"Remembering Johnny Carson"
By John Bushkin
I used to tend bar at an establishment that had a beautiful twenty-six-inch
color TV. The TV was always on but so was the jukebox so no one got to hear
too much of either. Sports took precedence over all other viewing which was
okay because you didn't have to hear commentary to follow the action.
Cartoons were always a favorite. As a matter of fact it was a wine drinking
stonemason who explained Popeye's girlfriend to me. I had remarked to him
early one evening that I didn't understand what Popeye and his rival Bluto
saw in the skinny Olive Oyl. The stonemason winked at me and said, "The
closer to the bone, the sweeter the meat."
The most consistently popular program was The Tonight Show with Johnny
Carson. I never realized the power of the show until I was exposed to the
regulars who watched it every night without the sound. (By the time Johnny
came on, jukebox revelers had usually taken over and TV noise was totally
obliterated.) The regulars were the five guys on the late shift at the
corner Sinclair station, a couple of house painters and an aluminum siding
salesman named Shorty. There was also a woman named Red who sometimes
brought her cousin.
These regulars were a stern panel of judges; a kind of Gong Show in
reverse. They judged Johnny's guests on poise, visual appeal, wardrobe, and
whether or not they were heterosexual. The comments were generally
predictable. If the guest were Rock Hudson, Burt Reynolds or Rossano Brazzi,
Red would say, "He can put his shoes under my bed anytime." If Johnny had
either Fernando Lamas or Ricardo Montalban on, he would be referred to as
"that coffee bean." Leslie Uggams, Mitzi Gaynor, and Charo always drew
finger snapping and hooting. Paul Williams elicited snickering and words
like, "would you take a look at that guy." My favorites were always the
stand-up comics. If a comedian can make you laugh when you can't hear his
jokes he's very good.
Johnny himself was charming with or without sound, a universally likeable
presence. One snowbound winter's night there were only about three people in
the bar. A man walked in and ordered a beer. He had a southern accent. He
turned out to be a truck driver from Texas on his way to Vermont. (The bar
was in upstate New York.) I gave him a beer and we both turned toward the
television. Joey Bishop was sitting in Johnny's chair talking to Ed
MacMahon. The man turned back to me and in his Texas drawl said, "Johnny
must be sick tonight."
"Maybe he's on vacation," I answered. "He goes on vacation a lot." I
realized that this man from Texas and I had a mutual friend. Everyone across
the country was on a first name basis with Johnny Carson and worried about
his health as well. I was amazed. We agreed that though Joey was all right,
he couldn't hold a candle to Johnny. (I've since realized that statements to
that effect have become ritual accolades spoken by guests to Johnny
himself.) The truck driver went on his way saying, "I hope he's back
Some time later when I was in the army I found myself in the Greensboro,
North Carolina, airport one night at about midnight. I had an hour to kill
before making a connection to Columbus, Georgia. Viet Nam was going on and I
was in the infantry. The waiting room was a limbo of sorts, like a highway
rest stop. There was a row of five or six chairs that had televisions
attached to them. I sat in the chair on the end, plunked a quarter into the
slot and on came Johnny. For that hour I was alone in that small southern
airport waiting room watching "The Tonight Show." I thought about my truck
driver friend of one night and wondered if he were watching somewhere.
It wasn't that the show was so good, it was just that it was so familiar. It
was a show you watched at the end of the day when it was too late to worry
about anything. Well, it wasn't the end of the day for me and I had plenty
to worry about. It didn't matter. As I watched the show, with the same aging
nymphet plugging her latest dramatic opus and the same author in his good
suit making an impassioned plea for the vanishing foxbat, I began to cry. It
was so familiar I felt like I was home. As my plane took off, I saw lights
going out in peaceful suburban houses. I knew Johnny had just said good-
- from The TV Book, ed. by Judy Fireman, Workman Publishing Co., 1977.
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