by John Steppling
(Swans - January 31, 2005) It's interesting to note that a good many of the articles appearing since the death of Johnny Carson are reprints of pieces written in 1992, after the final edition of The Tonight Show. This isn't surprising, since The Tonight Show was what Carson did, essentially, for several decades. Carson now seems a part of the "straight sixties"....along with Sinatra and the rat pack, and James Bond. He was establishment, a WASP, and a millionaire (not to be confused with, say, Lenny Bruce). Still, it's hard to feel about Carson the way one might about other iconic figures of popular culture (say, Bob Hope....whose repulsive politics became almost as famous as he was, or the unpleasant persona and reality that was Sinatra). He represents a bridge from the early days of TV (Jack Parr) to the later stages of mass media we have today. He was, I might argue, the first "personality" that America embraced and got to feel they knew. Every night he was "invited" into their living rooms. Few people disliked Carson, and few felt they didn't know him. This was a new phenomenon in the 1960s, and it might well be seen as the precursor of the later and more intensified celebrity fetishizing we now take for granted. Johnny wasn't an actor playing a part....he was Johnny playing Johnny (which of course was a part, too). He was also, however, a holdover from an earlier era of civility and modesty. He also had genuine wit and intelligence. The real importance of Johnny Carson, however, may be in the myth he created of an American boy who would never grow up, joking with his pals and winking at the innuendo tossed off by various guests.
Carson's golf swing at the end of the monologue....swinging an invisible club....suggested a leisure class bonhomie, a guy with a Palm Springs tan about to head for the 19th hole and Neil the bartender...get that vodka tonic and talk about Angie Dickenson. Carson belonged to his time, but he also created it. That image -- helped along by Ed and Doc -- was quintessential American, in the sense that it was a weird idealized style of life that never really existed.
Carson and his spiffy sports coats and midwestern boyish face were exactly what post-fifties America wanted to believe in. It was a comforting myth, but a myth it was. Still, one shouldn't discount the real humour and talent of Carson the individual. Carson belonged to a tradition of comedy closer to Jack Benny and George Burns than to today's comedians. Like Benny, he perfected 'takes' and timing, and he allowed the audience to feel he was part of the brunt of the joke. He never acted 'hipper' than the room.
The now well established "buddy" system on late night TV was started, really, with Johnny and Ed. The third wheel hipster was Doc Severinsen, the trumpet player and band leader. This presentation of acceptable male bonding and friendship probably is worthy of some sort of doctoral dissertation -- but suffice it to say the template for puer aeternus male camaraderie originated (for this era anyway) with the Tonight Show. This aspect of the "world" of Carson is a subject I am sure someone will explore eventually in some detail. People wanted to live in Carson's "world." It was funny and friendly and well mannered. It also suggested a sunny America where the guys could drink martinis and have some not-quite-mature fun, and where angst rarely got past the doorman. Poverty didn't exist, nor racism, and what passed for political barbs were usually inoffensive enough that nobody felt offended (though its worth noting Carson, in an interview, did speak out against the Vietnam war, and had the likes of Gore Vidal on to talk politics...and for that matter Mohammed Ali, doing the same).
I remember the influence of Carson. Day job workers often started each morning with a review of the previous night's Carson monologue. He created a kind of style and taste...in that way popular culture does. Television itself was shaped by the Tonight Show (as it was previously by I Love Lucy). People watch television differently now, and I suspect value wit less. Carson's brand of humility is most certainly gone. If he exuded a kind of approachable non-threatening charm, he also never asked for attention. This modesty seems now like a trait from a bygone civilization. It's impossible to gauge exactly how much Carson and The Tonight Show shaped American consciousness, but I expect more than I am suggesting here. My own fondness for Carson may well reveal a desire to bask in that very myth I am describing. It may also reveal a nostalgia for humility in pop icons, and for a time when talk shows actually allowed a degree of intelligent conversation. Whatever the reason, I find it difficult to not feel a sense of sadness knowing Carson is gone. I wonder at the toll, personally, for the man -- having to play that part for so long. Do we know the metaphysics of mass media and the price of image saturation? Probably not. Not yet, anyway.
Carson -- it has to be said -- was true to what he saw as his role. He never compromised his notion of entertainment (when it wasn't yet a bad word) and he left with a good deal of grace. One shouldn't expect the same of his followers.