Politics & Policy

Heeeeere’s . . .

Remembering a late-night legend.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the February 14, 2005, issue of National Review.

In a box, somewhere in my house, I have a picture of me and Johnny Carson on the set of the old Tonight show. We’re standing affably side-by-side, me grinning like an idiot, him with lips pursed in a patient half-smile. We look like a rich uncle and a mildly retarded nephew, meeting awkwardly for the first time. Which in a way we were.

I was then a mid-level writer on the long-running television comedy Cheers, and Johnny had agreed to appear on an episode of the show. So we all trooped over the hill from Hollywood to Burbank–pretty much all of us who worked on the show, even those who, like me, had only the thinnest of reasons for doing so–and stood around in sheepish, clumsy little groupings as Johnny did his scenes, punched up our lines, asked a couple of vague questions, and posed for photographs.

At one point during the shoot, I found myself alone next to him at a small bank of video monitors.

Traditionally, this is the moment during a Hollywood anecdote when something touching or hilarious or meaningful is said, when wisdom is imparted, when insight is gained. What was supposed to happen, in my mind anyway (I was 27 at the time), was Johnny Carson’s touching me lightly on the arm and saying, “You want to know the secret to all of this, Rob? The trick to making it through this business?” And then he would tell me, and I would nod and say something incredibly funny, and then he and I would be best friends.

What happened was this: After a few moments of standing side-by-side in total silence, I pointed randomly to one of the monitors and shrugged, all fake-casual, “We’ll probably use this angle.” To which Johnny Carson nodded and pursed his lips in a patient half-smile while I grinned like a drunkard. Click…

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