Johnny Carson 1925-2005: An Appreciation
It’s a cliche now to say "we will never see his kind come our way again," but it’s clearly true about Johnny Carson, who died yesterday at the age of 79.
He had become an icon reflecting his generation in an era when broadcasting was at its height; his comedic style was shaped by radio and early television — in contrast to today’s late night hosts who grew up watching television and are imprinted by years doing comedy clubs as they struggle to build audiences in an era of narrowcasting.
Carson was a powerhouse: if CBS’s stonefaced Ed Sullivan made or broke careers with who he had on his Sunday night variety show and whether he rebooked them, an appearance on Carson’s show could jumpstart a career — and an on-air invitation after a "set" on his show to sit on Johnny’s couch to chat could make a career zoom into the stratosphere.
In marking Carson’s death, the lives, careers and influence of the other two key people who helped develop the Tonight Show shouldn’t be forgotten.
Steve Allen was a radio comedian with comedy strongly rooted in vaudeville-style schtick. He hosted the show from 1953-1957. Allen was a beloved figure among comedians for his talents, ad lib ability, encouragement of young comedians…and for being the beloved Steve Allen.
My personal Steve Allen story: Some years ago I got one of Allen’s books on comedy but couldn’t find the others that were out of print. I wrote to him telling him how much I loved his books and analysis…and within three days a UPS truck drove up delivering me a free batch of autographed books by Allen on show biz and speaking. He died in 2000.
Jack Paar replaced the zany Allen on the Tonight Show. The unpredictable, often emotional Paar veered the show away from mostly vaudeville style comedy, improv and show biz talk of Allen into a newer area: politics and popular culture. It became known for launching several "celebrities" who were seemingly celebrated for simply being celebrated. Paar was a fine comedian but his shows contained the seed of some of the modern daytime celebrity talk shows. He died in 2004.
Of the three, Carson, in the end, proved to be the one who transcended being a host to being A Mega Star.
His show got whopping ratings. It made careers. It decimated any competition the hapless CBS and ABC threw at him over the years (including an attempted comeback by Paar).
Carson also took on a new role: as the NEW Bob Hope. Early in his career Hope latched onto using topical jokes. Carson took the use of the opening monologue with quickly-perishable and risky topical jokes to new heights. These jokes were so risky that Carson always had some "save" lines ready in case a joke bomb. And because he often skewered politicos (unlike the gentler Hope) his late night wisecracks became an indicator of the conventional wisdom about key political figures and issues.
Ironically, the critics were lukewarm to Carson when he took over.
I remember well how, in 1962, some critics panned Carson. He was, after all, such a sharp departure from the emotional Jack Parr. But Carson quickly triumphed — in a matter of style AND substance:
It turned out that Johnny Carson had the best comic timing in the business with the exception of someone who he had clearly studied: Jack Benny. Like Benny, Carson would "pan" the audience after a joke, to extend the laugh. Like Benny, he wasn’t afraid to wait for a laugh or to slowly deliver a joke. (As an entertainer I studied Jackie Gleason for years and am now studying Jack Benny’s TV and radio performances and Benny’s timing…cloned by Carson…is truly an art).
Indeed, Carson would later in his career be criticized by some for having borrowed parts of some mannerisms or bits from Jackie Gleason, Jonathan Winters, and Steve Allen (who took him to task for it).
But in the end, virtually everyone loved Johnny.
Was it his timing, his solidly-written jokes and shows, his willingness (like the great Jack Benny) to let performers around him get all of the big laughs while he assumed the role of one of the best straight men (when he wanted to be) of his generation?
No, not entirely: it was because Carson had class.
A likability. An assurance.
And in the end, he maintained his classy attitude even when NBC passed over the person he reportedly wanted to replace him (David Letterman: some reports now say Carson helped Letterman with jokes in his final months).
Entertainers are shaped by what they watch and the context of the era of show business in which they performed. Carson’s was the era of Benny, Hope, Lucille Ball and others.
It’s an era that’s largely gone, displaced by ironic humor and comedians that surfaced by going through the comedy club farm system.
Jay’s or David’s couch is nice…but it’s not Johnny’s couch.
And since Carson left, it has been evident that an important piece of furniture — and a beloved fixture — have been missing from the room.