Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Johnny Carson 1925 - 2005

In 1966 I began to watch grown-up TV. I watched the State Of The Union speech, Jeopardy on mornings I was home sick, followed news coverage of the Vietnam War and Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty, and saw the Joey Bishop Show. Then there was Johnny Carson. By 1968 I was watching both the Democratic and Republican conventions, Playboy After Dark, reading the Christian Science Monitor and New York Times for coverage of Vietnam and becoming fascinated by Gore Vidal, whom I had seen for the first time on the Tonight Show, with Johnny Carson. I had some, but not much interest in Gilligan's Island and Batman; I was more interested in the news and current events.

I was a master at sneaking the TV on after bedtime. With my mother being a single parent, working full-time, and raising four kids, she would go to bed pretty early. This made late night TV watching rather simple. Wait til ten-thirty and flip on the set for the news, then it was always Johnny Carson.

My mother probably knew I was watching late-night television, but that meant I was safe in my bedroom!

I ended almost every night watching Carson. He was hysterical. I barely understood much of his monologue, but I learned a lot about irony by filtering his jokes and the audience laughter through the 'serious' news I'd read in the paper and heard from Walter Cronkite and Jack Hynes. Carson taught me how to analyze the news and make it part of my personal experience and to laugh at it. He was smart and his jokes about serious issues were insightful, analytical and well-timed. I learned that I could laugh at the world as long as I understood the seriousness of it all.

I watched him interview Vidal, Racquel Welch, Phyllis Diller, Truman Capote, Don Rickles, Joe Namath, politicians, musicians, comedians. He did skits and magic acts; he handled snakes and other exotic animals from some zoo. He gave unknown singers a break they only dreamed of.

My mother and I watched Tiny Tim marry Miss Vickie on the Tonight Show; and Bette Davis rip apart Faye Dunaway; I saw Jimmy Stewart when I though he was long dead. I watched Bette Midler serenade Carson during the last week of his broadcasts and I wept as she sang "One For My Baby." There were so many magic moments.

Johnny Carson, though neither the inventor (that would be Steve Allen) nor the stylizer (that would be Jack Paar) of his profession, raised the job of late-night talk show to an art form. Nobody else has ever done it as well. Those who followed him, the Lettermans and Lenos and Arsenios and Conans are dullards in comparison. They are neither smart nor analytical. They read jokes written by staffs of writers and it is clear they have no personal skill that allows them to insert their own sensibility into their shows or any personal attachment to the material. None of them can come remotely close to Carson.

It's impossible to say that he will be missed, because he has already been gone for so long. In many ways, Carson died in 1992 when he retired. He was insanely (sanely?) private and never appeared in the public-eye these last twelve years of his life. One thing is for sure: if Ed McMahon decides to do another commercial for Alpo, Johnny will not precede it with his trademark "I'll be right back."

Rest in peace.

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