By Deb Bryan
Sunday’s Tribune had a story about one of America’s best known funnymen, Johnny Carson (Rick Kogan, Oct. 20). Johnny Carson had an on-stage personality, a side-kick in Ed McMahon, great jazz music (thank you Doc Severinsen), and Johnny was very, very rich. Prompted to do a little research, I found an interview by newsman, Mike Wallace*, that made me roar with laughter and want to gather clues as to Johnny’s success.
Johnny had talent but he approached his talent like work he had to make happen. Most of his mornings, he was immersed in the Tonight Shows’ atmosphere he had transported to his home office; jazz music in the background, numerous mementos and awards, and his beloved drums. From that office he would read newspapers, lots of newspapers, write material for the evening show, and study his performance from old show tapes. In the afternoon, he would drive to the studio and for hours, talk to the shows’ producer about that night’s guests. Later in the evening, his support staff of Ed McMahon, the band, NBC technical people, and guests arrived. Johnny tirelessly worked his craft because it was important to him, it meant his success, and he was in competition with other comedians just like himself. And Johnny was very competitive! But I believe the single most powerful point for Johnny’s staying power and career was his repeated, “I’ll be right back” because he meant it.
Johnny did not do life alone. Fred De Cordova, the show’s producer, was a good friend. Ed McMahon and Doc Severinsen were talented and skilled co-workers. NBC was well known in the television industry so it could draw the best of the best but still Johnny’s’ mantra of, “I’ll be right back” drove home his focus, not just for today, but for the future until he said “no more.”
As in everyone’s life, there were failures along way. Just to highlight one performance review: the producer from the 1950 Johnny Carson Show, Ben Brady, said of Johnny, “Carson was trying to be a major comedian in prime time, and he didn’t have the power. He is generically not a strong standup comedian like Hope, Skelton, or Benny. He isn’t now and he never can be.” We know the rest of the story but imagine having that broadcasted through the media? It’s the stuff my nightmares are made of! Quickly, breathe and say the mantra, “I’ll be right back!”
The governments’ foibles, any government, were the grist for the Tonight Show’s comedy mill. We got a good laugh at the wild and wooly world of leadership. And why not, they are still funny and they kept Johnny in business until HE decided to retire.
Johnny Carson was a man of paradoxes. Perhaps his own foibles are what made him a national treasure. He was known for being shy and defensive, a gentle man by his guests, a man who liked to be in control by fellow workers, and extremely quick witted by his public. He admitted to all but he stood on stage, 5 nights a week, and exposed himself to our opinion of the career he daily hammered away at with intensity. During his work day he said, “I’ll be right back” over and over again but he said it to himself as much as he said it to us.
At a news conference, Johnny was asked what he’d like his epitaph to be. “I’d prefer not to have one at all if-where it never got to that point,” he said laughing, “I don’t know. I think something like, ‘I’ll be right back.’” Now that’s a funny line! Or, is it? Maybe it is a message to us to keep the faith, baby.