Monday, January 31, 2005

Dave's good-bye to Johnny

Before he died, Johnny Carson instructed that no memorial service be held. For those of us who grew up watching Carson, David Letterman treated us Monday night to his own personal memorial service for the king of late night TV.

Letterman had a week to think about what to do since he was on vacation when Carson succumbed to emphysema.

He struck just the right tone, avoiding the trap of maudlin sentimentality in which Jay Leno sank a week ago.

At the beginning of the show, Letterman told a few jokes, as he always does, but the gags weren't as topical as they always are. Then, after taking his seat behind the desk, he let us in on the jokes -- they were all written by Carson, who had been phoning in monologue material to Letterman & Co. for the last few months.

Letterman, recalling his early stand-up days, made his first appearance on The Tonight Show in 1978. Anyone who wanted to be a comic, he said, knew that "if you wanted to find out if you could hit major league pitching, you had to appear on The Tonight Show."

He made a couple dozen more guest spots after that, he said, showing a taped clip of one appearance in which Carson went to Letterman's home and videotaped the old, beat-up, faded red pickup Letterman was driving at the time. Its side was dented and the upholstery included a couple of ratty beach towels draped over the seats.

"This is Dave's truck," a delighted Carson said.

Then the stage curtain parted to show they had Letterman's humble pick-up towed and placed on the studio stage while Dave sat in the guest seat knewing he'd been had.

"I couldn't look like a bigger boob," said Letterman, watching the video.

Letterman played other clips that showed Carson walking out to be a guest on his show in 1986 and carrying a fold-out desk with him. "I do not perform well without this desk," he told David.

In another clip, Dave asks Johnny on the phone how things are in California. Fine, answers Johnny, "The mudslides are putting out the fires."

One of Letterman's taped gags shows he and Paul changing a tire on a hilly road in Southern California. They see a convertible approaching and stand up to see if the motorist might help. Of course, it's Johnny, who nods politely and drives on.

In Carson's final appearance on Letterman (see above picture), he walks out to deliver the "Top 10 list," sits behind Dave's desk to a standing ovation that goes on and on. Carson, always a master of timing, realizes he can't top that, so he simply gets up and walks off with a wave and a smile.

Peter LaSally, one of Carson's two producers, was the main guest on the show. Carson's bandleader Doc Severinsen also appeared later in the show.

Lasally said Carson and he talked for years about the TV star's retirement. "He always felt he shouldn't stay too long at the fair...He said once I do retire, remind me not to go back...That was the smartest thing he could have done."

Letterman, wisely, put some relevant questions to LaSally, asking about Carson's moodiness, his divorces and bad guests.

After listening to a actress bore him with her babblings for too long, Carson one night simply leaned closer to her and asked, "Do you read any books?" LaSally remembered.

Technical glitches with the show aggravated him more, however, and Carson's three divorces sometimes affected his mood, but the matrimonial fallout seemed to have less pronounced effects with each successive divorce.

Johnny showed up at work about 1 p.m. and brought his lunch in a brown paper sack everyday, LaSally said, and he always ate alone.

LaSally's final anecdote concerned a trip in which Letterman brought his whole staff to Los Angeles, where his show was nominated for its first Emmy. Letterman and about 70 employees had taken over the patio of a restaurant where Carson happened to be inside dining. Lasally said he asked Carson to come out to patio and say hello to Dave, telling him it would be a great gesture. Carson sat down at Dave's table and chatted awhile before leaving. When it came time to pay the check, the maitre 'd told Letterman and LaSally that Mr. Carson paid the bill. The next day, LaSally called Carson to thank him for his generous gesture, prompting a laugh from Carson, who said he had no idea all the people on the patio were on the same tab. The dinner bill was about $10,000.

When LaSally was finished, Doc Severinsen and two old members of The Tonight Show band, sax man Tommy Newsom and drummer Ed Shaungessy, performed one of Carson's favorite songs with a full orchestra. Then, sitting down with Letterman, Severinsen drew a blank when trying to remember the name of the song. Dave just chuckled. He didn't mind. Anyone who heard the performance knew it was a sad tune.

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