In 1976, at the tender and impressionable age of 15, I experienced a life changing event that has informed my behavior ever since. What made this event all the more remarkable is that it took place entirely above the waist. As with most revelations it presented itself in a most epiphanic fashion. And if you’re looking for a heartfelt memoir that has the word “epiphanic” in it…this is it. Allow me to explain. I never thought there was a chance in hell I’d ever attend a live taping of The Tonight Show starring my comedic idol Johnny Carson. No roads led there. It wasn’t even on my bucket list because, back then, I didn’t know what a “bucket list” was. Seeing The Tonight Show in person seemed well beyond the realm of possibility – like a Pope saying he’s fallible. Actually I think Pope Francis recently said as much. Anyway, I don’t mean to undercut my own argument that The Tonight Show and I weren’t even in the same universe; because in 1976 we weren’t. However, as events would later confirm, not only were we in the same universe, we would soon be in the same studio.
Genesis Build 2.0
In my beginning there was darkness. Then in 1961 Dr. Judah Katz moved his hand upon my mother Dorothy’s womb and commanded, “Let there be David.” And soon David was delivered unto this earth. It was a difficult birth made all the more difficult when his mother discovered the hospital’s maternity ward was full, and insisted on giving birth away in a manger – no crib for a bed. This was the last straw – literally. There was no more straw anywhere. His mother was in labor for 8 hours and management for another 4 until Dr. Katz worked his Hebraic magic and Baby David entered the world covered with schmutz and quipping, “Any messages while I was gone?” Eventually all was calm, all was bright and the little Baby David was wrapped in swaddling clothes and presented to his birth mother, who also doubled as his actual mother once the trial period was over and she decided to keep him.
Soon their bond was immaculate. In fact it became downright hygienic. For example, when he breast fed, he used a straw. As it came to pass Baby David’s life was mired in comic duality. It was a dichotomy of a bifurcation of diffluent experiences (3 words which I think all mean about the same thing). He marveled at the bizarre events unfolding around him. For example, at age 14 months his mother growled at him, “This is the last straw David. There will be no more breast feeding.” And she was right. We had run out of straws.
By age 7 David began expressing himself polysyllabically when simple monosyllabicism would do. He was saying less with more. More or less. To cope with his unmet needs he turned to the predictably dependable brilliance of Hogan’s Heroes and the unassailable utopia of Elvis movies where things always went according to plan – Hogan always outsmarted those damn Nazis and Elvis always wound up with Shelley Fabares or maybe Ann-Margaret. These were his early drugs and they were effective in providing temporary relief of minor adolescent pain.
It was about this point any similarities between Baby David and the Christ child began to diverge wildly; although the Lord’s name was often spoken in his presence as in “Jesus Christ that kid just doesn’t get it.” David grew frightened and devolved into a mass of insecurities and insecurity’s ugly hand maiden, selfishness. He was knee deep in himself and had amassed many valid reasons for remaining stuck there. At the age of 9 he even wrote a list of worries which Posterity has preserved. I’m referring to his life coach Helga Posterity who found this adolescent chicken scratching in a notebook entitled David’s Kampf.
8 Reasons why I’m Scared and Selfish 4/1/1971
- Three Dog Night was right – 1 is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do
- I bully a little and I get bullied a little. Either way I feel awful afterwards.
- I’m not a Beatle and neither are they anymore
- My parents are finally divorcing although I begged them to get one years ago.
- In this Bicentennial year, does that mean that I’m “bi” by association? Troubling.
- I can’t control the universe anywhere near the degree I had anticipated
- The Lawrence Welk Show, Marcus Welby MD, Gunsmoke? Really? And now they’re cancelling Hogan’s Heroes.
- As to Lent. I’ve completely given it up.
OK. I’ll Now Tell the Rest of the Story in the First Person
So I wandered through a bleak mid-seventies landscape of Spaghetti O’s, mood rings and The Captain and Tennille all the while bookended by my emotionally inept divorced parents (Bill and Dot) who seemed to have no clue how to explain any ambiguity to an inquiring mind. It was obvious they’d been left in the paint shaker too long before it was turned off. I believe the experience left them shaken, not stirred. It’s no wonder I was born dizzy. Once my mother asked me if I was gay. I paused and thoughtfully responded, “Probably. I think I’m a lesbian in the body of a man.”
