A long time ago in a New York far, far away, I landed a job writing for the "Tonight Show." I was twenty-two. I got there by the usual route. I'd given a few pages of jokes to my father, who had given them to his barber. When another of the barber's customers, an unsuspecting Ed McMahon, came in and was suitably seated and smocked, the material was dropped in his lap.
Up to this point, I'd been writing jokes for Joan Rivers for a couple of months. She paid me seven dollars for each one she liked. Thirty-five dollars was a great week. Prior to that, my main qualification for writing comedy was passing really hysterical notes to my friend Kenny Sass in study hall.
I was shown to my new office. It was down the hall, past the security window, past the elevators, and down another hallway. It was nowhere near the humming cluster of "Tonight Show" offices. It wasn't even an office. Without windows, without a desk, it was chilled to the temperature of the frozen foods aisle. The kind of room in which you are deposited and told, "A detective will be in shortly to question you." It was, in fact, the cue card room, where cards were prepared and stored for each night's broadcast. It was now as obvious to me as it apparently was to others that my hiring was a fluke and I was judged not worthy to be among them. The door opened, someone rolled in a Royal upright. I sat on a small leatherette couch in soundproofed silence.
Somehow, I made it through my first three days on the show in total isolation. No one spoke to me. Finally, the head writer received word of my entombment and rescued me. I was welcomed into the fold and given a real office among the living. I became the fourth writer added to the nightly crawl. Four writers to write monologue, desk bits, sketches, and "adlibs" for Johnny's interviews. The staff was made up of Mickey Rose, Woody Allen's current collaborator; Marshall Brickman, Woody's future collaborator; the prolific David Lloyd, then writing 90% of Johnny's monologue; and me. Which one doesn't belong?
Mickey Rose saved my life. In a huge leap of faith, he treated me from the start as an equal. He showed me what to do and how to do it. He befriended me. He leadeth me beside the still waters, he restoreth my soul. He and his warm and funny wife Judy invited me to their home for dinner. I was a little bit in awe of him. I mean, this is the guy who wrote the moose story with Woody. You know, his classic standup routine in which he brings a live moose to a costume party saying to the host, "You know the Solomons." And when they give out prizes for best costume, "First prize goes to the Berkowitzes, a married couple dressed as a moose. The moose comes in second."
One day, Mickey asked me if I'd seen Woody's Allen's recently opened Broadway hit, "Play It Again, Sam" with Woody, Diane Keaton & Tony Roberts. I hadn't. When you start from scratch each day writing monologue, the evenings, at least then, were reserved exclusively for panic. I lived permanently on square one. No room for entertainment. But that night I made an exception. After work we walked over to the Broadhurst Theater, five blocks south. The playwright had reserved house seats for us. The evening was hilarious. I was morose. Why even bother? How can I compete with that? Shortly before the final curtain, Mickey gets up, whispers, "I'll meet you in the lobby," and walks out. I guess he's bored, he's seen it before. The curtain comes down, applause. It rises again and the supporting players bound onstage for their curtain call. Among them is Mickey. They all bow. There is a murmur in the crowd from tired businessmen to their wives: "Which one was he?" Then Tony, Diane, and finally Woody, all join hands with Mickey & company for one more theatrically humble, deep, deep bow. Broadway Mickey Rose.
On Johnny Carson's days off from the Tonight Show he used a variety of guest hosts, none that could be called a threat to his job. One of them was Art Linkletter, the genial, conservative daytime TV star of "House Party" and "People are Funny." On the day he was to host, Linkletter poked his head into the office where the writers were gathered (among them Jim Mulholland, who reminded me of this) carrying a stack of old, oddball news photos from various sources and suggested we caption them for a reading piece at the desk. It was a standard Carson bit.
As Art stood there, we examined the first photo on the pile. It showed a man dressed as George Washington holding a five-foot cardboard replica of a dollar bill. But where Washington's portrait would normally be, the lookalike had stuck his head, in full powdered wig, through the cutout oval. Mickey said, "Howard Hughes is so rich, he's the only person with live money." Linkletter registered a look of alarm and split.
Mickey had a thing for chickens, finding them, in any form, hilarious. Once, when Carson sent a car to fetch the writers for a meeting at his posh UN Plaza apartment, Mickey emerged last from the limousine, casually strolling past the proper, uniformed lobby staff wearing a full-headed rooster mask. Another time, he re-gifted a live chicken to bandleader Doc Severinsen, who had a farm upstate. Unfortunately, the bird had spent all day in a carton "discharging" out of fear. As he carried the box to his car, its soggy bottom gave way, and Doc was left to chase the chicken as it darted through traffic on West 49th Street. When Mickey moved to Los Angeles in 1970, the deciding factor in purchasing his new Beverly Hills home was that it was situated on Peck Drive.
In the early 60's, Woody had arranged a blind date for Mickey with his then wife Harlene's friend, Judy Wolf. Mickey and Judy married with Woody as the best man, a marriage that lasted 40 years until her death in 2003. During the wedding ceremony, the bride's 6-year old sister began to giggle at the rabbi's high-pitched, heavily accented delivery. Soon, Woody could no longer contain himself and began to laugh loudly, then the groom succumbed, then the bride lost it, and finally the entire wedding party broke down in hysterics, barely getting through the vows. It was an apt metaphor for a life lived creating laughter.