The Johnny Carson Comeback Special That Never Was
On Mark Malkoff’s wonderful Carson Podcast, several guests have been asked about why they believe that when Johnny said goodbye on May 22, 1992 he never returned to television in any substantial form. Several of them say that Johnny cited Bob Hope as the inspiration behind his desire to remain off the air. Hope was being wheeled out on stage until the very end as a comedy icon that performed less and less comedy as the years went on. Carson, on the other hand, wanted to get off the stage before that could happen to him, ensuring that his audience would forever remember him as a master of late night.
But what if Johnny had changed his mind and made his triumphant return? What if there was a television spectacular that would air exactly two years after Johnny said goodbye in May of 1992? What if it perfectly married the voice and sensibility of Carson’s Tonight Show with the “behind-the-scenes” format frequently utilized by of one of his greatest comedy idols, Jack Benny? Wouldn’t that have been something?
Well, it almost was.
The Johnny Carson (I’m Not Even Sure I Want To) Return to TV Special exists only in the form of a first draft script and is a collection of sketches, starring Johnny, in which he satirizes the ’90s television landscape while presenting the audience with a look at what it could look like if he were to accept the many ridiculous offers he was being pitched. In these scenes we see Johnny as the lead character on sitcoms, as a shill on the Home Shopping Network, and the host of a game show, simultaneously allowing Carson to give viewers a taste of what his return might look like while showing them why they need to be careful what they wish for. I’ll speak in more detail about the special that never was in a moment, but first: a little backstory.
The special was written by Michael Barrie and Jim Mulholland, who are often cited as “Johnny’s favorite writers.” They’re also two guys with one of the most impressive runs in late night television: Barrie and Mulholland started with Carson in 1968 and 1970, respectively, and with the exception of a few years off after Johnny moved the show from New York to California, they stayed with him until 1992. Two years later, they joined Letterman’s show where they would continue to work until he retired in May. Barrie and Mulholland were deep in the trenches with Carson for years, and wrote for him not only on The Tonight Show, but they helped out on Johnny’s other gigs, such as the five times he hosted the Academy Awards, and were his secret weapon when he needed an on-the-spot quip.
After retiring, Carson had taken up business in a laid back office in Santa Monica where he would take lunches with former friends and employees. At one of these lunches with Barrie and Mulholland, Carson mentioned that he had been considering what a return to TV special might be like. Enter our next participant in the comeback script: David Jablin.
With Johnny’s blessing, in the 1980s Barrie and Mulholland started working with producer/director named David Jablin, and together they created a number of comedy specials, series, and films for premium cable. Included in this impressive list of projects was The Ratings Game, which was the first Showtime original film, as well as Danny DeVito’s directing debut. The duo won a WGA award for their script, and as you might imagine, Johnny was a big fan of the work this trio completed and would frequently quote his favorite pieces back to them. After watching the trio’s faux newsmagazine special That Time of the Month, Johnny invited them all out to lunch. Jablin noted that Carson’s favorite elements of their collaborations seemed to be when they would accurately parody popular culture, and so they pitched a TV special in which Johnny himself would parody modern television. Carson was immediately excited by the endless possibilities such a sandbox would open to him. He asked Barrie and Mulholland to write up a script and asked Jablin to produce and direct. And so they began writing…
The comeback special opens with an exaggerated look at what Johnny’s life had become, post-retirement. Hollywood bigshot after bigshot has the perfect idea for Johnny’s next project. He could star in an all-male Golden Girls, or Carnac: The Motion Picture, or host an award show for talk show hosts. The pitches (and pitchers) get more and more insane until we arrive at the true meaning of the title: The Johnny Carson (I’m Not Even Sure I Want To) Return to TV Special.
Johnny performs a brief monologue talking about how much television has changed since he started, before launching into the first filmed piece of the night where we get our first taste of the number of cameos we would have witnessed (all of whom would have been more than ready to appear with Johnny). In it, Carson arrives at a fashionable LA bistro for a business lunch with Dick Clark. He runs into Chevy Chase, and is a a little stunned when he learns Chevy is now working there as the maitre d’, “temporarily until things pick up,” he reassures Johnny. Once seated, the man in the next booth turns around to say hello. It’s Charles Grodin and he has great news. He’s about to start Beethoven III, and there may be a part for Carson in it as the grumpy next door neighbor, if he can talk the producers into letting Johnny read for it. “Thanks but no thanks, Chuck,” says Johnny. “Don’t let stubborn pride cloud your decision. Remember there are no small parts…” Carson slow burns until Dick Clark arrives while finishing up a live interview with Larry King on his cell phone. Johnny’s indignities continue as the waiter asks for Clark’s ID when he orders a drink.
Clark tries to convince Carson to appear in his own infomercial for a line of male skin care products. Johnny imagines what such a venture would be like and we are transported to his imagination as Johnny shills his heart out for the Carson Personal Grooming System for Men, and is joined by such unlikely, manly customers as George C. Scott, Peter Falk, and Tony Danza. Not only are these guys fans of this line of lotions and creams, they are downright passionate about them. Eventually Carson snaps out of his reverie and rejects the idea, only to learn that the always-busy Dick Clark has moved on to another meeting and left Johnny with the bill.
