“I wake up in the morning, have coffee, start reading the newspapers-and then I reach for a pencil. I start circling items: ‘This would be perfect for the monologue.’ Turn the page: ‘That could work for a sketch.’ And by the third page, I realize: Who the hell am I going to do this for? The fish? Am I going to stand out here on the cliff and yell jokes over into the ocean?”
This is not a quote from David Letterman, the subject of this essay, but one from Johnny Carson in a 2002 interview (his last ) with Esquire. It’s almost as if the purpose of the interview was to assure anyone who cared that Carson was doing just fine and didn’t miss the limelight, yet his words betrayed him. Reading this interview today (and you should because it’s fascinating), there’s no sense Carson missed the daily grind of a network talk show, but he did miss having a public point of view on contemporary issues – which kind of blows up the whole notion that Carson just drifted into the sunset after he left The Tonight Show. It feels less like that was “the plan” and more like “that’s just the way it turned out.”
In retirement, Carson would famously write jokes and submit them for David Letterman to use. In 2000 Carson wrote a piece lampooning Dennis Miller for The New Yorker; in retrospect, it’s kind of crazy it even exists. (This would kind of be like if Terrence Malick all of a sudden dropped an article lamenting about Bill Maher, and even that’s a bad comparison. There’s no good comparison to this Carson piece and I find it both highly unusual and remarkable.) Carson’s executive assistant at the time, Helen Sanders, is quoted as saying, “He fully intended to do new projects, but once he got here, nothing appealed to him. After a while, he said, ‘You know what? I’m not going to do anything.’”
Two and a half years after this interview Carson would die from complications from emphysema without ever having a second act.
David Letterman’s love for Carson has been well documented – and it wasn’t too far of a stretch to imagine a scenario in which Letterman followed in the footsteps of his mentor and just kind of disappeared after leaving The Late Show. But (as we wrote about a couple of months ago), Letterman has kept popping up to host events, give interviews, and induct Pearl Jam into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This was certainly not the Carson plan – but then again “the Carson plan” wasn’t a real thing.