During the time that "To All the Girls I've Loved Before" (the duet recorded by the unlikely duo of Willie Nelson and Julio Iglesias) was a huge hit, and for a long time thereafter, Johnny had a penchant for imitating Willie, singing the title line of that song. One night Willie Nelson himself appeared on Carson's show, and Johnny insisted they compare Wille Nelson's voice with Johnny's imitation. Carson went first, singing "To all the girls I've loved before" a la Willie. Willie followed up by singing "who travelled in and out my door," in a perfect imitation of Julio Iglesias' voice! Carson just lost it; it was priceless!

And speaking of "losing it," one night Fred Rogers (better known as "Mister Rogers") was a guest, and said something about how this world could be a better place if people would just try to get along with each other, and have respect for each other, etc. (Joke all you want about Mister Rogers' TV persona, but the man really was sincere.) Of course, you could hear the cynical mutterings running through the audience of 1980s adults, at which point Fred Rogers turned to them and sternly added " ...and it's people like you who are the problem!" Wow. "Go, Fred!" I shouted, sitting safely at home. I say "safely" because I've been known to be more than a bit cynical myself, on occasion, believe it or not... so at least I was spared the Wrath of Fred. But seriously, after that night, I found a whole new respect for the man.

There was also talk that Johnny Carson was considered for the role of God in the film, "Oh, God," the role which eventually went to George Burns. Evidently someone thought it would be cute. ("Johnny Carson," "J.C.," get it?) Carson's alleged reply when he refused the role? "I thought you guys were getting away from typecasting."

From Johnny Carson, I even learned a few things about "entertaining" that I've applied to my personal life.

For example, Carson had several mannerisms which couldn't possibly be lost on an audience used to viewing him up to five days per week. One was that he was always adjusting his necktie (as in the above photo of Johnny). One night, a guest commented on the fact that Carson was "always playing with [his] tie." Johnny just replied "It could be worse!" and let the audience assume what he really meant by that. (That joke is incredibly tame by today's standards, but over thirty years ago? Believe it or not, it was pretty risqué, even for late-night TV.) Since then, I've applied that very line to more situations than I can count, always letting the other people fill in the blank. And it always gets a mild laugh, even 'though there's absolutely nothing inherently funny about the line itself.

Another example, in a similar vein: One episode had singer Jack Jones and actor/comedian Joe Flynn (best known as Captain Binghamton on "McHale's Navy") on the panel. Jones was relating a story about how he was forced by circumstances to pull his car over to the side of a country road one dark, dark evening so he could exit and... umm... perform a hasty "call of nature," shall we say? While he was attending to said function, a woman appeared out of virtually nowhere and said, "Can I have your autograph?" The audience reacted predictably, laughing uproariously, and continued doing so when Joe Flynn yelled "Which hand did you use?" Carson yelled "Never mind!" to keep the mood going, then waited... and waited...

The audience finally began calming down. That's when Carson almost matter-of-factly added (I'm paraphrasing, because I don't have access to the clip itself!), "You know, there's another line for that, and I'm not going to use it!" And that set the audience off again, even 'though, as in the other example, there's nothing really funny about the line itself. But it's yet another line I've successfully "stolen" during my lazier moments, because (as any fan of Old Time Radio can tell you) a performer's greatest tool is the audience's imagination. I learned that from Johnny.

That, and the fact that in comedy, timing is everything. In fact, "It's All in the Timing" (or "Timing Is Everything" -- reports vary, although most accounts favor the former rather than the latter) was the phrase embroidered on a throw pillow which, during the 1970s anyway, lay atop the bed in Johnny's master bedroom (or a couch in his living room -- again, reports vary*).

Carson retired from the "Tonight Show" and show business in 1992. And despite offers for undoubtedly-huge sums of money, nothing lured him back from retirement. Perhaps, as the aforementioned Regis Philbin suggested in 1995, "After ending his long reign with such class and fanfare, maybe there’s no way to return." So Johnny stuck to his guns, having left his viewers when he still could be said to be at the top of his game, before over-staying his welcome, and before becoming an anachronism or a caricature of himself.

As always, impeccable timing. "It's All in the Timing." So says the pillow.

