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Saturday, December 25, 2010

What's So Funny About Nebraska?

What’s So Funny About Nebraska

Among my growing list of topics promised but not delivered was a report on a comedy festival I attended recently in Norfolk, Neb. (I got an award there, but let that pass.) At the risk of sounding curmudgeonly, attending anything that threatened a forced viewing of a lot of new and largely unknown standup comics would be low on my list of musts; down there between dedicating a statue of Spiro Agnew and a street sale of macramé.

But this one, the Great American Comedy Festival, had good promise. Among the reasons for saying yes was that Robert Klein would be there and that these particular aspirants to the jesting trade had been expertly selected. Eddie Brill — himself a comic pro and hunter for talent for Dave Letterman’s show — had combed the comic woods, scanning top comedy clubs around the United States for the best available and most promising talent. And he delivered it. Brill confesses that there is something a little silly in treating comedy as a contest, but it can be fun and nobody gets hurt.

(Parenthetically to the point of irrelevance, one of Bill Clinton’s lesser legacies to us all has been to make it just about impossible for anyone in public life and in the media to say anything without prefacing it with the now reflexive phrase, “Let me say this…” Who’s stopping you?!, I scream at the screen.)

Anyway, let me say this: John William Carson, born Oct. 23, 1925, in Corning, Iowa, continued his growing up in Norfolk, Neb., a town now famous for Johnny Carson. He died on another 23rd — in January of 2005.

For years I wrote for Johnny, and as I moved on he remained a valued friend. I’ve never known why I have to convince skeptics of this fact.

When Carson was eight, the family moved to the diminutive metropolis of Norfolk. Smooth and gregarious on camera, Johnny was uneasy with most people. He wasn’t with me and our enduring friendship had a lot to do with that.

He was suspicious of journalists and columnists, and their failure to get him to “open up” resulted in some bad press and the frequent label “cold.” That military brace, ramrod-straight posture of his was lampooned by those who go by the silly, pretentious term “impressionists.” (You know: Rich Little, Will Jordan, David Frye, Monet, Renoir…)

While still writing for John C. in days of yore, I survived saying about him on one of those well-produced Smith & Hemion “Kraft Music Hall” shows a joke that began, “It’s often said about Johnny that he has a ramrod up his…spine.” During the laugh, I glanced to the side to see if the eminent victim of the roast — and my former boss — was at least smiling. He was.

It’s hard to “roast” someone you really like, but our friendship survived the evening. People, including some on his staff, continued to treat me as a hallucinator with: “You’ve actually been to Johnny’s house? For dinner?” It never stopped.


“Don’t for God’s sake ever repeat this to anyone or tell him I told you,” said the gnomish little bald man in the Cinerama-wide plate-glass specs, “at least while he and I are both alive.” The speaker, who was driving, was the legendary agent Irving “Swifty” Lazar. We were heading up whatever “drive” in Bel Air led to Swifty’s house, a place that was really a mini-Louvre of priceless paintings, with Picasso one of the smaller names. In Swifty’s case, there was major money in book-agenting such huge-selling volumes as Richard M. Nixon’s memoirs — humorously categorized under “non-fiction.”

Swifty, driving in disconcerting Mr. Magoo style, delivered a thunderbolt.

“Johnny is very fond of you, you know,” he began. And after another “top secret” cautioning, he went on, “I think you ought to know this. Johnny said to me once, ‘Cavett’s the only one who could beat me. If Dick hadn’t been on a network with a short station line-up, he might have.’”

As comics say about such moments, “When they brought me to…and then brought me two more….”

That Johnny had said this was so unexpected and so startling to me — and you don’t need a degree in psychiatry to understand this — that I promptly forgot it. (Yes, it came back in due course and it still has voltage for me.)

By the way, none of this should be construed as an attempt to obscure Johnny’s later, genuine enthusiasm for Dave Letterman’s talents.

