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Dick Cavett on 'Tonight Show' Host Angst: Johnny Carson 'Only Happy For That Hour of His Day'
By Dick Cavett ,  The Hollywood Reporter

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

I was working as a copy boy at Time. I read that Jack Paar worried about his Tonight Show monologue more than the whole show put together. And that triggered me to write what I thought sounded like Jack Paar monologues. I put them into an envelope with the biggest Time logo I could find, got out of the elevator at 30 Rockefeller Center and bang -- there was Jack, coming right at me. And I said: "Mr. Paar, I brought you something. It's material I wrote for you." And he said, "Oh, OK kid," and took it. I thought, "That's probably the last I'll hear of this."

I sneaked into the audience. Jack came out and pulled out a piece of paper, and I thought, "This is it." And he began to read it. But it was a bit about traffic in New York that I hadn't written. And then a lady in the audience asked him, "What do you think about that hijacked ship in the news?" And Jack said, "Yeah, imagine the passengers hearing: 'Attention, please, this is your pirate speaking.' " And I thought: "That's mine! Paar did my line!" And he then hired me.

It was wonderful to work there. I was just in hog heaven. My first week, I thought, "I'm a guy who sneaked into the Paar show, I was obsessed with Paar, and now I go to work there." I think I got $90 a week -- I was originally hired as a talent booker -- until I became a writer and my salary soared to $360. I couldn't believe it. "They're gonna give me $360 this week and then next week again?"

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Jack was the most quixotic, mercurial, indescribably-unstable-in-certain-ways personality, all of which made him fascinating on the screen. That volatility, the unpredictability were really, really something to work with and to see. The great Kenneth Tynan told me, "No matter who else is on the screen with him, you can't take your eyes off him or you might miss a live nervous breakdown." And we had a couple of those.

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," 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 went out there and had his charismatic charm. He was like a popular king. 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 probably true. Once I just sloughed off the monologue and handed it in to Johnny. And before I had time to think what I had done, the phone instantly rang, and the familiar voice said, "Richard, I think you're capable of a little better monologue than this." I felt like I had let down my favorite teacher.

We had cubicle offices. The Today show was cheek by jowl with us. My luck was to get a cubicle next to Ed McMahon's so that I could hear Ed hustling on the phone all day. He was making deals and trying to get golf tournaments to host. I don't think he stopped until airtime.

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There'd be a production meeting in the morning. You started going through the Times, the Post, looking for something to write about. In those days, it was just the dreary turning of the bloody pages of one paper after another. And sometimes there was that sickening feeling of, "Uh oh, there are only three more pages left of a paper and nothing so far." One of the rare times Johnny was at the production meeting, I remember him saying: "How's our friend Joan Rivers? Let's get her." That was not long after she had made her first big smash appearance on the show. It seems so strange how much water went over and under the dam between Joan and Johnny after that.

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."

There's no way you can prove that no Tonight Show should ever be in California, but I'm happy that it's going back to New York. It's tradition. I was very sorry when Johnny went to California. I remember some famous actor was on my ABC show, and he 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." Sometimes I think how lucky I was to get in on the golden age of New York television. And The Tonight Show was the essence of 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.

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