TV URBAN LEGEND: Johnny Carson wouldn't guest star on The Simpsons if they made fun of him.
The Simpsons have had a long history of celebrities making cameo appearances on the show, but what is sometimes forgotten due to the longevity of the series is how different things were in its early years. In a TV Legend a while back about Michael Jackson's appearance in The Simpsons' Season 3 premiere, I explained that in the early days of the show, while celebrities would occasionally lend their voices, they would often use pseudonyms in the credits. In the beginning, there really weren't celebrity cameos, however. Dustin Hoffman and Michael Jackson played other characters, not themselves. The episode that really changed everything was Season 3’s "Homer at the Bat," in which Mr. Burns decides to fill his company softball team with ringers made up of famous Major League Baseball players. The episode was a major success, and some of the players (like Darryl Strawberry and Wade Boggs) credit the episode with making them even better known.
A year later, when writer John Swartzwelder pitched the idea of Krusty the Clown getting canceled and then having a comeback special, showrunners Al Jean and Mike Reiss saw this as an opportunity to do another version of "Homer at the Bat," only with other celebrities instead of baseball players. However, they soon learned that The Simpsons in its fourth season didn’t have the cachet that they hoped for when it came to getting celebrities to sign on for cameos. A whole pile of celebrities backed out, with some of them doing so at the last minute. Before the Red Hot Chili Peppers agreed to perform in the episode, both the Rolling Stones and Wynonna Judd turned the show down (years later, when The Simpsons had become a standard place for celebrity cameos, the Stones appeared; I think Judd blew any chance she had of being on the show). Because they were so desperate to add celebrities, the producers ended up making a notable concession to one of the possible celebrities, Johnny Carson: They agreed NOT to make fun of him!
Some time ago, I detailed how The Simpsons writers got "revenge" against Justin Timberlake when he guest-starred with the rest of 'N Sync because he criticized the dialogue written for him. Obviously, there was a big difference between The Simpsons in 2001 and The Simpsons in 1993 and more importantly, there is a gigantic difference between imberlake (especially at the time, before he became a successful solo artist) and Johnny Carson, whom the writers of The Simpsons revered as a comedy icon. Jean and Reiss actually worked for The Tonight Show for a few years before joining the staff of The Simpsons.
Carson had closed out his tenure on The Tonight Show a year earlier, in 1992, and had basically withdrawn from the public eye, so getting him to do the series was no small feat. The other celebrities in the episode varied in difficulty, from Luke Perry (who agreed right away) to Bette Midler (who agreed on the condition that they let her talk about her anti-littering campaign). Their pitch to Carson was that, because he was now unemployed, he would be mooching off of the Simpsons. They sent the pitch to Carson's nephew (who was working as a sort of manager for Johnny), but he turned them down. When Jean checked in with him to see why, the nephew explained that Carson found the joke degrading. So Jean and the staff came up with an idea: Just do a 180-degree turn on their depiction of Carson, instead portraying him as an expert showman, juggling automobiles while singing opera! Carson liked the new approach, and signed on.
Conan O'Brien has an amusing anecdote about Carson showing up for the recording of his lines (this was right before Conan got Late Night):
I was also there when Johnny Carson came by after he retired from The Tonight Show. He was in a room full of writers who revered him. When Johnny was leaving -- in a white Corvette -- I was outside of the recording stage and he asked, "How do I get out of here?" I kind of panicked. I said, "You go down here and you take a right." And he went, "OK, thank you." And just as his car pulled away. I thought, "Shit! It's a left!" And I kept watching. And sure enough about 45 seconds later, it comes back the other way. And I could just imagine him going, "Stupid kid." I was that stupid kid.
The eventual episode, "Krusty Gets Kanceled," was the Season 4 finale and is one of the most acclaimed episodes of The Simpsons ever. It set off a long history of celebrities appearing as themselves.
The legend is...
STATUS: Basically True
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