My bio references “another lifetime” and being a working comedian. Today I feel moved to share with you the inspiration behind working stand-up and an important anniversary just passed.
Regarding the business of comedy, many have asked me over the years, “What would’ve made you humiliate yourself like that?” Fair question. (They must have seen my act!) One comic, one microphone and — at times — one very lonely stage.
To that point, the roughest was a paid club emcee gig where the staff outnumbered the audience: four tourists, one table. Ooof-dah. Ice cubes tinkling in the patrons’ glasses make more noise than anyone’s uncomfortable laughter.
Having been born and raised in the Midwest, my inspiration was another Midwest native, a man named John William Carson. My contemporaries and I knew him as “Johnny” Carson.
Dubbed the King of Late Night television, Carson ended his 30-year run on NBC’s “The Tonight Show,” nearly 30 years ago to this date. Carson’s last show was taped and broadcast May 22, 1992.
I remember mourning his retirement like the death of a family member. Not just the loss of the world’s King of Late Night. It was an emotional gut punch because I had spent so many years visualizing my appearance on “Carson” and having the king invite me over to the couch — the ultimate endorsement — virtually guaranteeing a comic’s future success.
A partial list of performers that made Carson laugh and extend the couch invite include: David Letterman, Robin Williams, Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, Arsenio Hall, Jeff Foxworthy, Ellen DeGeneres, Rodney Dangerfield, Joan Rivers, David Brenner, Tim Allen, Drew Carey, Howie Mandel, Roseanne Barr and Don Rickles.
Before you think I had delusions of grandeur, I visualized being an invitee while understanding full well the odds of yours truly making that actual list were about 350 million to one, representing our nation’s population. My fantastic imagination — a la Robert De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin character in “The King of Comedy” — had me yucking it up with Carson, watching him tap his pencil on his desk as I slayed his loyal audience.
In many ways, I thank my Lord God for seeing to it I failed miserably in that business. Now that I’m a seasoned citizen, I have the wisdom to know just how miserable most in Carson’s business truly are. And Carson was certainly no exception.
Carson’s inner circle described him as dark, brooding, mercurial and deeply unhappy. He was widely known in the industry as a “mean drunk,” the polar opposite of his TV sidekick, Ed McMahon. Then there were the four marriages, three with spectacularly hard, headline-grabbing breakups alleging his drunken rages, scores of mistresses and misery.
The above notwithstanding, I worshipped Carson and fondly remember sneaking downstairs in my parents’ home in Minneapolis where I grew up. When my folks thought I was tucked away in bed two floors above and fast asleep, I tiptoed to the basement family room where I could see the TV but they couldn’t see me. I did this same routine literally hundreds of times as a kid.
My parents, as did millions of “The Tonight Show” viewers, laughed and laughed at Carson’s deadpan delivery — the harder he’d bomb jokes, the funnier everyone believed it to be. Of course, I was too young to truly appreciate the schtick, but if my folks were caught laughing out loud, it must be funny.
As I matured I began getting the jokes and appreciating the fact nothing he ever said or did was intended to be hurtful, divisive, mean-spirited and certainly not political. Carson did skewer politicians, but his deft approach was always even-handed. If he made fun of a Dem(ocrat), the next joke was aimed at the GOP (Republican Party).
Today’s late night hosts are likely all inspired by The King, yet no one is worthy of even occupying Carson’s shadow. Following their predecessor’s swan song, Dave Letterman and Jay Leno were both heirs apparent with the former coming perhaps the closest to trapping Carson’s lightning in a bottle. But close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.
The current offerings provided by Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Trevor Noah, James Corden, Steven Colbert and others seemingly occupy another universe from that of Johnny Carson. Carson had a calming effect on a nation tuning in for an entertainment night cap. An upbeat, fun and familiar way to end your day.
Yes, times change, people change, the world continues to revolve and evolve. But many of my fellow Boulder City residents are old enough to remember Carson fondly and miss what a national treasure he truly was.
Thirty years is a long time by any measure. Yet to this writer, it happened in a flash. Remembering Ed McMahon’s trademark “Heeeeeere’s Johnny” show open, I would like to offer an heartfelt, Cheeeeers Johnny! You are sorely missed.
The opinions expressed above belong solely to the author and do not represent the views of the Boulder City Review. They have been edited solely for grammar, spelling and style, and have not been checked for accuracy of the viewpoints.
Ron Russ is a Los Angeles transplant, living in and loving Boulder City since 2020. His career in commercial broadcasting spanned more than four decades including a brief stint as the announcer for Fox’s short-lived “The Chevy Chase Show.” In another lifetime Ron performed stand-up comedy in Los Angeles. He can be reached at email@example.com.