I never truly felt as if I was born to them. It was more like I was sentenced to them and I got life with no time off for good behavior. They were intelligent people to be sure but with an emotional IQ right around room temperature. I would’ve opted out of this Disney World gone bad if only there was another channel with less static (mind you, this was before cable TV, all we had were rabbit ears). What else could I do but endure them. After all I was small and had no money or power. So I slept in my cell and ate their grub till I served my time and could spring myself.
Puberty (Free Pleasure Bestowed Upon Us)
At about age 12 I began self-medicating with masturbation. I assume I wasn’t alone in this practice. Oh sure there were Wurlitzer’s and Hammond’s to play, but my organ of choice was always the LoinMaster 2000 and I tickled those ivories to many a crescendo. Even with this “found joy” I still wanted to opt out or at least insulate myself from the loony adult world of insipidity. And although I longed for a less encumbered existence, suicide was never an option as I understood the penalties for this kind of early withdrawal were heavy and could even dog you into the afterlife. And it was at this intersection (Cope & Nihilism) where the White Knight of triumphant humor crossed my path and rescued me from otter despair. No longer would I feel despondent about otters. Yes my funny knight in shining amour had arrived, and it was laugh at first sight. I now forged ahead.
In my youth (which was mostly wasted on me) the sly humor of Johnny Carson was something I often saw celebrated by the adults in my life. These adults, as you might expect, were much bigger than me and had money and power, so naturally I paid attention to their preferences believing they knew something I didn’t. They liked the Tonight Show and early on I realized there was stardust in that show. I sensed Johnny’s humor was generally good natured with layers of superb spontaneity and rakish ribaldry. But alas it took place at 11:30 at night. For a 9 year old it might as well have been on at 2:00 a.m. I’d never really seen the show. I only knew it by reputation. Little did I realize it would soon become mental catnip to this prowling tomcat.
I had caught only glimpses of The Tonight Show when I was up sick. Sometimes I stole a few glances in the aftermath of projectile vomiting while my mother sat me on the couch and stroked my head. You’d think by association alone I’d avoid the show at all costs. But I didn’t. Instead, on the last night of summer vacation of 4th grade going into 5th grade, I asked my mother if I could stay up and watch Johnny Carson. My Make-A-Wish Foundation mother approvingly waved her magic wand and a sleep-depriving addiction began.
I loved the show and everything about it. It was from Hollywood (Burbank actually). It featured a parade of funny, interesting and pretty people (except when Orson Welles was on). At its center was Johnny’s urbane leering cool so worthy of imitation. He was at home with authors, starlets and various Hollywood illuminati. His couch was the place to be and his sketch characters Art Fern and Karnack the Magnificent tickled my funny bone till it hurt. Johnny was a little bit subversive – evincing a kind of playful danger. This was my idea of what an adult personality should be and one worth emulating. While his personal life may have been a bit messy, Johnny Carson’s professional life was peerless. He ruled the roost and went out with grace and class. His last two shows in 1992 were a heartfelt capstone to an unprecedented 30 year run as the King of late night. But I get ahead of myself. This writing in the first person is very fun and easy. And as the host of this story, I sometimes forget to bring out the next idea as I grow fond of the sound of my own pen. Maybe that’s why my ratings aren’t comparable to Johnny’s.
My Devolution Continues
In 5th Grade I watched the show every Friday night and grew a deep appreciation for its format and its star. By 6th Grade I was living unsupervised in the basement as my family disintegrated. I watched the show every night till one o’clock in the morning. By 7th grade I was mainlining both the Tonight Show and then the Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder. I was now up till 2 a.m. on school nights drinking in a ceaseless carnival of fashionable trends and bubbly personalities. Five nights a week it was TVgeddon in my basement rendering me bleary eyed and tardy for school if I attended it at all. Being a precocious lad I’d sped up my maturation process and was now experiencing my midlife crisis at 13. These shows were both my demise and my resurrection, just like meth is for crack heads or poop is for the dung beetle.
