Johnny Carson: A Class By Himself

I remember it clear as a bell.  I was on vacation with my parents in Sarasota, Florida, May 1992.  My mom, dad, brother and I sitting around a crappy hotel television watching the final Tonight Show With Johnny Carson.  We watched in silence when Johnny bid us a heart-felt farewell, sitting on a stool in front of those multicolored curtains.  It is the most vivid television memory that I have.  I feel like for me it was like seeing man walk on the Moon.  It was something Americans never really thought would happen.  At that point in my life, I was already a David Letterman fan. He was doing the comedy that my college-aged-self really responded to but he loved Johnny so that made me pay attention to my mentor's mentor.  But even with my love for Dave, I knew Johnny was Johnny.  I also think it mattered to me because my dad loved Johnny.  There is something about seeing your dad laugh at a comedian that I think effects a son who want to be writer. I am a student of Late Night. (Read my blog where I review the current hosts)  I love studying the art of conversation.  In my opinion Dave is the only person working in the talk show industry who truly listens and converses with their guest.  Even Dave is not up to Johnny's standards.  Johnny had an ease about himself and the best kind of quality for a talk show host.  He put his guest first.  Right now everyone who is on television thinks that they are the reason the medium exists.  Johnny let his guest feel that they were the reason.  When he had the Potato Chip Lady on, he looked at those chips like they were hand crafted by God himself.  When he had Albert Brooks, Steve Martin, Charles Grodin on, he let them shine as comedians.  There were no cut a-ways to old footage of the actor trying to embarrass them.  There were no jokes about how OJ Simpson murdered his ex-wife which would allow us to feel good about how we would all watched that murderer for entertainment.  There were no jokes about how the President had oral sex with a young woman.  I can't imagine Johnny making those mean spirited jokes.  We find nothing off limits to say about a politician or really any regular person who steps into the harsh lime light.  It wasn't that he did not do political comedy.  Quite the contrary, his imitation of Ronald Reagan was dead on.  But it wasn't mean.  It was funny.  I still remember the skit about Reagan getting an update about going to the Y with Secretary Watt. Watch this skit here, it's still funny today.  And this is just a skit on a normal night but it has the feel of a comedy movie.   Johnny was commenting on Reagan's age and our belief that he wasn't really all there, but it isn't mean, it is funny.  That is a line that few people know anymore.  We call it class.

So here is the big question.  Was it Johnny or was it us?  Would we even allow someone with his dignity and grace to command the premiere entertainment spot?  A fact that most people forget is that in the post Carson era, Leno over took Letterman in the ratings because Letterman wouldn't do OJ Simpson jokes and Leno had the dancing Ito's.  OJ didn't just take a life, he created Leno.  Maybe Johnny was a product of his time.  Or maybe he kept us on the right path.  He was the guardian of comedy for 30 years.  Now the internet is.   I don't suppose I will find the answer, but I do know I miss that grace, I miss the civility, and I miss a time when parents and children could gather around the TV and see someone who earned and deserved the right to make the nation stop and mourn the retiring of a television star.  I miss class.

Purchase the DVD of the American Masters Documentary on Johnny Carson here.

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