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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Johnny (1925-2005)

My cup was brimming over with choices for things to write about this week. Most obviously, there were the Academy Award nominations. But since, as usual, I haven’t seen most of the movies that were nominated, I suppose I can put off making up, I mean thinking of, something to say about them for a while longer. I also keep meaning to respond to a provocative (to me anyway) column that New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote a couple of weeks ago. Guess I will keep meaning to, for now.

Instead, I will pay something of a tribute to a man who, as far as I can determine, never produced, directed, wrote or acted in (as someone other than himself anyway) any movie ever. But there has (understandably) been so much fuss about the death of Johnny Carson that I figured I would add my two euro-cents worth. And, if Carson was not directly involved in the making of any movies, he was certainly not alien to the cinematic world, since the vast majority of major movie people of the latter 20th century (as well as folks from other walks of life) at one time or another wound up sitting on his couch.

Back in a time when I was easily impressed, I was impressed by Johnny Carson. He was the essence of cool to me. Early on, this stemmed from the fact that he got to stay up late every night. (I wasn’t nearly cool enough to understand the concept of time-delayed taping.) He was cool because, frankly, I never got to stay up late enough to watch him. He was on way past my bedtime, and that alone made him cool. So, when I did get to watch him on the occasional Friday night when the grownups were off drinking in one room and we kids were watching television in another, it was like tasting some sort of forbidden fruit. And that was cool. But even apart from the lateness of his airing time, Johnny seemed cool. He was suave and smart and funny and dressed well (at least in the 1960s) and hung out with the celebrated and the famous.

My fantasy view of things was that Carson, Ed McMahon and Doc Severinsen didn’t just come together for an hour and a half (later reduced to an hour) every night to draw a paycheck but that they hung out together all the time, constantly having a bunch of yuks, drinking sophisticated cocktails (and maybe even less legal stuff, because they were so cool) and basically living life as one big, long party. It was clearly the kind of life that a geeky kid like me could only dream about and would have to be satisfied with getting only an occasional glimpse via television. Carson’s regular verbal jabs at his two sidekicks (as well as McMahon’s strange, vaguely Hindu-like genuflections toward his boss) hinted of a whole other life in which the three of them partied hearty together every weekend, if not oftener.

As I grew older and my parents went to bed earlier and I stayed up later, I began to get a more realistic view of Carson and what he did. He had a way of sounding extremely authoritative and knowledgeable, as he set up a joke with some current news event. But as I read more newspapers and magazines myself, I came to realize that Carson didn’t always have his facts straight. Not that he tweaked them for the sake of the joke. He just didn’t seem to care what the facts were, as long as he got the laugh. And I only noticed this because he sounded so convincing, as if he knew exactly what he was talking about. His successor, Jay Leno, by contrast, is amazingly scrupulous about getting his facts straight up until the point where he distorts the hell out of them for a good laugh.

The other thing I came to realize about Carson was how broad his humor was. Noel Coward he wasn’t. His monologues were generally first-rate, but a lot of his skits were aimed at the lowest common denominator. I usually found the skits deadly tedious. The monologues, on the other hand, were nothing short of brilliant, thanks largely to his superb comic timing and delivery. He could reliably bring down the house by prompting McMahon to utter the standard refrain “How [fill in the blank] was it?” or simply with his voice inflection while pronouncing words or names like “Judge Wapner.”

Where Carson really excelled was in conversation. Many, of not most, would argue that his predecessor Jack Paar was superior in this area, but Carson had many more years in which and many more interlocutors with whom to practice the art. Carson usually asked the questions that the viewers at home would have liked to ask. And he usually coaxed an answer. Apparently, he made his guests feel comfortable enough to speak openly and honestly. I get a bit irritated as every Carson retrospective segment hauls out that same footage of Ed Ames throwing a tomahawk directly into the crotch of a cardboard cowboy. Sure, it was funny. The first time we saw it. But what I’ll always remember is the time Judy Garland was a guest on The Tonight Show and, perhaps under the influence of a few highballs, completely bared her soul to Carson and the television audience, all just a short time before her untimely death.

Watching Carson interview guests, you had the sense that a real, unscripted conversation was taking place. With Jay Leno, by contrast, there is always the sense that the gags and the plugs have been set up carefully in advance.

As the years wore on, I watched Carson less and less, mainly because I had my own life going on that was, at long last, more interesting than the fantasy life I imagined Johnny, Ed and Doc to be having. When I did tune in to them, there was something comforting that an institution was continuing to endure. And yet, at the same time, there was something a bit sad about watching these three men grow older, while they continued to do the same shtick every night, year after year. It could have gotten even sadder, but fortunately, Carson had the good sense and the good grace to bow out while he was still on top and could do so on his own terms. His last few shows (yes, of course, I watched them) were some of the most compelling and touching he had ever done.

They, along with many other highlights of his 30-year Tonight Show stint, are TV moments that will live forever.

-S.L., 27 January 2005

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