It was during this period I tried to soothe my frayed nerves with alcohol (chugging a strategically unnoticed inch of wine from mother’s gallon jug) and drugs (marijuana, big deal, everyone had it), but these intoxicants didn’t take. For whatever fortuitous reason, I was immune to the allure of mood altering drugs. The only intoxicants that moved me were girls, sports, girls, the Tonight Show and girls. Healthy enough addictions I suppose. At least they were legal.
I had plenty of girlfriends at this stage. All of them 2-dimensional and safely tucked between the folds of Playboy magazines I’d been collecting. Par for the course I believe. Puberty hit me hard and I hardly responded. Poorly phrased, but you get the picture – many of which became stuck together. I know – TMI. So at this stage I’m staying up into the wee hours of the morning. In fact it was so late it was usually the wee-wee hours of the morning. My wagons were circled. I was a hunkered down, frightened quivering bunny who would much prefer to reside in his mother’s womb (free room & board), than his mother’s basement (free room & board, but with god damned alarm clocks).
Junior high school was a nuisance and I was ill suited to this mandatory hormonal exercise in untamed testosterone and beguiling estrogen held at the ungodly hour of Zero Dark Thirty in the icy tundra of Syracuse (Zerocuse). I figured I read on my own and was book smart enough to forego the time consuming routine of junior high school. At least puberty provided me with a free amusement park whose climactic E-ticket rides did more for me than Hogan’s Heroes ever did. If only I could’ve been less self-centered and more self-aware, I’d have a different set of challenges instead of the ones I’ve described. My heart was in the right place but reality always intruded. For example, I liked the idea of loving your fellow man; I just didn’t like the actual men who represented them. Very faulty reasoning, soon to be corrected.
Things Get Interesting (At Least They Did for Me)
Now with this foundation laid (consensually laid of course) we’ll focus on the gist of my thrust. The year was 1976 and this 15 year old was not so much in between girlfriends (one can wish) as he was in between parents – the mother who briefly forsook him and the father who was ill-equipped and certainly unwilling to domicile him. So he was cast out only to be reeled in by a family member of last resort – his dutiful 23 year old brother who took him in and warehoused him while his parents continued their all-life crisis. They didn’t bother waiting for a mid-life crisis, they began their catastrophes early and simply continued them their entire lives.
My stand up brother Gary and his long standing girlfriend Patrice (rumor has it she once stood for 32 consecutive hours) were living in sunny California and I was briefly interred in Syracuse, so I jetted to the not so bleak landscape of Venice Beach where they lived in a small studio apartment. They nested in the living room and I crashed in the corner of the kitchen, which I had all to myself, that is, when it wasn’t being used as the mess hall. I romanticized this itinerant, “On the Road” feeling, but only because I deluded myself with vagabond sentiments and didn’t feel worthy of a richer existence. Luckily I had little taste for drugs or mischief or alcohol. Those were just bullshit distractors weak-willed people used as excuses to climb into a hole only to be praised for climbing out of it again. I mean they already knew the consequences so don’t climb in now thereby saving us all from your high-maintenance, low-functioning choices. Oh I do get on my high horse. Then again who among us is not adept at judging his lessors? Very faulty reasoning soon to be corrected.
I lived in California from Thanksgiving to Christmas and attended academically deficient Venice High School in Los Angeles where the movie Grease was filmed. It was a culture shock from the cosseted strait-jacketed educational worlds I’d known in Virginia and New York where teachers had expectations of their students. Venice High was a scattershot educational experience where classes were “taught” in little bungalows sprinkled about the campus like the huts at summer camp and the educators who taught the campers were more like camp counselors who could legally drink.
Perhaps this dynamic befitted the laid back California lifestyle in the days of Jerry Brown’s first go around as governor. I think the faculty was chosen from all the teachers who couldn’t cut it at Ridgemont High. One teacher spelled the crustacean “mussel” as “muscle.” Nobody caught it and were genuinely surprised when I corrected it. I regularly corrected the geometry teacher’s proofs and the social studies teacher Mr. Swanson, was an old queen complete with ascot and affectation. He had a way of draping a button sweater across his shoulders without placing his arms in the sleeves that absolutely unnerved me.
