The Great American Comedy Festival this weekend in Nebraska — with shows, for the first time, in Omaha — comes on the heels of the PBS “American Masters” documentary on Johnny Carson.
The fifth annual festival, a competition of comics, is based in his hometown of Norfolk, Neb., 110 miles northwest of Omaha.
The 20 comedians from around the country, who advanced as a result of earlier auditions, will perform at 7:30 p.m. today and Friday, alternating between the Johnny Carson Theatre in Norfolk and the Holland Performing Arts Center in downtown Omaha.
Events in Norfolk on Saturday and Sunday will feature comedians Paula Poundstone, Jimmie “JJ” Walker and Nebraska native Dick Cavett.
The festival was the idea of Kent Warneke, editor of the Norfolk Daily News, as a way for “a relatively small town (pop. 24,210) to pay tribute to its heritage in a relatively big way.”
Warneke, the festival chairman, watched the two-hour PBS documentary on Carson with great interest.
“It certainly showed all facets of his personality, and he was not without foibles,” Warneke said Wednesday. “He was a very complex, interesting individual who somehow performed nightly for 30 years and is still revered.
“Selfishly, I wish the documentary had spent more time on Johnny's philanthropy to his hometown and home state.”
Near the end of the program, a Hollywood friend did say that after Carson's death, he was surprised to read in the “Omaha Herald” (The World-Herald) a long list of Johnny's known donations in Nebraska alone.
In Norfolk, he gave $2.27 million for a cancer radiation center, $1 million to Northeast Community College, $600,000 to the Norfolk Public Schools for a theater and $500,000 to the Norfolk Library Foundation. He also sent memorabilia to the Elkhorn Valley Museum.
Carson donated millions to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, including an undisclosed amount toward construction of the Lied Center for the Performing Arts. The renovation of the Temple Building, where he studied radio performance, benefited from a $5.3 million grant, and he bequeathed $5 million for an endowment supporting theater, film and broadcasting programs. Just last fall, his foundation donated $1 million for scholarships for Nebraska high school graduates studying performing arts at UNL.
A 1949 NU graduate, Carson got his professional start on radio and TV in Omaha and enjoyed talent that was unique — and yet he was burdened by the typical demons of the classic clown.
Which is to say: happy on the outside, sad on the inside. He was called shy, anti-social, never the life of the party.
The two-hour documentary that first aired a month ago today isn't the first report to make that point about the legendary former host of NBC's “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” but the program did so rather emphatically.
Seemingly never able to win his mother's approval, Carson was married four times, berated himself for being a detached father and didn't like what he became when he drank.
Carson hosted the late-night show from 1962 to 1992, elegantly bade farewell and then rarely showed himself in public after that. He died at 79 in 2005 of emphysema. He had been a longtime smoker, which he told friends he regretted.
Like most people, he was complicated. But Johnny Carson wasn't most people. For three decades, he made millions laugh before they went to bed or as they lay in bed.
But when he left, he was gone. Johnny always enjoyed performing magic tricks, and he practically made himself disappear.
But even in the reclusiveness of his post-TV years, when he enjoyed his boat and the sunshine but avoided the crowds and the spotlight, an old friend occasionally would hear from him.
A decade ago, Bob Sweet of Omaha wrote Johnny a kidding note reminding him of the money Bob lent him for a cab at the old Seven Seas Lounge in downtown Omaha in the early 1950s. Johnny sent him a 10-dollar bill and a cheerful, signed reply.
Norfolk's Great American Comedy Festival is a great tribute to Carson — and it's cool that it's being extended to Omaha.
RFD-TV is filming this year's festival for a special later this summer, which chairman Warneke said will be great national exposure. The festival also has received its first financial support from Carson's foundation.
“In our fifth year,” Warneke said, “it definitely seems to be taking root and expanding to much more than just a Norfolk festival.”
After being introduced thousands of times with “Heeeere's Johnny!,” Carson said goodbye and left people wondering, “Where's Johnny?”
Thanks to the many Norfolk volunteers and sponsors who stage the festival, the best tribute to the memory of this American master is — where else? — right here in Nebraska.
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