First off… my apologies for being away so long, it’s just been a case of out of sight out of mind. Meaning, since the recent closing of our bar, I’ve kind of been on this mental holiday from Barland.
Secondly… my sincerest thanks to all you regulars who still stopped by every week (which I’ve noticed on my Dashboard page almost making me feel guilty) only to find a bar with no damn bartender. However, since I’m still in that mental holiday mode while my apron hangs unemployed on a goddam nail somewhere, I’ve decided to share a story that’s not about Barland. I hope you don’t mind.
I watched a show on television last night which aired on American Masters, a documentary on Johnny Carson’s life which was wonderful. For many reasons. It was thoughtful, it was probing (probing without being “tabloid-y”), it was filled with priceless photos and footage from Johnny’s Iowa childhood (beyond the obligatory tomahawk throw that put Ed Ames in the pantheon), and overall a worthy tribute to an American master. A television master! But there was one theme that ran through the show which everyone seemed to agree on… the “so-called” aloofness Johnny displayed and the distance he kept when the tape stopped rolling and the lights went out. To which I can personally attest having seen it first hand. Check this out…
A long time ago and in a galaxy far, far away (Los Angeles to be exact) your friendly bartender worked in television game shows. In a “Development” crew whose job was to create new shows. Well one day out of nowhere, and a day I’ll never forget, Dick Carson, Johnny Carson’s brother, who’d been directing The Tonight Show back in New York but decided to go off on his own and move back to California, walked through the door of our run-through room to join us. He’d just been hired as a writer/director/producer.
Is this freaking possible, I thought, Johnny Carson’s brother joining this madhouse??? But Dick had a good deal. If a show we created got on the air he wouldn’t just get to direct the thing and produce it, he would get a piece of the action in the form of a royalty. (Unlike me and the other guys who would just get a pat on the head and a healthy raise.) Anyway, Dick was a welcome edition to the gang, as down to earth as it gets, and he and I became semi-friends beyond work. So much so that one Friday night as we walked to our parked cars after closing the office, he invited me out to his house that Sunday for brunch. Then he added, “Johnny’s in town and he might stop by and join us.” The Tonight Show was still based in New York but a couple times a year they taped two weeks in L.A.
I tried to act tres cool when he said it as if his brother was Morty from Queens, the barber, so I casually said, “Great, Dick, I’d love to.”
“Terrific,” he said, “and since I live near a park we can work off the meal with touch foortball.” Then he gave me directions to his house and that was that. Until Sunday. When I couldn’t believe my good fortune as I drove to his house as nervous as a kid on a first date. I mean this was Johnny Carson!
So Johnny pulled up around eleven o’clock in a rented Continental Mark IV. He got out of the car, looked around, and in that trademark thing that he always did when he had to take off his blazer on the show for a bit, he sucked in his stomach, threw out his chest, and ambled across the lawn like Mr. Fitness. All of which I watched like a kid through the living room window.
“Johnny’s here,” I finally yelled, (no I didn’t yell, “Here’s Johnny!”), to Dick and his wife Pat in the kitchen making Bloody Mary’s. Then Johnny knocked on the door and it was showtime. I felt like one of those rookie comedians about to make his debut on The Tonight Show.
“Hey, John,” Dick said, walking him into the living room, “say hello to my friend who’s a colleague at work.” Then he said my name. Johnny shook my hand firmly, but looked like he’d just been ambushed by a Paparazzi. He had no idea there’d be a third party and when Dick and Pat returned to the kitchen there was Johnny and me in this awkward silence. A silence so thick it almost gave off a hum. But the funny thing was, and this I swear, Johnny seemed to be even more nervous than I was. After taking a seat across from me he fidgeted with the hem of his bell bottoms, craned his neck as he cased the room, until he finally broke the ice with, “You live here in the valley?”
“Ah, no, Sir,” I said, “I live in the hills.” Then more silence.
It was all too surreal because here was the greatest conversationalist in the world, or at least in television history, unable to relax and talk to little ol’ me. Which believe it or not made me start to relax. Dick and Pat soon rescued the moment with a welcome tray of Bloodies, then off we went to the table for Sunday brunch. But now the “awkward” was all on me because they had stuff to catch up on so I stayed silent. Until finally, when Jack Daniels replaced the Bloodies, Johnny’s request as I recall, things got a little looser and I got to speak. They’d been talking about New York City when Pat maybe sensing my alienation asked if I’d ever been there and that was my cue.
I said, “The only time I’ve ever been there was three years ago when I went with a buddy for New Year’s. The point was to go to Time’s Square and watch the ball drop, but since the mob looked way too nuts and we were staying with a bunch of stewardesses, I figured it made more sense to stay home with them.”
“Good m-o-o-o-o-v-e!” Johnny said, like he used to do on his show, then he tapped his temple and smiled as if to say “Schmart!” The glacier had thawed. Then things loosened up even more from there and we actually had a four way conversation. In fact, Johnny almost joined us for the football part but since he had to tape a show that night (in those days they taped from Sunday to Thursday working on a one day delay) he decided he’d better get back and take a little nap. And off he went.
And that’s when I said the following to Johnny Carson’s brother. “Ya’ know, Dick,” I began, “I’ve hardly ever mentioned Johnny’s name in all the time I know you, because I’m sure your tired of hearing, ‘Tell me about Johnny’. Him being the famous one. But I finally have to tell you now your brother’s my goddam idol, and this was the coolest thing that’s ever happened to me. Hands down! But it’s also, in a funny way, the most disappointing.”
“How’s that?” he said, smiling as though he knew where I was going.
“Because I was expecting to meet that warm, charming guy from television.”
“See, I told you!” Pat shouted from the kitchen. For whatever reason.
“He just seemed so uptight,” I said,”like he didn’t even want me to talk to him. In fact I think he was really upset that I was here.”
Dick knew just what I meant and laid it all out. He said, “You see, my brother is terribly shy and he’s not very good at all in social situations. No matter who the person is. Plus, now that he’s not Johnny Carson but JOHNNY CARSON, he’s wary of people because everyone wants a piece him. And so that guy you see on TV every night, that warm, charming guy you described, that’s the real Johnny and the brother I grew up with. On the show is where he’s at home now, sitting behind that desk, that’s where he can relax and be who he is. It’s almost sad in a way.”
And that said it all. Then we walked to the park and worked off the meal with some football.
Dick didn’t stay with the company long, he’d gotten an offer to direct Merv Griffin and I remember him asking my advice at the time if he should take it. I said, “Hey, Dick, this stuff’s all on spec, it may take a year til we get on the air if we get something on at all, Merv’s already a show and that’s a payday.” I don’t know whether that made up his mind but he took the job on “Merv” and never looked back.
But I’ve looked back many, many times to that amazing afternoon I spent with Johnny Carson!
All the best til next we meet, dear reader!