At Venice High they served burritos for lunch, something this milquetoast easterner might have once a year on Cinco de Mayo as a tribute to our colorful Mexican neighbors from south of the border. In California they were eaten with salsa. In Syracuse they were eaten with sarcasm. There were myriad ethnicities at Venice High all jockeying for prominence. The student body was more a United Nations featuring a polyglot of languages and unique bands of association. If Debtor’s Prisons still existed, the student body would’ve been cut in half and if you’ve ever seen a student body cut in half, it isn’t a pretty sight. Where was I? Not only was I not in Kansas, I wasn’t sure I was in America anymore.
It was about this time I began living my life in the 3rd person in order to minimize the bracing discomfort of being present in the 1st person. Oh sure it’s easy for a fictional character to do this, but try doing it while sleeping in the corner of the kitchen on a rolled out sleeping bag. I lived a meager and alienated existence fashioning myself as a prisoner without a name, in a cell without a number.
It wasn’t all deprivation and forbearance however. Quite the contrary. I had an active imagination which allowed me to put everything into an even larger context where gloom’s despairing reach was nullified by the good grace of Spirit. We all have this ability, though it may be imperfectly exercised. However adaptive my coping skills were, it was cold comfort to be 15 years old with so many of my precious paradigms in tatters.
My proudest moment throughout this peripatetic ordeal was making the JV basketball team in 3 separate states in one connected season. I began this hoop odyssey in Virginia at Groveton HS where Coach Turner saw me playing in a gym class and asked me to come out for the team. Then in California I walked on, made the team and played for the Venice High Gondoliers. Later in January of 1977 I returned to Syracuse and made the Henninger Black Knights High School team, seeing about as much action as Neil Patrick Harris at a sorority party. I felt considerable pride in earning this distinction. With all the world in tumult around me, sports were a dependable refuge from all the chaos.
And This is Where the Story Really Begins
My brother Gary, a strategic and stalwart young man of some talent, was then finding his way in the world laboring as a glazier. Through his church he had made the acquaintance of a woman named Angie (I wish I knew her last name) who was the personal secretary to a renowned Universal Studios casting director named Milt Hamerman. No big deal right? Wrong. My brother was well aware of my intense appreciation of humor and its use as an anesthetic for my bruised psyche. He was also aware that his friend Angie had access, through her boss’s good auspices, to VIP Tonight Show tickets. So he suggested I call Angie and inquire as to the availability of Tonight Show tickets.
This wasn’t an invitation. It was an entrée into a secret universe were God’s favored roamed the firmament, doing as they pleased and accessing the finer things in life. I now stood at the threshold of all I surveyed. If I walked through that door I would never be the same again. Of course I wasn’t the same then, so my analogy started to break down immediately but it didn’t matter. I’d known duality before, but I didn’t care. I had an avenue to The Tonight Show. Me. A non-burrito eating, girl crazy, inwardly tormented adolescent whose deepest secret was that he harbored the sunniest hopes for everybody everywhere. He kept such optimistic faith on the down low for fear of ridicule or for appearing weak. Armchair philosophizing aside, who gave a sh*t? Because on this day there really was a God who bestowed riches on his huddled masses. After all God is the 1% who owns 100% of the wealth and although our Occupy God Movement has met with limited success, it’s only fair he throws us a bone now and again.
In preparation to calling Miss Angie and securing these VIP tickets that dangled so tantalizingly close to my possession, I screwed up my courage to the highest degree and with great trepidation called her. I can still remember the way the ring tone sounded as I apprehensively requested tickets to see the King of Late Night. I gave her my full-on spiel, describing to her my enduring love of The Tonight Show and my profound appreciation for her kindness. As my discourse on the topic entered the 3rd minute, a voice on the other end of the line interrupted to say, “David that’s all very nice. But let me put you through to Angie now.” She did and Angie couldn’t have been more accommodating. She immediately put me at ease, probably sensing how paramount this event was to me. Paramount indeed and to think she worked for Universal. How ironic. Anyway Angie explained that the tickets would be left for us at the will call booth at NBC’s Studio located at 3000 Alameda Avenue in Burbank. She went on to say these weren’t the kind of tickets where you had to stand in line for four hours. These were the kind where you were chaperoned to first class seats in the front rows by a courteous page. This was thrilling. Even more thrilling than my fantasies about tennis queen Billie Jean King (back then who knew?).
