by Kevin Burton
There was a time when one man captured this nation’s attention, made us laugh and in a way, held us together.
And that national smile began with the first five notes of that song, The Tonight Show theme.
“Daaaaa dum dum daaaa daaaa….”
You heard those notes and you put down your troubles for a while.
Jeannette and I spent some time last week remembering the late comedian and true national treasure Johnny Carson. His birthday is tomorrow. He was on our minds because we visited the Johnny Carson museum in Norfolk, Nebraska on the Thursday of our recent vacation. There is a gathering of comedians, musicians and magic acts planned today at the museum. They are calling it Johnny Carson’s Birthday Party.
Carson was born in Corning, Iowa, but spent his formative years in Norfolk, Nebraska, a fact that the town notes with pride.
“Norfolk’s a lovely town. I think there is a great advantage to growing up – and I mean this – in a small community,” is one of the Carson quotes posted on a wall there.
The Carson memorabilia is actually housed toward the back of the Elkhorn Valley Museum. The building is also home to the Nebraska Music Hall of Fame. But make no mistake, Carson is the main attraction there as he was in life.
The late-night landscape is now as splintered as the nation as a whole. This was not always so. The Tonight Show in the Carson years, came to be a national community, a culture based on comedy, a reflection of our life and times.
“Johnny Carson was like a public utility. At the end of the day, he was the one you wanted to be there,” said fellow late-night host David Letterman in tribute to Carson after his death.
Carson’s influences were Jack Benny, Red Skelton, Bob Hope, Groucho Marx, Fred Allen and Jack Parr. It was Parr who Carson replaced as Tonight Show host in 1962. Carson in turn influenced just about everybody doing comedy, talk shows or both.
For me, staying up late enough to watch Carson was part of coming of age, trying adulthood on for size. That the show was so good was an additional prize. Carson was a funny man who introduced us to other funny and/or interesting people at a time when I cared about movie and television stars.
Being in the museum was a joy all its own. You ended up with strangers laughing out loud together, remembering how great Carson was a whatever place we were in when we first watched him.
The museum contains several recordings of Tonight Show episodes. By pushing a button you can see Carson play his famous characters including my favorite, Carnac The Magnificent. Here’s the description of Carnac from Wikipedia:
“Carnac the Magnificent, a turbaned psychic, could answer questions before seeing them. Carnac had a trademark entrance in which he always turned the wrong direction when coming onstage and then tripped on the step up to Carson’s desk. These comedic missteps were an indication of Carnac’s true prescient abilities.”
Longtime Carson sidekick Ed “McMahon would hand Carson a series of envelopes containing questions, said to have been ‘hermetically sealed and kept in a mayonnaise jar on Funk & Wagnalls‘ porch since noon today.’
Carson would place each envelope against his forehead and predict the question. For example, he would give the answer as ‘Gatorade.’ Then, he would open the envelope and read the question: “What does an alligator get on welfare?”
“Some of the jokes were feeble, and McMahon used pauses after terrible puns and audience groans to make light of Carson’s lack of comic success (“Carnac must be used to quiet surroundings”), prompting Carson to return an equal insult.”
“Pat McCormick wrote some of the zaniest Carnac material. The one that had McMahon and Carson nearly rolling on the floor with sustained laughter was ‘Sis boom bah,’… ‘Describe the sound made when a sheep explodes.’”
“McMahon would always announce near the end, ‘I hold in my hand the last envelope,’ at which the audience would applaud wildly, prompting Carnac to pronounce a comedic ‘curse’ on the audience, such as ‘May a flock of wild geese leave a deposit on your breakfast!’”
Carson’s Tonight Show work took place in first New York, then Los Angeles. But he was a son of the heartland and that came through in what he did to connect to his audience.
The museum has a cardboard cutout of Carson behind his famous desk and two chairs to the right of it. Visitors who paid their $6 admission are encouraged to sit next to Johnny’s desk and take a picture. So, Jeannette took my picture.
Silly stuff. But it fit in just right in our vacation, as we remembered our past, enjoyed our present and imagined our future.
And that theme song? It’s actually called “Johnny’s Theme” and it was written by Paul Anka. It was a re-working of Anka’s song “Toot Sweet,” according to Wikipedia. Carson wrote words to the song, according to Wikipedia but they were never used.
The song was played on Carson’s first Tonight Show in 1962 and on every show thereafter for his entire 30-year run.