November 30, 2020

The Laughter Just Beyond The Door

When I was a little boy, we lived in a very small house, and my bedroom was connected to the living room by one door. My bed was in the corner of this big bedroom, and I would go to bed- depending on my age- at 8 or 9 or 10. And I would lay there in the dark, listening to my parents watching television. A big black and white set in the corner, with three channels from Evansville, Indiana. CBS, 25. ABC, 7. NBC, 14.

Beyond that door, beyond the barrier, was the adult world, and the sound of it was the sound of Johnny Carson and my father’s laughter.

As I got older, we moved to another house, and my room was in the basement. I could stay up later, and even when it was bedtime, I often was still awake. And I could hear the television right above me. Sometimes, I would hear the ten o’clock news, with the local anchors and a silly weather lady named Marcia Yockey. And if I stayed up late enough on a Friday night, I would hear my father laughing. At “The Tonight Show.” Always laughing at the monolog. Always laughing at Johnny Carson.

When I was old enough to sometimes stay up and watch Johnny, there was a problem. I didn’t understand most of his jokes. They were about politics….and sex, but I didn’t know much about politics and absolutely nothing about sex. So my mom would blush, and my dad would laugh, and I would kinda sorta laugh, but I had no idea what I was laughing at.

As I became a teenager, it became clear to me that my father had a routine. He did not watch television, except at news time. He watched Cronkite at 5:30 (CST) and turned the television off. Then at 10, he turned on the local news from the NBC station. Really, he just wanted the weather. My dad was obsessed with weather. The current weather information overload would have driven him off the brink. I’m really glad he missed most of it. Then after the weather, there would be the music, and Ed’s voice, and here’s Johnny.

My father almost never missed Johnny Carson, and coming to share that moment with him was a real anchor of my growing up. My dad wanted me to be interested in the things that interested him: hunting, fishing, coin collecting, cars. I found most of it boring most of the time. So we did not spend the time together he wanted to spend. I realize this now, but then, I just wanted to ride my bike and see my friends and play ball.

But Dad loved to laugh and so did I. So we started sharing Johnny a few times a week. Slowly, without explanation, I began to understand more of the jokes. Sometimes we would watch all of the show. It was a time we shared together without thinking of his heart problems, or his depression, or our poverty or the fight we’d had the day before. It was entertainment to take your mind away. Johnny was always there, and he always came through.

Before long, Carson was a nightly ritual, and as my dad aged and lost his health, those nightly Carson monologs became the best part of many a day. I began to realize what my father loved about Johnny Carson, and in a strange way, it helped me to understand my father, and some very good lessons.

My dad didn’t like celebrities or rich people. He had no time for them. But he genuinely liked Johnny. My father was loyal and lavish to his friends, and he counted Johnny as a friend, no less than the men he drank coffee with every day or the guy at the gas station or the nieghbor next door.

I think my Dad sensed Carson’s small town roots. Someone said that Johnny always had a piece of straw in his hair, and my father was like that. He identified with the midwestern boy that could say he knew so little about sex he would go out behind the barn and do nothing. He admired Carson’s decency and kindness. He was never mean, even when he was getting a laugh. Carson, though he knew how to tell a great “dirty” joke, was always self effacing, humble and genuinely capable of embarassment. It was late night, and you could say things, but you didn’t drag the worse kind of language into a person’s living room. You made the joke with a wink, and everyone knew what you meant.

Dad loved Carson’s vulnerability. He laughed the hardest at the spontaneous moments when Johnny would crack up and go far off the script. He, like me, came to love the “bomb lines,” when a joke- or a whole monolog- would die, and you had to do something besides just stand there. Carson knew how to keep going, to never give up, even if his failure to make you laugh was the funniest thing of the night.

As time passed, we shared Carson hundreds and thousands of time. It was part of our life that we both loved, and as silly as it may sound, that hour in front of the television with Johnny Carson was precious, father-son time. I treasure the memory.

When Carson died yesterday, I thought of my father, and I thought of those years. Lying in bed, wondering what was making my dad laugh. Sitting there taking in jokes I didn’t understand. Slowly coming to appreciate Carson’s gentle art and commitment to entertain with class and something almost entirely lost today: humility.

He was the man on the high wire every night. The gentle jester. The man who made you laugh at the disappearing quarter. A friend you never met. A celebrity who didn’t become unrecognizable to the people in Iowa and Omaha. A man with a gift, who knew how to fumble a joke or fail at a marriage and still come back smiling. The king who drove his own car. The man who retired and meant it. The entertainer. Maybe the last of the true entertainers. As Letterman said…..we will never see his kind again.

Good night, Johnny. You’ve left me with many memories and many moments of happiness. I appreciate it. Life can be meaningless, mysterious and miserable. Or you can find a way to laugh at it all. You made us laugh, and that made our lives better. Thank you.


  1. I grew up with the same memory!

  2. Growing up, Carson was one of those things that I wasn’t allowed to watch — Carson, dancing girls and the Beatles. My father, the preacher, had his study in the house, so he had a pretty tight grip on us. However, as with most forbidden fruit, I found a way to watch him, since I was just about the right age to babysit for the neighbors. Then, of course, he was still doing the same thing in 1974 when I had access to my own TV. Actually it belonged to my husband, but he told me I could watch “his TV” while he was at work and he worked nights. (He was doing more than work at night, but I regress.) Trying to name my favorite segment is like trying to name my favorite hymn. It can’t be done – there’s just too many to choose from. Mom, on the other hand, still blames Carson and the Beatles for corrupting an entire generation.