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.