In World War Two, a Dear John letter meant someone was getting kissed off. This is not that kind of letter, but it is a Dear John letter, and someone is getting kissed off. Other than that, itís not that kind of letter. Today, when I woke up, I heard Johnny Carson had died. The Golden Age of Comedy has definitely ended! Mr. Carson produced in, and starred on The Tonight Show. That meant Johnny was his own boss. He didnít have to worry about the small stuff. But, he did. As an entire generation of comic actor types got older, Carson made them relevant again in the seventies and eighties. Don Rickles, Buddy Hackett, Charles Grodin, and many more got career extensions from breaking up Johnny at his desk. Rodney Dangerfield got another chance on The Tonight Show, which he played to the hilt.
When The Tonight Show moved to the west coast, it was like a golden spotlight had suddenly lit up the staircase used by stand up comedians. Standing at the top of that staircase was Johnny Carson. And he was helping young comics, defining, where none had existed before, a methodology for them to follow his footsteps. It was the most gracious thing ever done in TV, and stand up comedy history. Carson defined and knighted his own stylish Band of Brothers. Dave Letterman, Jay Leno, Steve Martin, Billy Crystal, Jerry Seinfeld, Arsenio Hall, David Brenner, and many more of his chosen, sat at King Carsonís Round Table. It was heady stuff!
As the second or third comedy wave broke on the west coast beaches, bringing various flotsams into the L.A. stand up scene, I washed ashore. On my first day, I landed a job at The World Famous Comedy Store. Then I took three buses to get to Burbank for a taping of the Tonight show! I made the acquaintance of a marvelous young lady, also waiting in line. It happened to be the night Johnny did the infamous Rhinestone Cowboy gag, riding a three-foot tall burro! Wow, hey Johnny, Iím in show biz, too! We waited in her car on the street, and stalked Mr. Carson, the whole way to his Bellaire home. No charges were filed against us.
A year later, I was a regular at the Comedy Store. Actually, I was an MC and doorman. But, after being chosen by the owner to host shows, I was there virtually every night. We were having music in the largest of the three showrooms that weekend. Buddy Rich and his Orchestra had pulled a full house in our Main Room. I bumped into Mr. Carson in the menís room. He didnít remember me. Trying not to get Mr. Carson wet, I told him I had noticed that Jeff Altman, a favorite, was now onstage in the smaller Original Room, and was just about to do a great Johnny Carson impression. Making a spraying exit, Johnny led his entourage into the smaller room, just in time to see Jeffís bit. Altman took a bow as he finished the bit, but didnít notice Johnnystep to the stage. As the crowd recognized Carson and began applauding, Jeff thought the reaction was for him. Turning, he sees Johnny and realizes the mistake. They both share the laugh. Then, Jeff introduces Johnny onstage, hands him the mike, and exits right to me at the back of the room. I told Jeff, he had achieved the near impossible. Johnny Carson would now be, in perpetuity, a Comedy Store regular.
Five years later, several comics had hired me to coach them through their first Tonight Show appearances. Skip Stephenson, Reverend George Wallace and Argus Hamilton had all asked me to accompany them backstage. All three did extremely well. Although Mr. Carson said HI, he didnít seem to place me. Just four days later, I was sweeping the sidewalk in front, prior to opening The Comedy Store. A fancy green Mercedes pulled up in front of me and, Lo and Behold, Johnny Carson got out! And he wanted to talk to ME. Evidently, he did remember me, because he asked to use our bathroom. When he came out, He made a point of inviting me to a taping, anytime, and then drove right off.
Three years later, I had been doing a revue show in Reno. I had to exit a 40-yard stage in the dark, and kept falling into the orchestra pit. I started wearing red shoes, so I could see my feet. I stopped falling in the orchestra pit. No biggie. When I got back to The Comedy Store two weeks later, I was still wearing them. I was standing around, chatting up the guys when an act didnít show. So I got to fill in for the ten-minute spot. I probably had the best show I had ever had in the Original Room. Thereís nothing like some shows on the road to sharpen your act. When I exited the stage, I flew down the back steps, right into Mr. Carson. I was sputtering apologies, when Johnny Carson himself, stuck out his hand, and said:
ď Nice set, Lue! I didnít know you even did stand up! Good stuff! And, those red shoes are wild! Great idea, Lue! Distinctive footwear! Ē It made the eighties for me. Johnny Carson like my act. And my Red Shoes! There is a God!
Mr. Carson influenced more comics than you will ever know. From Richard Pryor to Robin Williams. And many, many others in between. He taught us to get our best shots in, while using less than six minutes. He taught us that the best parts of us, didnít express profane language. But, mostly he taught us that class pays off. He taught comics to envision themselves big, REAL BIG! And calling their own shots. The trouble is, no comic has ever envisioned himself or herself as big as Johnny Carson. Not even Johnny! Who could? Really, when I heard that Johnny Carson died, I knew The Golden Age of Comedy had definitely ended. Now, itís up to his heirs to start a new era. Maybe it has started already. Weíll see. But, Iíll miss your sincerity and most of all, your warmth! Thanks! We wonít ever forget you. Goodbye, Mister Carson.