I either thanked Angie profusely or I profusely thanked Angie. In all my excitement I couldn’t keep track of my grammar. I asked for her address so I could send her something (flowers I thought) and told her she was the brightest star in my sky, bigger even than Karen Valentine. Her munificent act of kindness would completely dominate my world and eclipse every other thing until I’d seen the show. I blurted out I was so excited that my arms were absolutely beside myself. She agreed saying, “Good David. That’s exactly where your arms should be. Now go and enjoy the show young man.”
My World in such a Tizzy
Oh the Tizzy I was in the day of the show, Thursday, December 9th, 1976. A Tizzy is the barely male version of having a bee in your bonnet. There was so much to do. Too much to do. Staying in my skin would be my first priority. When you want something this badly it can be difficult to maintain basic bodily processes and although my skin was sagging in some places I was sure it would still stick to my sinewy frame. I’d also taken a decision against straightening my pubic hair figuring no one had ever checked before; why the hell would they start now. David’s world was gyrating wildly. He needed to look at a the Big Picture and contextualize things, which he was really quite adept at doing when he needed to. David managed to regain some equilibrium and was now able to continue the story in the first person.
The day of the show finally came. I was determined not to spoil the moment by making any mistakes so I brushed all my teeth, ran my belt through all its loops and put on both shoes before entering my brother’s 1974 Fiat Strada for the 25 minute drive to Burbank – 185 minutes if there was traffic. I began to feel a sort of clairvoyant hyper awareness whereby when my brother started the car, I could instantaneously visualize all the swarthy Italians on the Fiat assembly line who’d put it together. There they were Rico, Vinnie and Cheech, gesticulating to one another with off color hand gestures. How could my subconscious have such a stereotypical view – after all I was half Italian. At least from the waist down I was told. What am I talking about? I’ve got to get on with this story.
I was stimulated beyond all recognition and its effects were dizzying. Ideas careened around my head as if it was me in the paint shaker. If Earth was an email sent down from on high, I wanted to unsubscribe. I yearned to opt out. But in 1976 there was no email. At that time we still had telegrams -Stop- And Morse Code -Stop- And people thought Afternoon Delight was a good song -OK Really Stop-. As my brother and I drove off I began to regain some stability, although in my mind I could sense the four strokes of each of the four cylinders as they went through their cycles of intake, compression, power and exhaust. Rolling down my window became a living diorama as I felt the teeth of the metal gears propel the lift channel and its attached tempered glass down the felt-lined runners until it magically disappeared into the door’s cavity. I was in utter sympathy with everything surrounding me. All I had to do was focus on something to see its truth. If I was on acid this would be called a bad trip. If I was mentally imbalanced it would be called a Panic Attack. But I was quite used to this experience and simply called it Thursday.
On the way to the studio I remember passing outsized movie billboards for Rocky, King Kong and The Omen. The last billboard was some kind of omen, but for what? We were getting closer to Burbank. My pulse quickened as beads of sweat began to form in the glove box. Yes the glove box. I know this because, not wanting to leave anything to chance, I checked the glove box. And sure enough, beads of sweat had formed there. But whose sweat was it? Oh who cares? I’m going to The Tonight Show. Stick to me skin, please!
Being in a Tizzy is tough. Getting out of it is even tougher. After picking up the VIP tickets at the will call booth my pulse quickened as beads of sweat began to form in the glove box. Oh sh*t I already said that didn’t I. Forget Tizzy. Now I’m in a Voodoo Spiral. If I wasn’t so frightened and selfish to begin with (parents, karma, who knows why), I could simply have this experience as just part of the passing show. But as is the case with narcissistic people with a need for self-importance, it had to take on overwhelming significance all tied into my need for validation. Jesus, should a good time be this hard?
