Politics & Policy

Personal to Johnny

My nights on Tonight.

If Johnny Carson could have managed it, no doubt his death would have been a private affair. Who would have been invited to his memorial service? We don’t know. That is the measure of his integrity as a private man. We don’t even know how many of his ex-wives would have been invited, or would have come.

I was his guest a half-dozen times, and was always handled with great courtesy. He once confided to a critic that I was the only guest he had ever been frightened of. I don’t know what the circumstances of that odd situation were, and the critic didn’t pause to ask, and Johnny didn’t elaborate. As far as I know.

As I write these words a memory flashes up.

Scene: The Tonight Show. Guests: David Susskind and me (WFB).

David Susskind is widely forgotten, but he was a singular presence on television for about 20 years. He staked out the ultimate talk show (he called it Open End) by the simple expedient of making it endless. He would start out at 9 P.M., on Channel 13 in New York (this was before it had become a part of the educational network), with one or more guests, and just talk on & on into the night, sometimes not closing down the program until after midnight.

I was sometimes his guest, and he developed over several years an uncontainable sense of indignation . . . that I, and my views as expressed in National Review, should exist. At all. The hostility had come to something of a boil when Johnny Carson convened us for a joint appearance on The Tonight Show.

Susskind began with a minute-long pre-written, memorized excoriation, and Johnny asked me to reply. I remember that Susskind had misused two words, so I thought to concentrate my reply on his solecisms, rather than on his political views. Carson was hugely amused and beckoned Susskind back into the fray, whereupon Susskind denounced my “noxious” views. I said to Carson that Susskind didn’t know the proper meaning of that word, Susskind shot back indignantly, “What is the proper meaning?” and I said, “I won’t tell you.” Johnny Carson was amused by everything, but I think he was especially amused that night, and on succeeding occasions when I was his guest, he would come into the Green Room before the program began to chat for a moment or two.

Never about politics, at least not directly. But since I was always there to try to bring attention to a book I had written, he would touch on the subject of the book, being careful not to suggest to me that he had actually read it. It was unprofessional for any guest to suppose that Johnny had actually plowed through the books written by his guests.

But there was an exception, and it taught me enduringly. The book was about a sailing trip I had taken across the Pacific Ocean. At the end of our 8-10 minute session he turned to the audience and said, “Now you people know there isn’t any way I can read every word of every book I mention. But I want to show you how thoroughly I read this book.” He opened his copy to the cameras and pointed out his own annotations on specimen pages. He told his ten million viewers: Go and buy this wonderful book.

I was not about to let the viewers get ahead of me and rushed from the studio to a pay telephone, dialing my publisher: He must order a mass printing, in anticipation of the avalanche of demand for the book the following day.

But Johnny’s audience, unlike Oprah’s, wasn’t tuning in to decide what books to buy. They wanted entertainment, and they got it, not from the contents of books being promoted on The Tonight Show, but from conversation by Johnny, and incidentally his guests.

The last time around he said to me, “I’d like to schedule an entire hour with you.” I dined that night with a friend, who brought along Tonight’s producer. I mentioned the suggestion. He replied, “The last thing Johnny Carson needs is you on his show for an entire hour.”

He was almost certainly right, but it was a nice thought, and I thought Johnny Carson a nice man, and if it doesn’t interrupt his privacy, I’ll say it in public.


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