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Originally published Friday, March 2, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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DVDs

A former Mrs. Carson releases the classic "Johnny Carson Show" on DVD

Witness the nascent King of Late Night, September 1958: An accident-prone contestant on "Who Do You Trust? " says he got his hand caught...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Witness the nascent King of Late Night, September 1958:

An accident-prone contestant on "Who Do You Trust?" says he got his hand caught in a woman's blouse on a crowded subway. A young Johnny Carson retorts, "You were getting a hold of the wrong strap on the subway, weren't you?"

If he wasn't fully formed, he didn't have far to go. Quick on his feet. Easy to laugh. At ease with himself and guests. The above moment is bundled with a long-unseen treasure-trove of kinescopes released by Johnny's ex-wife — well, one of them — on DVD: "The Johnny Carson Show" (Shout Factory, 1955, $24.98) offers a glimpse of said King (who died in 2005) doing sketch comedy before his ascendance and 30-year reign on "The Tonight Show."

On the couch — I mean phone: Joanne Carson, now 75, from her West Los Angeles home.

Q: The humor seems corny now, but wasn't it kind of edgy in 1955?

A: It was very advanced for the time. In other words, Johnny's humor was always ahead of what everyone else was doing.

Q: Is it true that he thought the show was a failure?

A: There were 10 shows that he thought were excellent, of the 39 shows. The show itself he thought was a disaster because there were too many cooks. They had like seven directors and 10 producers, and they kept changing things on him. But what he kept doing was his own thing. In other words, these sketches he wrote, these are pure Johnny Carson. This was his first network experience, so he kind of went with the flow because he didn't know what to expect.

Q: He's incredibly skinny. He is the Nicole Ritchie of 1955.

A: (Laughs.) Well, he was very young. You've got to remember something: He was in his 30s, and most young men are thin. And Johnny was thin all his life.

Q: Even then, nobody bombed better than he did. Did he practice that?

A: No no, it wasn't practiced. It was his amusement at nobody laughing. He would get very amused and very tickled when something bombed, because he thought it was funny. Later, the "Tonight Show" writers started giving him deliberate bombs.

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Q: How did you wind up with the rights to this show?

A: Johnny gave me these shows. First of all, he courted me with these shows. When I first met him and he realized I loved comedy, he said, "I'd like you to see a show I did. Would you like to come up and look at it?" And I said, "Is this the new 'Would you like to come up and see my etchings?' "

And he turned bright red, and I was very embarrassed for him, and I said, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. Of course, of course I would like to."

So I saw the first show, and I loved it. And we just roared with laughter. So we kind of made a habit of, after dinner, we would go watch a show. And I really fell in love with him over these shows because of his enjoyment of them. I mean, he would laugh louder than I would.

Q: What was it like living with him?

A: Oh, it was an incredible life, I'll tell you. Johnny was one of the most thoughtful, sensitive men I've ever known. and not only that, the most generous. And there was always laughter in our house.

Q: Did you get a lot of Carnac?

A: He saw things funny. His perception of life was amusing, so he would share it with me.

Q: He was notoriously private. Was this because he was shy?

A: Very much so. He was extremely shy.

Q: That always seems odd for entertainers.

A: That's why they go into entertainment. That's why Johnny as a young man did magic, because that was his way of communicating with people, where he couldn't just sit down socially and talk to them because he was so shy.

Q: Why did you decide to release it now?

A: I promised Johnny the year before he died that I would put these on DVD someday. And I hadn't seen them since the '60s, so I asked a friend of mine if he could make a DVD copy for me, and he said, "Are you aware of how valuable these tapes are?" And I said, "In what way?" And he said, "They're pure Johnny Carson." They're Johnny Carson before "The Tonight Show." They're Johnny when he had no guard up and had — when people get older they kind of have a persona that is polished.

Q: I'm all persona. There's nothing of me left.

A: (Laughs.) So this is the real Johnny Carson.

Q: And this is for charity?

A: Yes. A friend of mine, Dr. Jean Dodds, who has a nonprofit group that involves greyhound rescue, wants to build a restore health center for dogs. And so I said to her, "Well, how much do you need?" And she said $3 million. And I said, "I can't raise that much money, but I can raise a little bit."

Q: How did you like Johnny's on-air joking about alimony and his exes?

A: It was good fodder for him! No, really. One of the favorite lines that Johnny ever had on "The Tonight Show" happened to have been about me, in saying that I left him with a hairnet and a hassock. Because when I was talking to Johnny about it, I said those are very funny words. And he said, "I know, that's why I used them." So I never resented it, because when you're married to someone who is an entertainer, everything is fodder.

Q: You stayed on good terms, then?

A: We stayed on good terms. All the way to the end.

Q: So many people now were influenced by Johnny — Bill Maher openly admits imitating him. Who were his role models?

A: Jack Benny. Just that one. That was his role model. That was another era. When Johnny grew up, Jack Benny was the master of comedy in his mind. If you pay attention to Johnny's style, it's very much like Jack Benny in timing. But also because Johnny's a drummer, he was very good with timing, so that kind of helped with his monologues and his sketches.

Q: Are there things you can say now that you wouldn't when he was alive?

A: Well ... I can explain why the marriage broke up.

Q: Please do.

A: I loved Johnny, but I hated my life. I'm not a social animal. I'm a little girl from a small town in Southern California who was raised in a convent. So that lifestyle in New York and the ivory tower and all that was just more than I was willing to deal with. And it caused the friction between us in that I wanted to come back to California and Johnny wanted to stay in New York. So it was like, OK, he loved me enough to let me go and I loved him enough to stay in touch with him.

Q: Simple as that.

A: Just simple as that. No biggie. So not being a social animal, I'm not really good at small talk, and as long as Johnny and I were together, most of the time we spent alone, and had dinner alone or went on the boat alone. But then in the '70s, because of his popularity, there were more events he had to go to and more people he had to know, and it was just always very uncomfortable for me.

Q: Can you answer for his '70s menswear line?

A: (Laughs hard.) That was his agent's idea. You gotta remember something: At the time, it was a great idea. Haven't you ever done something in your life that was a good idea at the time?

Q: Yeah, I can narrow that down to: Everything.

A: OK, well it was a good idea at the time, and it was fun.

Q: It seems clear now that he preferred Letterman to Leno.

A: You're right. You're absolutely right. He felt toward David as he would toward a younger brother. They had a common sense of humor, which is kind of outrageous. They made each other laugh like crazy.

Q: And he wound up contributing jokes to Letterman.

A: Oh, he was writing jokes for him all the time! Johnny just adored David Letterman, absolutely adored him as if he were a family member. They had a great rapport.

Q: Do you think that hurt Leno?

A: I don't think so, because Leno is a different kind of animal. He has a different sense of humor than Johnny and David did. It was NBC's decision (to name Leno as his successor), and as Johnny told me, they needed somebody they could control.

Q: The other famous man book-ending your life was Truman Capote. What's the common denominator there?

A: Truman and I shared a similar, almost identical childhood, so we bonded like a brother and sister would. And Johnny adored Truman. Truman had a terrific sense of humor, which not a lot of people know. The three of us would have dinner in our apartment in the kitchen, and the two of them would go back and forth, and it was just like watching a tennis match. It was incredible. They had a mutual appreciation of each other.

Q: Johnny was also a role model in the way he retired — and didn't drag things out.

A: That's class. That's absolute class. And one thing about Johnny Carson was that he was a class act.

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or mrahner@seattletimes.com

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