Tickets in hand, Gary, Patrice and I were ushered into the dinkiest, most uninspiring soundstage you ever saw. It was compact and skeletal – like an Olsen twin. This utilitarian workspace exposed the ribbons of cables, the harsh lighting and the strobing applause signs (Johnny needed to coax applause?) that you never saw on TV. This couldn’t be where my magnificent Tonight Show was taped. This was my Wizard of Oz moment and soon I’d see that man behind the curtain. By now my Tonight Show erection had completely subsided and I was no longer forced to walk all hunched over. You have to remember at 15 everything was viewed through the prism of testosterone and stimulation of any kind could produce excitement in predictable regions. And while I don’t care to admit it, in those days any erection lasting less than four hours was cause for a visit to a doctor.
As we settled into our front row seats, I surveyed the cramped studio and thought, “This is where they tape The Tonight Show?” Maybe an infomercial for the Pocket Fisherman or the Smokeless Ashtray was taped here, but not my precious Tonight Show. There was little majesty to be found here and as the reality of the television industry collided with the fantasy of Tinseltown I was actually relieved to find it was just a TV show with a funny guy at its center. Maybe I could have a good time and just enjoy it. By now my Voodoo Spiral had been downgraded to a Storm Watch as Tropical Storm Johnny was about to hit the stage with humorous forced winds as the applause signs would ensure.
A Few Observations on the Show
It wasn’t so much that my balloon of expectation had been sadly deflated. It was more that the event took on a new and different tone. I merely observed and absorbed the experience as just part of the passing show. There was an atmosphere and pacing to the show I’ll attempt to convey to you. Even though the show began at 5:30 pm, all the clocks in the studio were set to Tonight Show time meaning the clocks showed 11:30. At around 11:10 the studio became abuzz with activity. The cue cards for that evening’s monologue were laid out across the front of the stage facing Johnny. He was so skilled at reading those cards you were hardly aware they existed. A few minutes later a sound and light check were completed while a stagehand removed the drape covering the set. At 11:20 the band members began to trickle out culminating in the appearance of its colorful maestro Doc Severinsen. Doc took a bow and then introduced archetypal second banana Ed McMahon whose jolly laughter and stentorian announcer’s voice warmed up the audience with a few jokes. By now it was “11:30” and like clockwork the band struck up the iconic theme song (written by Paul Anka) and Ed intoned “And now. Heeeeeere’s Johnny!”
As if emerging from a voting booth, Johnny appeared from behind the curtain, his real life movements absolutely matching those I’d seen on TV a hundred times before. There was no need for an applause sign now. We all appreciated Johnny’s familiar presence. I can’t remember one joke from the monologue. I was too busy observing the audience, the cue cards, the cameramen and just plain drinking in the experience. At the first commercial break, the band played on as Johnny walked over to his desk joined by Ed and longtime producer Freddie DeCordova (He directed President Reagan in Bedtime for Bonzo). They pow-wowed in the dark till just before the music ended and then the tungsten sodium arc lamps came up to either illuminate the set or to ignite it. The lights were so white hot I’m sure they could’ve accomplished either.
During the commercial break the superlative Tonight Show band played their Doc Severensin arranged brand of brassy waka-jawaka the entire time. When the music faded, the applause sign strobed and Johnny was back on stage. This time he was mischievously standing before a variety of popular Christmas toys. The first toy was a miniature mannequin-like basketball player who shot baskets when operated like a Rock’em Sock’em Robot. Johnny attempted a few shots using this primitive pulley system but was woefully off target. Repeated efforts grew progressively worse until Johnny looked the miniature toy in the eye and said something like, “You picked your debut on national television to have an off night. We’ll see if you ever get booked on this show again.” He smartly knocked him over with a backhand and then moved on to a couple of other offerings before arriving at a toy cannon. He lit its fuse and its piercing percussive report could be heard throughout the studio and demanded everyone’s attention. It was then I saw the twinkle in his eye and new why he had comedic chops. He turned back to the recumbent mannequin and leered, “Oh Mr. Basketball player. I have someone I’d like you to meet.” And with that he placed the underperforming toy in front of the cannon and blew him into horn section, with Johnny finally bellowing, “And stay out.” Great TV. In fact that bit made the anniversary show; meaning it was one of the funniest moments of the year.
