Dick Cavett on 'Tonight Show' Host Angst: Johnny Carson 'Only Happy For That Hour of His Day'

Illustration by: Kyle Hilton
Dick Cavett

The star talker says blowouts and meltdowns behind the scenes -- and on camera -- come with the territory.

This story first appeared in the April 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

I was working as a copy boy at Time. I happened to glance at a column item that said Jack Paar worried about his Tonight Show monologue more than the whole show put together. And that triggered me to peck out what I thought sounded like Jack Paar monologues. I put the stuff into an envelope with the biggest Time logo I could find, knowing that if I got near him that might catch his eye, sneaked out of a service elevator at 30 Rock and bang, there was Jack, coming right at me. I said: "Mr. Paar, I brought you something -- it's material I wrote for you." He looked a bit annoyed but said: "Oh, OK, kid," and took it. 

I sneaked into the audience. Jack came out and pulled out some folded paper, and I thought: "That's my stuff. I know Jack. He's gonna say some kid just handed him some material, better than his writers write. This is it." And he began to read it. But it was something else. A bit about traffic in New York or something. Later, a lady in the audience asked him, "What do you think about that hijacked ship -- they're calling it the pirate ship -- in the news?" And Jack said, "Yeah, imagine the passengers hearing: 'Attention, please, this is your pirate speaking.' " Pandemonium. I think I grew an inch. And then another line of mine from Jack worked in brilliantly as an ad-lib. I contrived to get into the same elevator after the show. His words: "You want to write, don't you, kid?" A week passed, and he hired me.

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I'd been obsessed with Jack and his show and rarely missed it. Now I was in hog heaven. My first week, I thought, "I'm a guy who used to sneak into Jack's show back in the days when the words Tonight Show, like Empire State Building, meant only New York, New York." I think I got $90 a week, up from Time's $60. I was originally hired as a talent booker -- until a spot opened on the writing staff, and my salary soared to $360. I couldn't believe it. They're gonna give me $360 this week and then next week again?

There'd be a production meeting in the morning. Then you, the writer, started plodding through the Times, the Post, looking for something to write about. And sometimes there was that sickening feeling of, "Uh-oh, there are only three more pages left of the papers and nothing so far." But somehow you came up with something or perished at the end of 13 weeks.

It was an innocent time, it seemed, in so many ways because there was no other talk show, and that seems so strange now. That was the talk show, and everybody who was anybody was eager to come on. I remember thinking, "This thing that I just typed upstairs is not just for some people in this building, but people all over this country will hear it tonight. And it will issue from the mouth of a hero of mine." Once, later, with Johnny Carson, I was tired and sort of sloughed off the monologue and handed it in. The moment I got back to my office, the phone rang. I winced at the familiar voice. "Richard, I think you're capable of a little better monologue than this." I felt like I had let down my favorite teacher. I got better fast.

Jack was the most quixotic, mercurial, indescribably-unstable-in-certain-ways personality, all of which made him fascinating on the screen. That volatility, that unpredictability were really, really something to work with and see. I think Jack's harried staff probably consumed half of the Bisodol mints sold in a year. The great British critic Kenneth Tynan told me: "No matter who else is on the screen with Paar, you can't take your eyes off him. Because you risk missing a live nervous breakdown on your home screen." 

Carson was much easier in that sense. Some would say less interesting in the neurosis quotient. But Johnny suffered a lot and would, to put it impolitely, have a wife on the ledge at the same time he was having one of his alcohol phases. I used to think, "How in the hell does this man hold it together?" Like a piano wire that's about to snap. And he's sitting in the office in his T-shirt saying, "These things are gonna kill me, Richard," referring to his Pall Malls, which they did.

Miraculously, with all the strain he was under, he would pull himself together so beautifully for the show. He looked splendid and strode out there with that charismatic charm. A popular king applauded by his people. And it was so ironic because he was the most socially uncomfortable man I think I ever met. He couldn't chat with people. It's a little obvious to say I think he was only happy for that hour or hour and a half of his day, but I think it was true. 

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There's no way you can prove that The Tonight Show should not be based in California, but I'm happy it's going back to New York. It's just plain tradition. I was very sorry when Johnny went to California. When Tonight was in L.A., I remember some famous actor was on my ABC show and said, "Do you know how grateful actors are to you when they're on tour?" He said, "When you're in Minneapolis or Klamath Falls, and you go back to your hotel room and you and other actors pour a drink and someone says, 'Switch on Cavett' -- it's the lifeline that we need to New York." -- As told to Michael Walker

Dick Cavett is the author of Talk Show and a contributor to The New York Times Opinion page.