February 1, 2005
NEW YORK - It was Johnny Carson's last monologue and, predictably, it drew plenty of laughs. David Letterman paid tribute to Carson, who died Jan. 23, by delivering a "Late Show" monologue Monday composed entirely of jokes the retired "Tonight" show host had quietly sent him in his final months.
Only after the monologue was through and Letterman was back behind his desk did he tell the audience who had written the jokes.
There were some topics Carson couldn't quite resist in retirement: Paris Hilton and Donald Trump's hair.
Letterman set up one joke by noting scientists had been working on an airplane that flew 50 miles above the Earth. Only two man-made objects were visible at that distance, he said.
"One is the Great Wall of China," Letterman said. "and the other is Donald Trump's hair."
Letterman said Hilton's dog, Tinker Bell, was missing for a few days because it was "with the Taco Bell chihuahua making a sex video."
Another joke noted Democrat John Kerry, under fire for his Vietnam service record, was criticized for throwing away some of his military service medals.
"Not to be outdone, President Bush threw away his National Guard spotty attendance records," he said.
One of Carson's former producers, Peter Lassally, told Letterman the one thing Carson missed after retiring in May 1992 was his nightly monologue. Carson would read the newspapers in the morning and write jokes, often calling Lassally and delivering them over the phone.
Only after much prodding did Carson agree to send some to Letterman.
"He was delighted that you did them and that the audience laughed at them," Lassally said.
Getting a call from Carson with jokes was "like Christmas morning, for God's sake," Letterman said.
It was an indication that Carson considered Letterman his rightful heir, even though NBC chose Jay Leno as his "Tonight" show successor. Leno paid tribute to Carson a week ago with a show that featured Carson sidekick Ed McMahon. Letterman's show was in reruns last week.
Letterman played a poignant clip from a few years after Carson's retirement. Carson walked onstage to deliver Letterman's top ten list and Letterman motioned to have him sit behind the desk. Carson did so and beamed, back in the driver's seat and soaking up a standing ovation. But before saying anything, he shook his head, smiled and walked offstage.
Carson felt some comics - Bob Hope and Jack Benny, in particular - stayed on past their prime and he didn't want to do that, Lassally said.
"He knew he wanted to be remembered as he was - at the top of his game," he said, explaining Carson's disappearance from public life after retiring.
Letterman paid a warm tribute, saying he owed Carson for his career. NBC offered Letterman his own show after being impressed with his performances as a "Tonight" show guest, he said.
Everybody who's doing a talk show, himself included, is secretly doing Carson's "Tonight" show, he said.
"The reason we're all doing Johnny's `Tonight' is because you think, `Well, if I do Johnny's "Tonight" show, maybe I'll be a little like Johnny and people will like me more,'" he said. "But it sadly doesn't work that way. It's just, if you're not Johnny, you're wasting your time."
Letterman recalled so looking forward to Carson's nightly appearances that he was mad at the guest hosts on the nights Carson wasn't working.
"Johnny Carson was like a public utility," Letterman said. "At the end of the day, you wanted him to be there."