Sunday, September 18, 2005


Two Quintessential Americans: Johnny and Dave

I just finished watching this year's Emmy extravaganza.
Ellen DeGeneres did a fairly good job of hosting it: whatever timing did not go according to plan was certainly not her fault. One of the two best moments of the evening was most certainly when David Letterman paid tribute to his mentor, Johnny Carson. And then Jon Stewart did the same for Dave, which, considering that he walked away with most of the "reality" humor awards for the evening, was especially sweet. Conan O'Brien also appeared to be touched. But where, I wonder, was Bill Maher?

When Johnny passed away, I wrote the following:



It didn’t dawn on me until this morning: Johnny Carson passed away on my mother’s birthday. She would have liked that, I think, as she herself was quiet, self-effacing… and managed to have perfect timing. Just like Johnny.
It takes a helluva comedian to be able to play the straight to someone else’s funny. Engaging in humor – or, at least, attempting to do so – I’m discovering that as I go along. Perhaps not so much through my written work, but when I come out with something that—for reasons often unbeknownst to me—makes someone laugh, I sometimes take a step back, look at the person quizzically… and only succeed in making her/him laugh even more. I think this is called delivery. And delivery cannot exist without timing.
My mother was great at the delivery and the timing. You’re either born with it, or you’re not. In my opinion, my mother had it. And so did Johnny.
My mother could make me laugh at the drop of a hat. She had the whole ward howling when she peered into a patient’s throat to see just what the unfortunate man had swallowed. He’d swallowed the sole of a tennis shoe. According to my mother’s favorite nurse, my mother peered in, straightened up, and proclaimed: “What a strange appetite.” Her delivery and timing were impeccable. Again, just like Johnny.
Never much of a night owl until recently, I missed many of Johnny’s great moments, so I actually played catch-up, of sorts, last night via NBC and Larry King. Don Rickles, looking very sad, was a guest on both. As I don’t remember seeing Johnny’s farewell in 1992, it felt so good to view Bette Midler deliver her loving, grateful showstopper. Once again: Johnny in the shadows, letting someone else shine.
But then, again, he had an eye for talent. The Divine Miss M, Joan Rivers, Don Rickles, Steve Martin, Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno… and David Letterman, to name a few.
David Letterman: well, I’ve gotten in the habit of watching him over the course of the last several years. I confess I prefer his monologue to Leno’s. Now I know why: Johnny continued to feed him jokes. OK. Let me get serious again.
Dave’s the one who’s continued to follow Johnny’s format. The one-line zingers that sway between the sublime and the ridiculous in his snappy, no-frills monologue, making me either howl, titter, or, occasionally, hiss. Paul’s his sidekick, instead of Ed. Rupert G’s Deli; Will It Float?; the girls; the animals; the nerves of his guests; his ongoing feud with Oprah: I follow him much more closely, don’t I?
And I didn’t know until yesterday – I didn’t pay attention until yesterday – to the fact that it was Johnny who mentored Dave.
Then again, I didn’t pay attention until almost the end that my mother was mentoring me.
My mother loved quintessential Americans. Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and Charles Kuralt were among her favorites. She must have watched Johnny. It was probably at her side that I first glimpsed him, when I didn’t know what I was supposed to be on the lookout for.
At least I now have a better idea. I’d better keep watching Dave. Thanks for training him, Johnny.
Monday, January 24, 2005

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