|Pop Culture Gadabout|
Monday, January 24, 2005 |
( 1/24/2005 05:42:00 AM ) Bill S.
"WHEN GUESTS ARE BORING, HE FILLS UP THE SLACK" – I was a kid and a teenager when Johnny Carson was at his peak, an era when his name was synonymous with "late night." And, while being able to stay up to see The Tonight Show was a mark of fabulous adulthood, I never became a fan. Watching the show to me was a bit like being on a family visit with relatives who didn't have any kids: you listened to the chatter for a while, hoping to glean something about the mysteries of being an adult, but after a while your mind began to wander. When I was of an age to finally be able to stay up and watch the man on my own, the show looked corny to me. I gravitated toward marginally "hipper" late night fare with less staying power: Dick Cavett or Geraldo Rivera, say (back when the latter had no pretense of being a journalist and brought guests like then-father-in-law Kurt Vonnegut onto his show). When I'd check in on Tonight, it more often was because it had a guest host (like Orson Welles – or the Smothers Brothers) who interested me.
My best memory of Carson from the audience (check Mark Evanier's site for an imposing series of critical and show biz takes) was from an appearance on The Jack Benny Show. (Carson was indebted to Benny in many ways: he learned from the comedian's timing, while Benny's teevee producer also became a fixture on Tonight.) In it, Carson played a robot version of himself: a joke arising from the punishing schedule he had in his early years as a talk show host. Perhaps that episode, which I most likely saw before I actually viewed a Tonight Show, influenced my response to him. There always seemed to be something vaguely unreal and Teflon-like about Johnny Carson.
In the end, of course, my Boomer-esque take on the man doesn't amount to a hill of beans when stacked against the millions of Americans who made his show a nightly ritual. The guy had the sense to retire when his audience was still wanting more – and the class to stick to that retirement. In that, he was pretty darn unique. . .
NOTE: For the full lyrics to Brian Wilson's wholly heartfelt Beach Boys Love You tribute to "Johnny Carson," which is reffed in this post's heading, check out Johnny Bacardi's site.
UPDATE: Moderate Voice Joe Gandelman has a fine appreciation of Carson, his influence and comic delivery style over at his place.