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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