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Wednesday, January 26, 2005


johnny carson

reason mentions terry teachout's bit on the death of johnny carson.

I must have seen several hundred episodes of The Tonight Show in my lifetime, and I even went out of my way to watch the last one, yet I doubt I've thought of Carson more than once or twice in the thirteen years since he retired, just as I doubt that anyone now alive can quote from memory anything he said on any subject whatsoever.
i find it unsurprising that many in the public dialogue find it difficult to gauge carson's depth. teachout looks for something he can relate to -- a statue of lenin, i suspect, or its hollywood analogue.

but carson was great, imo, precisely because he was not the ambitious asshole or the suffering cynic (a la letterman), but neither was he the village idiot. he was smart and quick, but the opposite of intimidating.

i've long thought that i'd hate to know a man like letterman; the man's a jackass, with only a thin forced civility laying over him like a sheet.

carson, on the other hand, is one of the people i'd choose to be stranded on a desert island with. i don't think there's anything carson said that carries the weight of Importance -- but if that's all you can look for (ie a byronic hero-figure, complete with indulgent idiosyncrasy), you've entirely missed the point and something central to life, imo. that something is why he may have been the most powerful man in showbiz.

jeff jarvis struggles to give it a name, while astutely naming his successor:

Carson represented more. He was, of course, the original Jon Stewart, who showed so much of news to be what it was: a joke. He and other, edgier comics of the day made comedy relevant.

He was the best barometer of trends. By the time Johnny did it, it took over America. When I was a kid, I wanted a Nehru jacket (shhh... I can hear you snickering... be nice) and my parents would let me -- until Johnny wore one. But when Johnny wore it, that meant it was no longer cool; the meme had gone mainstream.
in a word, johnny carson was social. having him on the tv was like inviting a friend over for a drink. no pretense, no intimidation, no sanctimony. you knew he was your better in some important ways, and operated in different circles, but he always seemed genuinely happy on -- not interested in, but happy on your level.

in an age replete with heroes of a different type, within which the dialogue gauges one's nobility based upon heroic suffering endured and inflicted, i can understand why carson's appeal is not easily understood. most of us spent our time asserting our individuality and denouncing the social as the chains by which we are bound. an easy, unserious manner and quick self-deprecation are weaknesses to such a view.

but carson so completely mastered them before such an appreciative audience as to reinforce them as integral parts of the public discourse for decades.

that time has changed. jarvis again:

After Carson left... I wrote in TV Guide that Jay Leno just didn't cut it. He tried to continue the idea that he had to be a common denominator of comedy, safe, one-size-fits-all. But that era of media was over. ... Johnny Carson was unique and so was his time; he created a common definition of comedy just as TV created a common definition of popular culture. That era ended.
indeed it had. the age of naked american hubris has since sparked to awful life -- and i think it must have appalled a modest, contemplative man like carson who saw fit to have a laugh at the seriousness of the world.

we could use more men like him.

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