ValueSpeak
A Weekly Column
By Joseph Walker

PUTTNG JOHNNY TO BED

I guess now that they’re both gone, the truth can finally be told: Mom had this “thing” going with Johnny Carson.

Mom claimed it started because she needed company while waiting up for children who were out late on dates and stuff.  But come on – none of her children dated THAT much, except maybe Jean, who once juggled three dates simultaneously with the help of her college roommates in their three-story dorm (and none of the young men ever knew about the other two – uh, until now).  Mom and Johnny were together five nights a week (excluding nights when Johnny had a substitute, which really upset Mom’s emotional equilibrium) – he in his studio in beautiful downtown Burbank, and she stretched out on our living room floor because that was the most comfortable position her bad back would allow for watching television.

She may have appeared to be disinterested in the relationship, playing solitaire as she almost always did (ostensibly to help keep her arthritic fingers nimble) while sipping diet soda in front of the TV.  But she was into it.  We all knew it.  From the first gravely tones of Ed McMahon’s introductory “Heeeeeeere’s Johnny!” to the final strains of Doc Severinson’s orchestra playing the “Tonight Show” theme, the entire family understood that Mom would be up until she put Johnny to bed.

If Dad was jealous of Mom’s relationship with Johnny he never showed it.  He usually went to bed right after Johnny’s monologue, occasionally staying up for a sketch by the Mighty Carson Art Players, or a visit by Carnac the Magnificent.  Dad was of the opinion that Ed McMahon’s second banana straight man persona was the secret to Carson’s success.  But as far as Mom was concerned, it was all about Johnny – his boyish good looks, his Midwestern charm, his way with a punch line and, more than anything else, his uncanny ability to turn a joke’s failure into a moment of triumph.

“Nobody does it better,” Mom often said of his knack for saving a bad joke.  “Nobody ever has.  Nobody ever will.”

Nobody wants to hear their Mom saying stuff like that, you know?

So when I finally had a chance to confront Johnny about his relationship with Mom, I took it.  I was working as a television critic for a daily newspaper at the time, and I was attending a press tour in Los Angeles with dozens of other critics from around the country.  Johnny had agreed to a rare (for him) interview session, and he was standing in the back of the room with his publicist, sipping coffee and chatting with network executives.  Doubtless they were strategizing how they would respond to questions about a possible relationship between Johnny and actress Sophia Loren, rumors of which had surfaced in the European press recently.

While his publicist was distracted by two other critics, I slipped in to face the last face my Mom sees each night.

“Mr. Carson,” I said, “I’ve got to tell you that in our family we have a saying: `Mom doesn’t sleep until she’s put Johnny Carson to bed.”

He smiled and shook his head, chuckling that trademark chuckle.

“So,” he said, a boyishly devilish glint in his eyes, “you’re Sophia’s kid . . .”

I was still laughing when his publicist swooped in to usher him to the front of the room.  He turned toward me as he was being led away and said: “Tell Mom good-night for me!”

Of course, she was thrilled when I told her.  We talked and laughed about it the last time I saw her before she died.  And so it is in her honor that more than 20 years later I finally return the gesture: “Good-night, Johnny.”

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— © Joseph Walker

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Look for Joe's book,
"How Can You Mend a Broken Spleen? Home Remedies for an Ailing World." It is available on-line through www.Amazon.com.