“We wish you were on once a week,” a member of the Carson staff said to me once. “Johnny’s a different man when you come on. He’s even happy in the afternoon when he comes to work. And when you’re out there with him, he actually leans back in his chair.” This touched me, and does now, remembering it.


I was among the judges of the eight finalists in the comedy competition that night in Norfolk. It’s the home, quite naturally, of a splendid Johnny Carson Museum, featuring an intriguing collection of photographs, some showing the pre-and post-pubescent lad with his beloved magic apparatus and that then-still-anonymous face that was to become, often painfully for its owner, instantly recognizable everywhere.

Each day of the festival — it was the first held — the local papers were splashed with publicity and articles about the hugely successful event. One newspaper had a big color picture of Johnny on the air, at his desk, looking amused by his guest (me) in the swivel chair beside him. I’d never seen the picture before. We both look young and happy and are clearly enjoying each other’s company.

The place, a handsome and good-sized theater, was packed for the gala final night’s show. There was a good, smart, sell-out audience of sharp local people and, onstage, excellent work by the young aspirants. At the end of the show, to my ear, both Bob Klein and I killed ‘em. (The audience, not the aspirants.)

Klein and I reminisced over a western breakfast about what it was like “being on” with Johnny and how much pleasing him and making him laugh meant to a growing comic and his career. And, of course, to quite a few would-be pursuers of the comedy dream, a single smashing appearance with Johnny made a career.

Klein and I recalled how each time you found yourself standing anxiously behind that famous curtain with the vertical colored stripes, nerves would jangle almost audibly. At least a portion of your life flashed before your eyes.

Next, your pulse quickened a bit as you — alone and hidden — heard the familiar voice say your name and, pushing that curtain aside, and taking one step into the bright lights — you were in front of America. And Johnny.

I felt sort of sorry for those sharp young comics in Norfolk that they would never have the thrill (do we still say “the rush”?) of meeting Johnny — the career-maker of the day — and making him laugh on the air.

Of all the appearances I did with him — doubtless they are among that ton of Carson shows NBC so thoughtfully erased — I most remember one in California. He would always have me on the show whenever the latest incarnation of “The Dick Cavett Show” … um … completed its current tenure. Often on the following Monday and always with a version of the same joke in the monologue: “Our good friend Dick Cavett is here tonight. Dick’s had another show shot out from under him. [Laugh.] I’m always afraid that if the next one doesn’t take, it’s going to be Armed Forces Radio for Dick.” [Laugh with capital "L."]

On such a night I made Johnny laugh, but hard. I had been the first guest out — a huge honor — and so by the end, when it was time for goodnights, and having “moved down” with each new guest, I was the farthest down the couch, cheek to cheek with Ed McMahon.

With about a minute remaining, Johnny began asking each guest what was coming up for him. And each had a big movie, big Broadway show, big something to plug. I didn’t. I hoped the clock would run out before my fellow Nebraskan got to me.

Every comic can report a few “gift from the gods” moments. Here came one. “What are you doing, Richard?” he asked with a kindly smile, and I sensed he knew I probably had nothing to brag about.

Then, a miracle bred of panic: I heard myself say, “I’m working on an idea for a sitcom, Johnny. It’s a humorous version of ‘Gilligan’s Island.’” The reaction would have broken a laugh meter.

Several columnists quoted the line, but — since an ear for nuance is not mandatory for such employment — invariably misquoted it as “a comedy version,” thus karate-chopping away the line’s finesse, if I may so say.

But the important thing was Johnny’s reaction. He did that thing where he exploded with laughter that sent him sideways stage left off his chair. I felt like a stock market must feel going through the roof, or the space shuttle blasting off.

For a (comparative) youngster, still making his way in our cutthroat business, a lottery win would have paled by comparison. Oh, how I’d love to have a tape of that moment to wear out in repeated viewings.


Well, our hour is about up. Maybe next time we might explore why, despite all this, anybody in his right mind would want to be a comedian.

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