Johnny Carson

It seems funny that just a few days ago, I was posting the news item about Johnny Carson feeding jokes to Dave Letterman, and now we are all saddened at the news of Johnny’s passing.

He was a remarkable entertainer, one who could appeal to a wide variety of ages, education levels and parts of the country. CNN just read a statement from Letterman expressing Dave’s sorrow and his gratitude to the man who gave him a big break. The last two lines of the statement: “He was the best. A star and a gentleman.”

He was taught by kindness

Beautiful Jim Key : The Lost History of a Horse and a Man Who Changed the WorldAs I posted a few weeks back, Mim Eichler Rivas’ book “Beautiful Jim Key: The Lost History of a Horse and a Man Who Changed The World” is about to be released. I interviewed the author last spring, and I’ll talk to her again soon in preparation for an appearance she will make in Shelbyville.

I have just finished reading the book. It’s a remarkable tale, skillfully told, and exceeded my already-high expectations. Of couse, I was particularly fascinated because I learned so much about my own home town of Shelbyville (I wasn’t born in Bedford County, but moved here at age 10). I knew that Shelbyville, because of high pockets of Union sympathy, was known as “Little Boston” during the Civil War, but Rivas brought out details and nuances of that reputation I had never know about. Even without that personal connection, however, you’ll be hooked by this fascinating story.

Since the late 1930s, Shelbyville’s best-known distinction has been the Tennessee Walking Horse industry and the annual Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration. But Shelbyville had a prior equine claim to fame — one which many of its current residents have no clue ever existed. Beautiful Jim Key was an Arabian-Hambletonian horse who lived at the turn of the 20th Century. His trainer was William Key, a former slave who developed and marketed a patent medicine called Keystone Liniment. William Key was a horse whisperer, one who used exclusively-gentle training methods, and he taught Beautiful Jim Key to recognize letters and numbers and perform other feats. Some of these, such as spelling names phonetically and making change, appear to have involved simple forms of reasoning. There were skeptics throughout the horse’s career, who assumed that the trainer was somehow sending secret signals to the horse, but no one — not even a team of Harvard professors — were ever able to discover any sort of system. Most, like Mim Rivas, came away concluding that the horse’s abilities were for real.

Promoter Albert Rogers teamed up with William Key and his amazing horse and made them nationwide celebrities, using them to promote the still-new cause of humane treatment of animals. More than one million children joined the horse’s fan club by promising to be kind to animals. The horse was praised by President William McKinley. Beautiful Jim Key was arguably the most famous horse of his brief era, and William Key was one of the best-known African-Americans of his day.

There are plenty of twists and turns to the tale, including a plausible argument that the horse had a significant impact on the development, decades later, of the Grand Ole Opry. It turns out that an appearance by Jim Key was only the second secular event held at the Union Gospel Tabernacle, later known as the Ryman Auditorium, and it seems to have opened the floodgates for the tabernacle to be used as an entertainment venue. The Ryman for a while became the Grand Ole Opry House, housing the venerable radio show during the peak of its prominence and influence.

Rivas and her husband, former Miami Dolphin Victor Rivers, have been honored by the Lifetime cable network for their work in the prevention of domestic violence. It’s obvious that the theme of humane treatment of animals resonates strongly with her as well, and that she believes the story of Jim Key has resonance even today. But the book is not a polemic, and doesn’t address modern disputes about what constitutes humane treatment of animals. It’s simply a good story, which will touch anyone with an interest in history, animals, race relations or popular entertainment.

My sister the scholar

My sister, a single mother with three children, is trying to take some online college courses. She’s working on a rhetorical analysis assignment for a communications class and has been asking for my input.

She keeps apologizing for what she’s done so far, but I think it’s terrific. I could not possibly be more proud of her for making the effort to improve herself — and, by doing so, to improve the prospects for herself and the kids.

Nor a lender be

In one of the first two regular episodes of “Battlestar Galactica” last weekend, the formidable Commander Adama (Edward James Olmos) is bonding — just a little bit — with the President, his inexperienced but tenacious civilian superior, played by Mary McDonnell. They discover a shared love of reading. He hands her a favorite volume, and she says something about returning it.

“It’s a gift,” he replies, gruffly. (In connection with Edward James Olmos, forms of “gruff” are probably redundant.) “Never loan books.”

I’d loaned my copy of “America: The Book,” by the writers of “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” to a co-worker a month or two ago. Several weeks ago, she said something to the effect that maybe she ought to just return it, because it didn’t look like she was going to have a chance to finish it any time soon. Jon had mentioned something about the book on the show last week, which reminded me of something I wanted to re-read. That prompted me to ask my co-worker if she could, in fact, go ahead and return my copy. She brought it back the next day.

Or did she?

