Whoooooooo's Johnny?

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Now Letterman wanted to live at 11:35. But if Carson had any clout left at NBC, he didn't use it to get Dave the job. His only indications of his preference were to avoid any mention on his final show of Leno's succession — a simple "And I hope you'll be as kind to Jay, who starts on Monday, as you have been to me" would have been gracious —and to appear unannounced on Dave's show a couple of years later.

I think NBC knew that Leno was not a prima donna but a plow horse, who would honor his promise to show up five nights a week, 46 weeks a year. And they may have figured that Letterman's acerbity — his on-camera crabbiness was what many suspected Carson was like off-camera —wouldn't play to a broader audience looking for light entertainment right after the local news. As everyone knows, Letterman made a noisy move up the street to CBS, where he was paid twice as much as Leno and earned ratings considerably lower. Yet, even as his show became stale, he retained the critics' loyalty. And even though, by ratings and ad revenue, Jay was the new king of late night, he had a Rodney Dangerfield odor about him. What he said in tribute to Carson last night might also have been an admission of failure: "After all these years, I still feel like a guest in his house. Because he built this house."

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Carson made TIME's cover in 1967

Well, that's how it goes, And, John, I know you're getting anxious to close. So thanks for the cheer. I hope you didn't mind me bending your ear. For all of the years, For the laughs, for the tears, For the class that you showed, Make it one for my baby And one more for the road, That long, long road. —Bette Midler to Carson, May 22, 1992

This number from Carson's penultimate Tonight Show broadcast, replayed frequently in the past days, was one of the few times this very dry man went moist. It brought the star to tears. OK, it brought me to tears too, but I'm a sentimental slob. Watching it again, though, as the camera switched from Bette alone to Johnny's reaction, I saw Carson wrestling with the emotion while uncomfortable that he had to expose, or counterfeit, it in public.

At the end of the following night's show, he said, I bid you a very heartfelt goodnight. But it was really goodbye. That was it. Carson wanted it known, and needed to prove, that showbiz wasn't his life, it was his job. He would not permit himself the cliché of the aging star (Astaire, Callas, Merman, Clemens) who announces retirement, then keeps coming back. He followed the Garbo rule: do it as well as you can — maybe better than anyone has — and, when you're done, disappear.

His reputation, certainly his luster, may be in danger of vanishing with him. The Honeymooners churns away on nostalgia networks 50 years after it was made; Carson's program, apart from modestly selling video compilations, fulfilled its title — it wasn't called The Forever Show. Dependent on topical humor and guests plugging next week's movie, it was a candidate for a time capsule, but not for timelessness. (It didn't help that some dolt at NBC, in a catastrophic economy move, taped over the first decade of shows.)

Zehme, the last journalist to snag an interview with the star, recalled that he spoke glowingly of Fred Allen (whose Mighty Allen Art Players, featuring sketches with continuing characters, was an obvious inspiration for the Mighty Carson Art Players), then said, "But no one today knows who Fred Allen is. Nor should they." Time marches on, burying beneath its boots the incandescence of performers — like Allen in radio, Katherine Cornell in theater, and many luminaries of early TV — who toiled in media whose excitement was that they were live. And now, except in the fond, fragile memories of the alterkockers, they're dead.

So he retired from The Tonight Show and from public view. He enjoyed traveling with his fourth wife Alexis, He sailed his yacht. He played poker every month or so with Steve Martin, Carl Reiner and a few other friends. But old habits die hard, so he kept two of them: writing topical gags (he sent a few to Letterman, to be used in his monologue, and contributed two short pieces, midwifed by Martin, to the New Yorker), and smoking.

Among the most prominent props on Carson's desk in his first decade on The Tonight Show were an ashtray and a cigarette box. (One time, in a mock battle with McMahon, he blew the residue of the ashtray Ed's way. And when Rickles, on one of Carson's nights off, smashed the host's precious cigarette box, Carson the next night marched into the adjacent studio, where Rickles was taping his sitcom series "C.P.O. Sharkey," and demanded retribution from the casaba-headed comic.) Carson occasionally smoked while conducting an interview, and so did some of his guests. In nervous moments he was prone to tapping a soft paradiddle with a cigarette. Later the ashtray went on a shelf under the desk top, so that Carson could take a few puffs during commercial breaks, and the cigarette drum stick was replaced by a pencil with erasers on both ends. Yesterday you could have bought a pack of five for $30.00 on eBay.

Carson, who according to Tynan smoked a brand "more virulent and ferociously unfiltered than any other on the market" (gee — Gitanes?), hadn't minded joking about smoking. Once his offered this light-hearted advice on longevity: "If you must smoke, don't do it orally." But he did it orally, apparently believing he'd live forever, because his parents had survived into their 90s, as had his father's parents. "One thing about my family," he told Tynan, "we have good genes."

Well, somebody must have polluted the gene pool, possibly Carson himself. He died, much sooner than his fans suspected, from emphysema. So here's hoping he enjoyed every one of his 79 years and his little family of vices. As he once said, "I know a man who gave up smoking, drinking, sex, and rich food. He was healthy right up to the day he killed himself."

Fate had the last laugh on America's most vaunted host: it took him 15 years before he expected to go. But all comics know that life is unfair; if it were, they'd be out of work. On this mortal coil there's always a banana peel; the only question is, when do you slip on it and execute your final pratfall? "If life was fair," he once deadpanned, "Elvis would be alive and all the impersonators would be dead." Not to wish an early demise on those who followed him, imitated him, learned from him, but Carson, who ever he was, was the Elvis of late night.

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