NEW YORK – David Letterman paid tribute to Johnny Carson on Monday by telling his jokes. On his first “Late Show” since Carson’s death on Jan. 23, Letterman’s opening monologue was comprised entirely of jokes that Carson had quietly sent to him over the past few months from retirement in California.
Letterman didn’t tell the audience until after the monologue was over who wrote the jokes. His guest on Monday’s show, former Carson producer Peter Lassally, had revealed a few days before Carson had died that the retired “Tonight” show host missed his nightly monologue and had written jokes for Letterman.
“I moved to Los Angeles from Indianapolis in 1975, and the reason I moved is because of Johnny Carson and the `Tonight’ show,” Letterman said. “And I’m not the only one. I would guess that maybe three generations of comedians moved to be where Johnny was because if you thought you were funny and you wanted to find out if you could hit major league pitching, you had to be on the `Tonight’ show.”
Letterman said his first “Tonight” appearance led to his first NBC show.
“Truthfully, no stretch of the imagination, I owe everything in my professional career, whatever success we’ve attained, to Johnny Carson, because he was nice enough to give me the opportunity, and throughout my career, was always very supportive.”
The entire show was devoted to Carson, filled with reminiscences from Lassally and Letterman.
At the end, Carson’s old bandleader Doc Severinsen and his band – including put-upon sax player Tommy Newsome – performed one of Carson’s favorite songs, “Here’s That Rainy Day.”
When Carson retired in May 1992, it set up a battle between Letterman and Jay Leno over who would succeed him. NBC chose Leno – but the joke pipeline was an indication that Carson privately considered Letterman the better host.
Letterman’s CBS show was in reruns last week, allowing Leno the jump on a late-night Carson tribute. Leno’s highly rated show last week included former Carson sidekick Ed McMahon and comics Bob Newhart and Don Rickles.
Letterman said everybody who’s doing a talk show, himself included, is secretly doing Carson’s “Tonight” show.
“The reason we’re all doing Johnny’s `Tonight’ is because you think, `Well, if I do Johnny’s “Tonight” show, maybe I’ll be a little like Johnny and people will like me more,'” he said. “But it sadly doesn’t work that way. It’s just, if you’re not Johnny, you’re wasting your time.”