A day or two later, she told me the real story. My original copy of “America: The Book” had actually been ruined when my co-worker’s trunk leaked in the rain, and she’d gone out and bought a brand new copy to replace it.

I mentioned in my last post that Beth Martin had shown me a copy of a Bill Bryson book about Africa. She offered to loan it to me, but “Never loan books” and the image of a waterlogged Jon Stewart flashed into my head, and I declined.


I drove to Nashville tonight to have dinner with Beth Martin, a friend of mine through Mountain T.O.P. Beth showed me some wonderful photos of a trip she took to Peru. She also showed me a book by travel writer Bill Bryson, “Bill Bryson’s Africa Diary,” which includes a photo of Bryson standing in front of the Kibera slums. I’ve read some of Bryson’s other work, and I may well have to order this one.

Beth fixed us a wonderful chicken curry — she knew that I’m a fan of Rachael Ray on the Food Network, and this is a recipe from one of Rachael’s cookbooks. It was delicious.

All in all, a nice evening. But as I got in the car to come home, my tires seemed to shimmy as I was getting onto the interstate. I was oversensitive about everything on the way back, and drove slower than I would have otherwise. Even though I am a car hypochondriac, I probably need to take the car to be looked at tomorrow.

Don’t spar with the Sponge (or Tinky Winky, or Murphy Brown for that matter)

Church Marketing Sucks has a terrific post about the PR dangers of criticizing fictional characters (the latest example being Spongebob Squarepants) on moral grounds.

This whole Spongebob brouhaha reminds me of a piece that “The Daily Show” aired a few years ago reporting on some Christian media critic who was enraged because an orange juice commercial, in his opinion, hinted that Popeye and Bluto were lovers!

The mighty Carnac

Peter Lassally, former producer of “The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson” (before you say anything, Fred de Cordova was executive producer) and former co-executive producer of “Late Show with David Letterman”, is now a CBS executive. According to several news reports I read today, he was speaking at the Television Critics’ Association meeting and told the reporters there something interesting.

Johnny Carson still thinks up topical jokes about items in the news. While watching TV or reading the newspaper, he often comes up with the type of funny line that might have made it into his monologue before he retired.

But here’s the best part: sometimes, according to Lassally, Johnny sends the jokes to Letterman, who uses them in his monologue!

A few weeks ago, some news outlets, needlessly, ran a photo of a bloated, aged-looking Carson out in public. (Surprise — he looks like an old man! Geez, what do you expect him to look like? And what’s the point of invading his privacy to point out the obvious, which has no news value whatsoever?) Anyway, one of the celebrities from Johnny’s semi-regular poker game — I forget which one — gave an interview and said that Johnny is still as sharp and mentally acute as ever. Lassally’s comments would seem to confirm this.

I thought it was common knowledge that Johnny considered Dave, not Jay Leno, his heir apparent, but a co-worker to whom I told this story today expressed surprise that Johnny would send jokes to Letterman rather than to Leno, his official successor. No, Johnny favored Dave over Jay to take over the “Tonight Show” — and was miffed when NBC didn’t even ask for his opinion on the matter.

Carson has stubbornly avoided public appearances since his retirement, figuring it’s better to go out on top and leave people wanting more than to make some frail, doddering appearance that would tarnish people’s memories of him. But in the mid-1990s, soon after Dave began the “Late Show” on CBS, Johnny made two very brief cameo appearances during a week of shows Dave taped in Los Angeles. One appearance was in a taped bit — Dave and Paul Shaffer were supposed to be fixing a flat tire, and Carson drives by and laughs at them instead of stopping to help. The other, at the end of the week, was a quick walk-on in which Carson handed Dave the blue index card for that night’s Top Ten list.

In the waning days of Dave’s NBC show, while he was biding his time waiting for the jump to CBS, Letterman called the retired Carson on the air one night and asked for permission to appropriate “Stump the Band.” Letterman still does “Stump the Band” from time to time, and it usually starts with Paul Shaffer wearing a Carnac turban, as if he were confused about exactly which comedy bit they were borrowing from Johnny. Shaffer actually opens an envelope and does one Carnac joke.

It’s a fitting tribute to Carson from Letterman, one great broadcaster to another.

A confession

I live in a small apartment complex with only two coin-operated washing machines and one dryer — and no change machine.

Tonight, I did something I’ve never done before, and probably shouldn’t have done tonight. I broke into my Mountain T.O.P. “Bring Change to the Mountain” change donation box to find a quarter. Normally, I don’t put quarters into the thing — I save them for laundry, and dump all of my nickels, dimes and pennies into the change box. But tonight, I was one quarter short of what I needed, and it had been a long day and I didn’t feel like getting back into the car and driving to a car wash to get change. I knew that I’d put a quarter or two into the box at some time or other, and I broke in and found one. I promised myself I would put an extra 50 cents back into the box tomorrow.

Even so, I feel guilty.