The first guest was a young starlet (and future Sam Shepard girlfriend) named Jessica Lange. She was promoting the movie King Kong and I immediately deduced she wasn’t the gorilla. Johnny’s handled the interview with his usual aplomb as he put the young starlet at ease with his casual grace and perhaps in some small way paved the way for her future stardom.
Rounding out the show was veteran comedian George Gobel, a Carson favorite. Mr. Gobel related a story on how he had bravely served the country in WWII by giving flight instruction at an air base in Oklahoma. As the audience snickered at his sheltered stateside service, he defended his record by deadpanning, “Oh sure you laugh now, but people forget that not one Japanese plane made it past Tulsa.”
A most remarkable moment and clarifying event occurred at 12:55 Carson time when Ed left the couch, walked over to the audience and announced that Mr. Bob Hope was going to film some segments for his Christmas special and invited the audience to stay on to watch and laugh. “Mr. Bob Hope!” I gushed to my brother. “He’s all four faces on the Mt. Rushmore of comedy.” I was thrilled and yet a little jaundiced because there are two ways to look at this invitation. One: what a wonderful surprise and privilege to see the venerated and hugely popular Bob Hope in action for free. Or two: what kind of rinky-dink operation is this? – NBC borrowing a stale studio audience from The Tonight Show to slap together one of Bob’s many profitable TV specials.
Bob Hope, visibly younger than his 73 years, did emerge from behind that curtain and taped a tired holiday segment with voluptuous actress Dyan Cannon. She wore a fur coat and the piece was freighted with plastic snow and lame sexual innuendo. Miss America from 1976 appeared and sang a song about why she enjoyed being Caucasian. In about an hour Mr. Hope and his troupe were done borrowing the audience and everyone got what they wanted. We got a healthy dose of celebrity stardust and a terrific story to recount, and NBC got a convenient studio and boffo ratings. Mr. Hope was the consummate entertainer as technicians and stage managers hustled around him setting the scene and ushering props and talent in and out while he sat on a stool peppering us with trial jokes. This superb and memorable evening caused me to completely forget about the insistence of puberty. Seeing Carson and Hope back to back really threw me off my game.
With this momentous experience now behind me and shrunk down to its real life size, I turned my attention to thanking saintly Angie (what was her last name? anyone?) and expressing my genuine appreciation for all she’d done in providing me tickets to The Tonight Show. Angie made it all possible and I resolved to supremely commend her generosity in conferring upon me the gift of a lifetime. And that’s why I wrote this story. My singular inability to thank, even acknowledge, Angie for her kindness is what this story is all about. Gratitude. So while my resolve to thank her never wavered, my actions did. I never actually sent flowers or followed up with a phone call or did anything that might convey my appreciation for her magnanimity. That’s right, I never did thank Angie properly, if at all. And yes there are worse things in the world than ignoring a good deed. As it stood Angie’s good deed went neither appreciated nor unpunished. It went unnoticed. Angie probably thought I was just another ungrateful and selfish adolescent. And she would be right at some level. I was that way. Of course I also secretly harbored Panglossian aspirations for all mankind and wanted everybody everywhere to go to bed with a full belly and a tranquil mind. I hoped she just assumed my better angels were very resident, but deafeningly silent. That’s all I had to offer in 1976. What did you expect? We were listening to Afternoon Delight back then.
As the years passed and this experience (The Tonight Show and my neglectful ways) grew progressively smaller in my rear view mirror, I was happy to dismiss my behavior and was fully prepared to continue dwelling in my room full of mirrors. However, a revelation was visited upon me in a most epiphanic fashion (there’s that word again: see 1st paragraph). One evening I suddenly came to realize a great truth: That if I was willing to forgive others their ignorance, I could be forgiven mine and we could all move on.
Moreover if I actively provided something of value to those who truly needed it, my previous self-centeredness might balance out. Now this is not a watertight realization and there are a million qualifications to it, but life will present you with these opportunities and it is the discerning mind and aware soul that can successfully navigate them. Not so highfaluting really. It’s just an overly elaborate way of recognizing the reciprocal flow of good energy and your part as a least resistive medium for its healthy circulation.
As the curtain comes down on this episode allow me to conclude by paraphrasing a line of which you’re well aware, but whose power remains undiminished: Ask not what the world can do for you, but what you can do for the world.