In 1954, Red Skelton had an unfortunate accident. During a rehearsal, he plunged headlong into a “breakaway” door which failed to give. The resulting concussion landed him in the hospital.
What to do? A live show was about to be broadcast in just thirty minutes!
A writer named Johnny Carson had another gig as host of a show called Earn Your Vacation. He was obviously used to being in front of the camera. So he was persuaded to host that night’s episode.
He was brilliant. NBC execs watched, and remembered.
In 1962, tumultuous Tonight Show host Jack Paar called it quits for the final time. NBC contacted Carson’s agent to see if he wanted the job. Carson said sure, as long as long-time friend Ed McMahon could join him. Thus began a run that would last for thirty years.
Carson’s immaculate sense of timing and delivery, as well as having the best comedy writers in Hollywood, let him build a legacy that Jay Leno will have a hard time surpassing. His anniversary show that aired each year cemented certain routines into our minds, like the Jack Webb copper clapper caper, Ed Ames throwing a hatchet and nailing a human cardboard figure in the crotch (Carson’s classic ad lib: “I didn’t even know you were Jewish!”), and the night he burst in on a filming of CPO Sharkey to berate Don Rickles for breaking his cigarette box during the previous night’s co-hosting.
The show also spawned urban legends. Who hasn’t heard of the off-color remark made to Winnie Palmer after she allegedly informed Johnny that she kissed Arnie’s (golf) balls before each tournament? Or the remark made to Zsa Zsa Gabor after she offered to let him pet her “cat?” Snopes.com disproves both of them, but one of the truest marks of greatness is to inspire such legends.
Carson was a huge influence on this particular class clown. I would do my best to imitate his timing, and I would get laughs, even reluctant ones from teachers trying to maintain order.
I would get a rush when each night’s announced guests included the Mighty Carson Art Players. That meant an appearance by Carnac the Magnificent, who would curse the audience when they applauded that the FINAL envelope containing the hidden question was announced. Or maybe Floyd R. Turbo, American would be delivering a comical right-wing bombast. Perhaps it would be Art Fern hosting a Tea Time Movie, sneaking kisses from foxy Carol Wayne in between hot-pitched commercials (“Drive to the Slausen Cutoff, Stop the car, get out and cut off your slausen”). It didn’t matter who it was, it would be great.
One last legend that turned out to be true, because I watched it live: Johnny really DID tell Dolly Parton that he would give a year’s salary to peek under her blouse. And I believe he was making about $4,000,000 a year at the time.