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My Day with Johnny Carson

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Networks love stunt casting. Getting stars and celebrities to guest on your show... especially during sweeps does increase ratings. There have been some classic ones -- Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt on FRIENDS (good chance you won't see him on a reunion show), heavyweight boxer Sonny Liston and opera diva Marilyn Horne on THE ODD COUPLE, Madonna on WILL & GRACE, and of course Frank Sinatra on the SOUPY SALES SHOW. One of the toughest "gets" was always Johnny Carson. The King of Late Night rarely guested on sitcoms. Yet amazingly he did agree to do a CHEERS.

My partner, David Isaacs and I wrote the episode (called "Heeeeeeere's Cliffy!"). The premise: Cliff's ultimate goal in life was to have Johnny Carson read one of his jokes during a monologue. The man reached for the stars! Alas, his endless submissions kept getting rejected. Finally, as a goof, Norm intercepts one and turns it into an acceptance letter. Things get out of hand when Cliff flies to Burbank to be in the audience the night of his big triumph. And he brings his mother. Norm must tag along for damage control.

Norm bribes the cue card guy to include Cliff's joke. Johnny reads it in his monologue, it bombs, Cliff stands up and corrects his delivery. He winds up in custody while mom ends up on the couch with Johnny.

Come on. It could happen!

We wrote the script, sent it to Carson, who approved it. We arranged to film it right after a TONIGHT SHOW taping. The audience was asked if they'd like to stay for an extra half hour and be on CHEERS. Nice folks that they were, they were willing to make that sacrifice.

The crew and I arrived at the studio at 3 (my partner was out of town). The TONIGHT SHOW taped from 5:30 - 6:30. I introduced myself to Mr. Carson and said I'd be happy to make any adjustments he would like. He said, no, he thought the script was great. He'd do it just as written. I almost fainted.

During the TONIGHT SHOW taping I sat in the green room and kibitzed for an hour with that night's guest -- Elizabeth Taylor. She could not have been more approachable and fun. It was almost surreal to be chatting about life with Elizabeth Taylor.

After the taping, director Jim Burrows set up our four cameras and blocked the scenes. Not only is Jimmy the best multi-camera director, he's also the fastest. All of this rather complicated stuff was accomplished in fifteen minutes in front of the audience. Indy Pit Crews could learn a thing or two from Jim Burrows.

We had hoped to also get Ed McMahon but he wasn't interested in sticking around (a whole half hour) so we wrote him out. Guess he had to get to that Budweiser.

Now the filming began. Four film cameras were positioned on the stage. I was standing next to one, essentially between the curtain and the band. Jimmy calls action, the band (right behind me) struck up the familiar theme and Johnny Carson steps through the curtains. He's maybe five feet from me. He begins delivering our monologue. This was maybe a month before his final TONIGHT SHOW so I knew this was a precious experience that would never come again.

We tried to write jokes that would get solid laughs so that when Johnny got to Cliff's it would be noticeably bad. Much to my sheer delight, our jokes worked. The King of Late Night was getting laughs doing our material. This was more surreal than Elizabeth Taylor asking me which Disneyland ride was my favorite.

The scene played great. We shot it a couple of times. And Johnny was the ultimate professional. Happy to do re-takes, whatever we needed. So often legends and idols disappoint if and when you actually meet them but the reverse was true here. I wound up even more in awe of Johnny Carson.

After we wrapped I got a picture sitting at Johnny's desk interviewing John Ratzenberger.

Woody Allen made a movie called ZELIG where he played a normal guy who somehow managed to mingle with every important figure of his day.

Well, Zelig had nothing on me, certainly that night -- a night that will live in my memory forever... and hopefully in reruns.

Hey-ohhhh!

You can read more from Ken at kenlevine.blogspot.com