BURBANK, Calif. -- Here in beautiful downtown Burbank -- a drab slab of concrete lined with nondescript office buildings and mom-and-pop fast-food stands -- the faithful line up weekday afternoons at 4 hoping to be granted admittance to America's entertainment mecca.
"Heeeere's Johnny!" Ed McMahon shouts promptly at 5:30, and Johnny Carson steps through NBC's multicolored curtain to wild screams from yet another packed audience.
It has been that way for nearly 30 years, since Carson took over "The Tonight Show" Oct. 1, 1962, and his casual style of conversation and comedy quickly became a late-night institution. First in New York, and since 1972 at NBC's West Coast studios, fans have flocked to take part in the goofy gags, the up-to-the-minute monologue jokes, the show-biz camaraderie.
But it will not be that way much longer. Carson retires on May 22, 1992. Jay Leno takes over, and though tourists still will put a "Tonight Show" taping on their L.A. agendas, it will not be the same.
Johnny has been a national habit for so long that his final year of "Tonight" is turning into the sentimental equivalent of a beloved diva's farewell tour.
To Johnny, too. Snaring tickets for a recent taping -- for one last in-person look at Johnny, Ed, Doc and the band -- means hearing about Carson's departure ad infinitum. "I knew it was a good idea putting that banner out front that said 'Everything must go by May 22,' " he quips after the usual Second Coming ovation from the audience.
Guest Mel Brooks joins in to reminisce about being on the first Carson show. And when Johnny chats it up with the audience during the first commercial break, the talk is all about The End. How many shows to go, someone asks. "A hundred, something like that," Carson answers. Ed knows better: "Ninety-four, after tonight."
Ed would know. Where does he go from here? Publishing-house ads and "Star Search"? And what of Doc Severinsen? Tommy Newsom? Producer Fred DeCordova?
Maybe it is because the show's reign is almost over, maybe it is because television provides such a strange perspective on things, but they all look smaller in person, less formidable. The studio seems cramped, the band jammed into one corner.
Watching the show on television later that night provides an entirely different experience. The monologue that had seemed so quiet and distant looms large, with Johnny filling the screen. The guests, the band, everything seems urgent; all the pieces seem to fall together. These guys have their game down cold. The topical monologue, the post-break banter, the guests coming out to catch Johnny's softball questions. The formula works. The magic is there.
Yet, the excitement of finally being there battles desperately to hold its own. Look, Johnny's cue cards! Look, Tommy Newsom! I hope Johnny comes up into the audience tonight! Here comes Doc! There's Ed! Oh, boy, Johnny!!
But the depressing onslaught of reality fights back throughout the evening. This is a different era from the glittering glory days of "Tonight," when it was uncontested in late-night and all the big stars stopped by.
Today's celebrities are busy lapping up Arsenio Hall's effusiveness, courting "Nightline" coverage or avoiding the "show-biz" scene altogether. If "The Tonight Show" was once a gathering place for the hippest and coolest, it now feels like a remnant of that era instead of a vital part of this one.
Johnny compares Doc's tie to a No-Pest Strip, Doc tells the crowd that Ed will introduce the guests "if he's not too stoned to remember," and both Carson and Brooks poke fun at Ed's drinking and carousing. These are the jokes they were telling 25 years ago. Maybe they were in step with their times.
Maybe we were in step with their jokes. Did they have a club we wanted to be members of? Now it seems less exclusive than excluding.
Out of step, it may be. But out of gas, it ain't. That is clear when Brooks arrives on the scene in tattered clothes from his "Life Stinks" movie, belly-flops onto Johnny's desk and proceeds to turn the program's first half into his own personal performance. Carson not only lets him hijack the show, but encourages his refreshing burst of anarchy.
This is why David Letterman stays on "Late Night" and Jay Leno inherits the "Tonight Show" crown. Carson is center stage only during the monologue; then he moves over and lets the guests do the entertaining. He is not overbearing or obsequious. He is affable and supportive, an average guy asking average questions who is just as much a fan of these people as you are. Leno's personality is more distinct, plucky as much as pleasant, goofy as much as gracious, but still generous and easy-going. He is more than able to carry on the mantle.
Even so, it will be a difficult day when we will not be hearing "Heeeere's Johnny!" anymore. And it is a special day when you see Ed shout it in person for one last, live time.