Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Remembering Johnny Carson

Yesterday afternoon I was in a sandwich shop and the radio was playing. A young disc jockey, who said he was 30, talked about Johnny Carson. He wasn't being disrespectful when he admitted that he missed out on Johnny's era and didn't "get" Carson.

His admission made me think how fortunate I was to grow up with Johnny Carson on television. It's hard to gauge the impact of a single personality like Johnny Carson in retrospect. There are so many late night talk shows now and only a handful are any good. None of them have the impact that Carson commanded in his heyday.

If you missed out on the Carson era, imagine a television landscape with no cable and only three networks. It was 1971 and 10:30pm central time and your viewing choices were severely limited. Carson was it. There wasn't any competition. I liked Dick Cavett's show on ABC but it was gone before anybody started getting misty about it.

Furthermore, with the exception of Laugh-In, I can't think of a single topical comedy program from the early 70s. Until Saturday Night debuted on NBC in 1975, Carson was the only guy doing topical jokes. He was the John Stewart of the day.

When I was in kindergarten my bedtime was 10:20pm. It seemed odd that my parents allowed me to stay up so late. I remember that by 4th grade I was required to be in bed at 9pm most nights. Perhaps they let me stay up late in kindergarten because I was in the afternoon session. I'm not sure. I liked to watch channel five news (Kansas City). Weatherman John Yates was my favorite and I liked the segment where they panned the studio camera across six analog dials that showed the temperature, wind direction, barometric pressure, etc. Very low tech, but very popular in the day. It was so popular that channel five panned across those dials when there wasn't any programming, instead of displaying a test pattern.

Occasionally I managed to stay up until 10:30 when they flipped over to Johnny Carson. You knew you were up late when The Tonight Show music started. I wasn't a big Carson fan, but I was a fan of staying up late. I stayed quiet and watched what was on so I didn't draw attention to myself. That was my first taste of late night TV.

In the 1974 movie "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore", Alice's son Tommy, played by Alfred Lutter, was living a vagabond existance with his mom as they migrated across the southwest in search of a better life. Alice, played by Ellen Burstyn, worked evenings and young Tommy stayed back at the hotel. In one scene he turned on Carson to keep him company. It was a realistic touch. Carson's target audience wasn't children, but he entertained us, and in some cases, kept us company.

After the Ed Sullivan show went off the air, there weren't many TV outlets for stand-up comedians. The Carson show filled the void. When Johnny moved the show to the west coast in the early 70s, it changed the face of stand-up comedy forever. The show began to feature a preponderance of younger west coast comedians as opposed to the Catskill flavored east coast types. Carson didn't shun the old school all together, but he provided the best vehicle for a new club comedian to make a splash.

Who will be the next Johnny Carson? Everyone wondered when he retired in 1992. The answer is more apparent now than it was then. Nobody.

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