Months ago, when New York’s Friars (despite the name a highly profane showbiz club) quietly decided to honor Johnny Carson on their 75th anniversary, the event promised to be classier and less scurrilous than the organization’s two annual “roasts.” Those functions are stag, and the invective makes Dean Martin’s ersatz made-for-TV roasts and even the Don Rickles Vegas show seem like Sunday school. The other apparent taming factor—aside from the presence of women and world statesmen—was the stature of last week’s honoree himself. Carson’s Tonight Show clout has made him the most awesome figure in entertainment, including the abbot (president) of the Friars himself, Frank Sinatra.
Then, as Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Ephraim Evron, cracked from the podium, came the bombshell that “achieved an Israeli dream: It got the Middle East off the front pages.” Evron was referring to the 53-year-old Carson’s unilateral decision to walk out of Tonight this September—18 months before the expiration of his $2.5-plus million annual NBC contract. The delicate battle to keep Johnny from ending his 17-year reign converted the Carson testimonial tickets ($125 to $500) into the hottest seats (in more ways than one) in town.
The elegant triple-tiered Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel was full to the fire-law limit. A dais of 51 faced a power elite of 1,500, almost none of whom wore a rented tux or last year’s gown. Vice-President Mondale was scheduled to come but then canceled. So did Abbot Sinatra, who in absentia sent a salutation to Johnny in the program that suggested the evening might not be so decorous after all: “You have made more women laugh in bed than Milton Berle when he was hot.” But, even amid the vulgarity, the tone of the night was unexpectedly diplomatic. It was signaled not only by the side-by-side presence of Israel’s Evron with Egyptian counterpart Ashraf A. Ghorbal but also by the last-minute appearance of beleaguered NBC President Fred Silverman, whose failure to “stroke” Johnny had reportedly contributed to his restiveness in the first place. Silverman had originally agreed to appear, but then, according to speculation, wasn’t coming. As Bob Hope (Carson’s requested roastmaster) intoned about the tense last fortnight: “Having the Israeli and Egyptian ambassadors here is a plot to show Freddie and Johnny it can be done.”
As to the sympathies of the house, Carson got off easy for a Friar guest of honor. The real target seemed to be Silverman, as if Johnny seemed less of a lame duck than Freddie a sitting duck. “All NBC’s top brass is here,” noted Hope. “I’m sure you’ve seen them—refilling Johnny’s wine glass, cutting his steak, kissing his ring…They never did get any dinner. They kept ordering and canceling, ordering and canceling.” By contrast, Hope was smirking about Carson: “I admire a man who can do what John has done to his network—as many times, as many ways, and in as many positions…Next year he’s got a sweeter deal: $3 million and he only has to show up once a week to pick up his messages.”
Then the dais got its turn. “I bring you a message from the IRS,” NBC anchorman (and Carson admirer) David Brinkley informed Johnny. “For God’s sake, don’t quit. If you do, we’ll have to shut down the Departments of Defense, Commerce, Agriculture and the Weather Bureau.” Kirk Douglas told Carson, “Johnny, if you ran for President you’d probably get elected. Can’t you see his first press conference? ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States. Tonight, substituting for President Carson is…’ ”
Between dinner courses of filet mignon with Périgourdine sauce and frozen praline soufflé with Grand Marnier sauce, Lucille Ball table-hopped on the double-level dais to chat with daughter Lucie Arnaz, who amply filled the evening’s most daring outfit—a one-shouldered sheath of red sequins. (“I want to thank the Friars for letting me bring my mother tonight,” said Lucie, who with co-star Robert Klein belted tunes from their Marvin Hamlisch-Carol Bayer Sager musical, They’re Playing Our Song.)
During her turn in the spotlight, Ball admitted that “seventeen years ago two great guys got into my life and changed my sleeping habits. One was Johnny Carson and the other was [husband] Gary Morton. Now, I admire you both—but naturally for different reasons.”
The barbs sharpened, or at least got tackier, as the evening wore on. CBS’ Mike Wallace, who first stumbled onto the news of Carson’s fatigue with his work while interviewing him for 60 Minutes, opined: “Last year [at another roast] on this stage Mr. Carson referred to me, rather indelicately I thought, as the proctologist of the interview. Now we all know what part of the anatomy a proctologist views. So it may be useful to contemplate that recently on 60 Minutes, this proctologist dealt with the biggest one of all.”
The anticipation grew as two ABC speakers preceded Silverman to the lectern. Barbara Walters and a programming vice-president, Gary Pudney—from the network for which Carson masterfully hosted this year’s Oscars and which is hovering expectantly should he bolt NBC—obsequiously praised Johnny without a zinger between them. “I think he’s fishing,” Hope stage-whispered to Carson after Pudney’s remarks.
Then Hope headed for the semifinal, noting: “I have to be careful what I say about Fred Silverman. I said something once that displeased him, and my dressing room was behind a little house behind a Little House on the Prairie…” Then the hoary intro: “Here’s the only man in America who knows what it feels like to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.”
Silverman tactfully made himself the butt of most of his jokes and buttered up the man who is responsible for a terrifying 17 percent of the network’s profits. “In the year I’ve been at NBC I’m sure many of you have been amazed by the brilliant moves I’ve made to zoom from third place to where we are now,” Fred noted sardonically. “When Johnny announced he would stay with the Tonight Show [at least into 1980], I was so relieved I got down off the chair and put the rope back in the closet.” Silverman saved his only real dig for another dais guest, Carson’s cagey contract negotiator, lawyer Henry Bushkin who, according to Fred, “has a lifelong dream of participating in the Olympics. So I’m happy to announce tonight that in Moscow in 1980 Henry Bushkin will be a javelin catcher.” In closing, Silverman warmly lauded Johnny as “more, much more, than the entertainer of the year. You’re the entertainer of our time, you’re the best friend TV ever had.”
“It’s suspicious. He said the same thing to me last year,” retorted Hope, as Silverman returned to his seat, separated from Carson only by Johnny’s wife, Joanna. Johnny gave Freddie a warm handshake—though nearly every other speaker got an embrace or smooch And when Carson rose to get in his licks, NBC wasn’t spared.
“There have been a lot of jokes about Mr. Silverman here tonight, but I’m delighted to see NBC’s top executives on this dais,” said Carson. “It reminds me for some reason of another dinner—the Last Supper.” There was an unreported reason, Johnny continued, as to why he had delayed announcing that he would stay beyond September with Tonight. “I was really waiting for the outcome of the Marvin decision—hoping that I would get half of what NBC has been earning for the past 17 years.”
Then, volleying back at Mike Wallace, Carson said, “He’s known all over the world as Mr. 60 Minutes, although I talked with his wife, Lorraine, last week and she said you could diminish that by a factor of 20.” By then, Johnny declared that the 4½-hour event had dragged on too long—”when Ruth Gordon [the 82-year-old actress] arrived here tonight she was jailbait.” So Johnny touchingly thanked Hope, his Tonight show staff (however he has revolved and tyrannized them over the years), Joanna (with whom he held hands most of the evening)—and fondly introduced his mother-in-law and stepson, Tim, 17, in the audience.
Suddenly it was all over. A smiling Carson stood on the dais for photographers, holding his second bronze Friars statuette (the only other entertainers twice honored were Joe E. Lewis and Jack Benny). Perhaps the most eloquent homage to Johnny was the comparative clumsiness of the celebrants that roastmaster Hope ushered on before him. The monologue is an art form, and as the Hamlisch-Sager song says, nobody does it better than Johnny Carson.