A number of TV ideas that Carson entertains are very specific to the television trends of the 1990s. For example, Johnny talks about how he was pitched a reality television show. Now, this meant something different back then than it does today. The reality shows of the nineties were mostly crime shows like Unsolved Mysteries or COPS and also included the car chases of the local news, which Johnny gives his commentary on in another segment. Johnny’s version of the reality show was based on one of the few government agencies that didn’t already have a show about it: “True Tales of the DMV.” As Johnny narrates the tale in his trench coat, we are treated to a dramatic reenactment of a young man cheating on a written driving exam. The guard heroically notifies his manager, and the test is invalidated. In another segment we see “NBC’s Trial of the Week” in which Johnny anchors a live court trial along with L.A. Law’s Corbin Bernsen, Cindy Crawford, and Alan Dershowitz. They give play-by-play for the trial, going so far to put a camera in the jury’s deliberation room, predicting, a few years early, all the media hoopla surrounding the OJ trial.
Another trend of the 90s, the made-for-TV biopic, is pitched to Johnny, although in this case, it’s already been produced against his will. Chris Farley arrives at Johnny’s house as a messenger, is instantly star struck, and launches into a version of his “Chris Farley Show” sketch from SNL (“‘Member that show you did, like, late at night?”). Inside the package is a VHS tape that contains a message from a slimy NBC exec (the script suggests casting Phil Hartman, who would have been perfect) who tells Johnny about the six-part mini-series that they’ve already produced about his life without his knowledge. “Carson: The Tears Behind the Laughter,” as it is called, stars an actor that is described as looking nothing like Carson who portrays Johnny at a number of historically inaccurate or just purely invented moments in his life. When a tough looking union boss threatens Johnny for using non-union guest hosts, Johnny gets right in his face and challenges back, “Go ahead Hoffa! You don’t scare me.”
Beyond just the trends there are some direct swipes at the actual programs of the day, as pitched to him by many of his famous friends. Bob Newhart suggests that Johnny do a sitcom based on his life, like Newhart. Johnny begins to imagine it, but when it starts to look a little too much like Bob’s show (a couple of bumpkins that go by the name The Smoot Twins show up at the Carson family’s Nebraska home), Johnny imagines what the show would like if it were on Fox, or as he refers to it, “another network that shall remain tasteless.” We are then treated to a Carson version of Married, With Children, in which the idyllic family life of the Newhart version are a distant memory. If you ever wanted to imagine Johnny swig a beer and belch, this is the sketch for you. The entire family exchanges barbs at a rapid-fire pace. Johnny gives his daughter some money as she leaves for her date, instructing her to “buy yourself the rest of that dress.” Junior pipes up, adding, “Yeah, Heidi, you might get a chill leaning against that lamppost later on Main Street.” The audience is instructed to hoot and cheer throughout the sketch, but probably at no point as loud as when his wife, played by Kirstie Alley, suggests they make love on the kitchen table and Johnny looks to the camera and asks, “Leftovers again?!”
Of course, in 1994, if you’re going to do a TV parody, there’s no bigger show on the air than The Simpsons. An animated version of Carson is shown called “Kid Carson’s Carsoon Adventures” in which young versions of Carson and his crew hang out in their treehouse, only to be terrorized by Lil’ Don Rickles, who was kicked out of the club for insulting everyone, along with his pit bull, Saddam.
One of my favorite parodies in the script comes after Johnny visits his friend Steve Martin. Steve is shown backstage having completed a performance of A Streetcar Named Desire, for which he is receiving rave reviews, inspiring Steve to phase out comedy and switch to the prestige of drama. Steve, now insisting on being called Steven, subtly belittles Carson for sticking with comedy by saying such dreadfully pretentious things as, “in these troubled times we count on you funnymen to lighten our burdens.” After this encounter, Johnny briefly entertains the idea of playing a detective on a new show. Of course, in the modern marketplace you can’t just be a detective. So, the show is called “Crime He Taught,” and in it Johnny plays a criminology professor who also solves on-campus crimes at his sleepy New England college, which the stage directions describe as being “obviously in Southern California.” Johnny and his incredibly attractive group of students put the clues together and manage to figure out that the star basketball player didn’t actually die of a heart attack… but when they get a little too close to the truth, it’s their lives that are on the line!
In the last segment, Johnny’s back on stage with an audience. Ed McMahon, his Tonight Show sidekick, makes a cameo to rub a little salt into the wound pointing out that “every bad idea for a Johnny Carson show was on this special!” “You are right, Sweepstakes Breath!” Ed:”I am? Finally!”
Johnny closes the show, and we follow him as he walks out to his car. Johnny drives home, listening to a mellow trumpet solo and we hear his thoughts as he reflects; “Now I can relax a while… forget about show business.” Suddenly a call comes in. “Kill it, Doc.” The trumpet music stops and in the backseat we see that Johnny’s actually been getting a private performance from his former bandleader, Doc Severinsen. “Okay, Chief. We’ll call this my break.” He puts down his horn and opens a lunch box. The call’s from Dick Clark, pitching more ideas for Johnny’s next special. Johnny looks in his rearview mirror and sees Dick’s van tailgating him ominously close. “I’ll just say two words to you: ‘Interactive Television!’” Johnny passes, and then peels off into the sunset with Clark in hot pursuit. The credits roll over breaking news helicopter coverage of yet another high-speed chase.
The real Johnny Carson read the script for the special and apparently really loved it. It was exactly what he wanted and he promised to think very seriously about doing it. After taking a trip abroad, the word came back: Johnny had decided against returning to television in such a way. He had already done The Simpsons, and a little later he would make a cameo on Letterman, but the torch had been passed. Johnny had gotten off the stage, and he intended to stay in the wings.
Carson’s mark on comedy remains just as indelible as it was then in 1994. Though the I’m Not Even Sure I Want To Return to TV Special will forever remain lost, but lucky for us, he’s left us with a lifetime’s worth of classic moments from his Tonight Show to replay and remember forever. And that’s exactly the way he wanted it.
Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. His webseries “Ramsey Has a Time Machine” has a very self-explanatory title and will be premiering new episodes next month!