I was too lazy and/or time-constrained to dig through all my packed-away Johnny Carson memorabilia (mostly issues of TV Guide and other magazines) for a photo of the man, so I availed myself of an internet search. I needed a shot of Carson alone (which unfortunately made me rule out my absolute favorite picture of Johnny, a 1960s color photo where Carson interviews Jack Benny), and I wanted a shot of him at the "Tonight Show" desk even more than one where he was doing his nightly monologue.** Actually, I wanted to find two photos of Johnny, one from his earliest "Tonight Show" days, and one toward the end of his run.

The second photograph in this David'Z RantZ entry is from the very last episode of the "Tonight Show" which he hosted. I included it not only because it (obviously) fits my "end of his run" criterion, but because... well... I happen to have a coffee cup like the one in front of Johnny!

Now. If that blasted pillow ever shows up on eBay...

Thanks for your time.

*Most accounts "place" the pillow on the Carson couch. Personally, I like the double entendre inherent in a pillow bearing that particular sentiment being placed on a bed in a comedian's bedroom -- Think about it! -- but seriously doubt that the seldom-interviewed Carson would have allowed a journalist into that most private of dwelling spaces.
**If I'd wanted a monologue shot, I would've scanned my own, autographed photo of Johnny as he did his famous "golf swing" at the end of the monologue.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Everybody Counts, Everybody Matters

I've devoted a lot of space in these RantZ to celebrity obituaries. Well, not obituaries per se, but little tributes of my own, as it were. And not just any celebrities -- Lord knows, there are plenty of places on the internet which fulfill that particular function! -- but those celebrities for whom I held a particular respect, fondness, and/or admiration. And I've tried to say something with my own personal slant each time.

The man pictured above was Joe Belanger. The vast majority of visitors to this page won't know who he was. He wasn't famous, but he was a man who fulfilled all the qualifications of my stated definitions for "respect, fondness, and/or admiration." And actually, in Joe's case, the word "or" doesn't apply.

For approximately 12 years, beginning in 1988, my so-called "day job" was for a chain of grocery stores in New England. This chain shuttled its full-time employees and managers around on a regular basis. I worked for Joe three times (if memory serves) during my years with the company. He was, at various times in my association with him, either an assistant store manager, or a full-fledged manager. He was competent and personable, a too-often-unseen mix in that particular environment. I used to joke that he was far too down-to-earth to have risen to any position of importance with the chain.

Yep, down-to-earth says it. He was very unpretentious; you never really felt that you were talking to A Manager (except for the implicit, underlying, earned respect I mentioned earlier), but instead, to a real person. He didn't mind listening to my corny jokes, and often had one or two of his own. And they were never delivered with that usual haughty managerial "I'm in charge, so you'd better laugh at this!" attitude. You laughed because the jokes were funny (well, whenever they were), and because Joe was genuinely likable.

Once I had facetiously asked him, "If you plant watermelon seeds to get watermelons, how do you get seedless grapes?" Just one of those observations which makes you think for a split second, unless and until you take it seriously enough to answer it, like Gallagher's "Why is there a mailbox outside the post office?" Joe stood there long enough to give me a full, serious, learned reply. But he wasn't merely answering me because he'd missed the miniscule humor in what I'd said; the twinkle in his eye told me he'd purposely and mischievously "spoiled" my joke instead. The twinkle increased when he saw the look on my face as I said, "You would know the answer to that!"

On another memorable occasion, Joe also caused me to shake my head with chagrin, as in "I can't believe I just fed you a punchline!" I had recently moved to a new apartment, and I needed to know whom I should speak to and what forms to fill out in order to apprise the company of my new residential and mailing addresses. Wanting to be uncharacteristically brief, I walked up to him and asked, simply, "Joe, how do I go about changing my address?" Without missing a beat, he looked at me and matter-of-factly replied, "Move."

Not side-splittingly funny, true, but I was still somewhat mortified that I'd set him up for that.

I hadn't seen him in a couple of years, maybe more. (I left the chain in 2000, but had encountered him once or twice while shopping or visiting former co-workers.) Early yesterday, I chanced upon his obituary in the local newspaper. I was stunned, to say the least. He died "after a long battle with pancreatic cancer," according to the notice. He was 57, not that much older than myself, really. Yet another reminder of my own mortality.

My own extreme reaction to his death surprised me with its unexpected intensity. Yet another example of "you don't know what you've got, till it's gone." So I had to write something on my RantZ page, the only real outlet I have for this sort of thing. And I had to write it even 'though most of my readers never met him. And now, never will.

So in a way, his death is still your loss.

And mine.

Thanks for your time.

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