George Burns on Johnny Carson: “When it comes to saving a bad line, he is the master”

Fifteen Years of the Salto Mortale is a fascinating 1978 profile of Johnny Carson. In it, director Billy Wilder gives this eloquent explanation of why Carson was so good.

“By the simple law of survival, Carson is the best,” he said.. “He enchants the invalids and the insomniacs as well as the people who have to get up at dawn. He is the Valium and the Nembutal of a nation.. No matter what kind of dead-asses are on the show, he has to make them funny and exciting. He has to be their nurse and their surgeon.. He has no conceit.. He does his work and he comes prepared. If he’s talking to an author, he has read the book.. Even his rehearsed routines sound improvised.. He’s the cream of middle-class elegance, yet he’s not a mannequin. He has captivated the American bourgeoisie without ever offending the highbrows, and he has never said anything that wasn’t liberal or progressive. Every night, in front of millions of people, he has to do the salto mortale”—circus parlance for an aerial somersault performed on the tightrope. “What’s more”—and here Wilder leaned forward, tapping my knee for emphasis—”he does it without a net. No rewrites. No retakes. The jokes must work tonight.”

The author also talks about Carson's great way with savers. He could dig himself out of any hole.

The unexpected impromptus with which he rescues himself from gags that bomb, thereby plucking triumph from disaster, are also part of the expected pleasure. “When it comes to saving a bad line, he is the master”—to quote a tribute paid in my presence by George Burns. Carson registers a gag’s impact with instant, seismographical finesse. If the laugh is five per cent less than he counted on, he notes the failure and reacts to it (“Did they clear the hall? Did they have a drill?”) before any critic could, usually garnering a double-strength guffaw as reward. Whatever spoils a line—ambiguous phrasing, botched timing, faulty enunciation—he is the first to expose it. Nobody spots flaws in his own work more swiftly than Carson, or capitalizes on them more effectively.

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