What It Was Like To Work For Johnny Carson On The Tonight Show

Earning your first paycheck is a pretty huge deal, and Merritt Watts' new book First Jobs: True Tales Of Bad Bosses, Quirky Coworkers, Big Breaks, And Small Paychecks (Picador) chronicles those seminal — and varied — stories. Among the 50 men and women she interviewed, there's a story of a young woman who made money in college working as a nude model, and a teenager who helped his dad at a pet cemetery. Each of the stories is unique, but when Refinery29 chatted with Watts, she pointed out there was a common theme that ran through all of them:

Even the worst jobs have something to
teach us. So, to make the most of the experience, you have to be open to
learning those lessons, even if the only lesson is that you never want to do that job again. I’ve
come to believe that a bad first job can actually be the best thing that ever
happened to you — you’ll learn gobs more than you would at a nice, easy job,
but it’s inherently temporary, so you’re not throwing your entire career off track. If you’re going to really screw up, now’s the time! 

Ahead, we have an excerpt from First Jobs. Louisa Ermelino had a small gig at a very big TV show during the late '60s — and learned a lot during her six-month stint in showbiz. Read on for her less-than-glitzy tale of time at The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. ***
Photo: NBC/Getty Images.

The Accidental Showbiz Beginner
 
(1968)

My life has been totally serendipitous. You know how some people say, “I want
to be a journalist” or “I want to
be an actor”? For me, it was nothing like that. In college I studied engineering
and ended up in history, but the only thing I knew when I graduated
was that I wanted to leave the country, so
I traveled for a while. When
I came back my father was all over me to finally
get a job. 

I had
just one cousin who
was successful in the corporate world and my father said to him, “You gotta get this kid a
job.” The cousin had a friend who
worked at NBC and he got me a gig as a correspondent at The Tonight
Show Starring Johnny Carson
. It was the lowest-level job in the entire place,
except for
maybe the receptionist, who often had to babysit the animal
acts.     

There were two correspondents and it was the kind of job
where, if you didn’t get
promoted out of it within
a year, you were going nowhere. You
were supposed to leave. It was a big deal to get it, but it was still
bottom of the barrel. 

As a correspondent, you weren’t really a part of producing the show. Your main responsibility
was answering the fan mail, the stacks of ridiculous handwritten letters like, “My husband and I love
watching your show,
it’s our favorite, can you send us $1,000 for a new car?” I really couldn’t have cared less about these
letters. In fact, I once
typed out about three hundred
response notes with
the word “sincerely” spelled wrong; I spelled it “sincereley.” The office manager said, “You can’t send this out,” and I said, “Why not? It’s only one word!” 

And then there
was the “crazy phone.” It rang all the time—anybody could call and talk or complain. You were not allowed
to be the one who hung up first.
You had to listen and you had to log these inane complaints about how some guest had offended them. Another big complaint was that the volume automatically went up when the
commercials came on. Then there were the personal
conversations about their leaky faucets, their
pets, how their
dog was feeling, and, of course, how they were feeling. (And let me tell you, they were never feeling good.) These conversations would go on forever because the kinds
of people who called
the crazy phone had nothing better to do. 

Johnny Carson had his offices
somewhere else in the building.
He always wore these crepe-soled shoes, so you
wouldn’t
hear him when
he came in, but then
all of a sudden the room would
go dead silent. The boss. He was
not a bad guy, but he was the most taciturn, stiff person
you ever met in your life, the complete opposite of his Mr. Charisma TV persona.
One time I had to sit outside his office
to answer his phones. It
was like a tomb in there. He might have said hello, but
I’m not sure.   

Fans used to complain that
Johnny Carson was never
on the show,
that he took a lot of time
off. But I loved this because then I would get to be the de facto assistant to the guest hosts sometimes. This pretty
much involved ordering food from the Stage Deli for them and overhearing their
conversations. But it was wonderful when I had someone
like Woody Allen, Peter
Lawford, Bill Cosby, or Flip Wilson.
Once I had Milton
Berle. He was on the phone getting one-line jokes from some writer and I had to write
them down as he got them. I
was
disillusioned. I always thought
he wrote his own jokes. 

Woody Allen asked me to listen
to his whole monologue because he was so nervous,
which was really kind of great. Of
course, I can’t stand anything about him now,
but at the time I thought
he was fabulous. One of his wives was named Louise, which
is how we bonded. If he had said, “Run away with me to Zanzibar,” I would have been waiting
at the backstage door. A lot
of the guest hosts had this self-important, patronizing attitude, but he was so respectful and funny, definitely my favorite. 

The assistants sat in a bullpen in the middle
of the office. They were
all young,
beautiful girls who walked around barely dressed.
Finally someone put out an edict that you
couldn’t wear a
see-through blouse without a bra, that’s
how far things went. 

The other correspondent who had been there two years was a sweet girl, but she was going nowhere. She’d go off with a particular repeat guest host whenever he filled in for Johnny. Then she’d show up the next morning
wearing an expensive
necklace, or a new bracelet,
or something like that. There was another
girl, an assistant, who was having an affair with a married movie
star who was pretty big at the time and she would carry on and on about how he was going to leave his
wife, but he just couldn’t right
then. Yeah, right. She’d get a lot
of flowers. (Clearly the girl
getting the jewelry
was smarter.) 

And then there was Marcy, the assistant to the producer John Carsey.
Everyone joked that if Marcy
married John she’d become Marcy
Carsey. Well, guess what? She did, and she ended up producing some major TV shows like The Cosby Show, Roseanne, and Third Rock from the Sun

I did have a brief affair with a writer
for the show. It was kind of fun shutting that office
door. The writers
used to get six-week
contracts and they were being paid eight hundred bucks a
week, which was a fortune back then. At least
I thought it was a fortune;
I was making ninety
bucks a week. They would have a meeting
every morning and they had to have ten jokes ready to present
to Carson. He would sit there and listen and either laugh or not laugh. Writers are always wrecks, but they were all
extra nervous
before this meeting. 

I only lasted six months as a correspondent — I wanted to go traveling
again and when I was passed over for a promotion I had my perfect reason.      

When I was there I really didn’t appreciate how special it was. The Tonight Show was a big deal, a legend, and it could have been a stepping-stone to a career.
If I had stayed at NBC, who knows? But that just didn’t register at the time. 

My parents were resigned when I quit. They were
wonderful, loving, and tolerant, but they were never particularly impressed
with anything I did. I’m
sad my father never saw what I eventually accomplished, but my mother was around for it. When I wrote my first book she said, “It’s so short,
who is going to pay money for this?” At my book party someone came up and said, “You must be very proud,”
and she said, “You should meet my son!” So no, The
Tonight
Show
as a first job did not impress them;
they were just glad
I finally had a job. 

Louisa Ermelino, 68, is an
author and the vice president and reviews director at
Publishers Weekly. A collection of her
stories will be published by Sarabande Books in April 2016.
                    

        
    
  
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