It was around my tenth Tonight Show appearance and I was at the point of being totally comfortable walking out on that iconic set and doing my act, as comfortable as one could be, that is, with Johnny Carson sitting fifteen feet away.
One of the routines I had prepared for that show involved the idea that they could have TV dinners designed after specific shows. One of them could be, I brazenly chirped, a “Tonight Show TV dinner: you open it up and there’s a substitute entree!” I was alluding to the fact, of course, that Johnny so often took a night off for a guest host. And I felt at home enough to risk doing that joke.
The audience howled, especially because I was dishing it to Johnny with him sitting right there, and the laugh was explosive. I looked over and saw Johnny laughing, along with Ed McMahon, and as I turned back to the camera, I felt something hit my right shoulder. And then boom, another object hit me! I looked around, then down on the floor, and I saw two of Johnny Carson’s pencils, the ones with an eraser on both ends which he used to fiddle with at his desk, lying on the ground. He had thrown them at me after I did the joke and both hit their mark! I picked them up and looked over, and he was doubled over laughing. I put the pencils in my coat pocket, and once the crowd simmered down I completed my set.
I didn’t get to sit on the couch that night as they ran late, but afterward Johnny saw me in the hallway and congratulated me on a funny spot. He didn’t ask for his pencils back, and I still have them, tucked away in a bank safe deposit box.
It was a magic moment from a magic day in a magic era for me, and I’m glad I still have those pencils that helped me bond with Johnny Carson, the greatest host in history.
On one of my Tonight Show appearances another guest was the great opera singer, Luciano Pavarotti. For some reason we had an adjoining dressing room, separated only by a flimsy sliding door. I was already in the make-up room when Pavarotti arrived late, and he apparently went into my side of the dressing room and changed into his tux, leaving his humongous gray slacks on a hanger.
I really didn’t give it much thought, being totally engrossed in what was about to be my 20th appearance with Johnny Carson, something I could only have dreamed about. My set went exceedingly well, even getting belly laughs from the great Pavarotti when I unwittingly did an obese joke, forgetting he was sitting over on the couch next to Johnny.
After the show was over and I said my thanks to Johnny and the staff, I retreated to my dressing room, to be joined only by a writer friend who was my guest. By this time everyone who worked on the show, including the other guests, crew, staff, etc. had gone home. It was just me and my friend and nobody else.
As we were getting ready to leave, my buddy noticed Pavarotti’s ratty old gray pants on a hanger. The opera icon apparently had left in his tux in a rush and never bothered to grab his pants.
“We should take them for safekeeping,” he said. “Maybe he just doesn’t want them, but at least they won’t get lost if Pavarotti ever needs his pants back.”
We went to the parking lot and got in my car, and when I looked over I noticed that he did indeed have Pavarotti’s pants. However, by the time I dropped him off at his apartment he decided they would be safer with me.
“I’m leaving them in your car,” he said. “You keep them.”
So I took them home and put them in a drawer. For years I had dreams that Pavarotti’s people were going to notify authorities that his pants were missing, and were last seen in an adjoining dressing room he shared at NBC with Bobby Kelton.
To this day I’m not sure if they have value or what to do with them. However, I do have some peace of mind knowing that if I ever go on a weight-gaining binge, I won’t have to go to a Big and Tall Men’s store for some pants. I have all I need sitting in my drawer. And just in case, I’m learning the words to “Figaro.”