Sharing Steve :: New Stuff
Tuesday, January 25, 2005
Steve's tribute to Johnny Carson
The Man in Front of the Curtain
By STEVE MARTIN
Published: January 25, 2005
Remembering Johnny Carson
This letter comes a little late.
I remember seeing the tape of my first appearance on your show, on a home recording, a reel-to-reel Sony prototype video recorder, probably around 1972. What my friends and I ended up watching was not me, but you. It's almost impossible to look away from oneself onscreen, but you made it possible, because there were lessons in what you did. You and Jack Benny taught me about generosity toward other comedians, about the appreciation of the plight of the pro, as valuable as any lessons I ever learned.
Your gift - though I'm sure you wouldn't have called it a gift - was, as I see it, a blend of modesty and confidence. You wanted to do the job and do it well. You allowed the spirit of your idols, Stan Laurel and Jonathan Winters among them, to creep into you, and you found a way to twist their inspiration and make it new. In you I saw simplicity, joy, politeness, sympathy. Your death reminds me of the loss of America's innocence, the distance we have come from your sly, boyish leers to our flagrant, overstated embarrassments for parents and children.
If I could wake you up for a minute, I would ask you to tell me how good you thought you were. "Between you and me," I think you would whisper, "I know I was great in a subtle, secret way." I think you would also say: "I enjoyed and understood the delights of split-second timing, of watching a comedian squirm and then rescue himself, of the surprises that arise from the fractional seconds of desperation when the comedian senses that the end of his sentence might fall to silence."
Your Nebraskan pragmatism - and knowledge of the magician's tricks - tilted you toward the sciences, especially astronomy. (Maybe this is why the occultists, future predictors, spoon-benders or mind readers on your show never left without having been challenged.) You knew how to treat everyone, from the pompous actor to the nervous actress, and which to give the appropriate kindness. You enjoyed the unflappable grannies who knitted log-cabin quilts, as well as the Vegas pros who machine-gunned the audience into hysterical fits. You were host to writers, children, intellectuals and nitwits and served them all well, and served the audience by your curiosity and tolerance. You gave each guest the benefit of the doubt, and in this way you exemplified an American ideal: you're nuts but you're welcome here.
We loved watching baby tigers paw you and koalas relieve themselves on you and seeing you in your swami hat or Tarzan loincloth, and we loved hearing Ed's ripostes and watching you glare at him as though you were going to fire him, but we knew you weren't.
We, the millions whom you affected, will weep inside when we see the reruns, the clips of you walking out from behind the curtain, the moment in the monologue when a joke bombed; we'll recall your deep appreciation of both genuine and struggling talent.
Because you retreated into retirement so completely, let me thank you, in death, for the things I couldn't quite say to you in life. Thank you for the opportunity you gave me and others, and thank you - despite divisive wars and undulating political strife - for the one hour a night across 30 years of American life when we were entertained purely, delightfully and wisely.