Join Date: May 2004
Location: NE Indiana
Re: Johnny Carson Dies at 79
When I was little, Jack Parr was still on, so I remember what a big deal it was when HE retired from doing The Tonight Show. I liked Paar a lot though I didn't get to stay up to see him too often -- when I did it was a happy occasion. Some people were sure that no one could replace Paar, though Carson was accepted fairly fast by most people. But everybody accepted that it was not the same, and many of us still have a very warm spot for the way Paar used to interview -- totally relaxed and in a calm, pleasing tone.
People justifiably said Paar had genius; I recall that they thought much the same of the comedic talents of Steve Allen, who hosted the show before Paar. Paar made you excellently comfortable but was not so much a comedian -- just a classy, witty, comfortable host and superb conversationalist who became a superb talk show host as a result. His term on the show was sandwiched between two excellent comedians of course -- Allen and Carson. And nowadays the standard wisdom in Hollywood is, incorrectly, that you have to be a comedian to host a late night talk show -- I remember Paar and it proves otherwise.
Anyway, the significant thing about Johnny as a cultural phenomenon, whose passing is being lamented as much or more than Paar's was, is that Johnnie had the job for three generations, and nobody could ever compete with him in the ratings, though many, many, many people tried. What that meant was, if you were staying up late with the TV on you were most likely watching Johnny and his guests. Johnny could hold his own as a comic in his own right better than most other hosts -- with topical sketches that offended nobody, were suitable for the whole family -- and who could be trusted to present great and topical guests night after night, year after year -- with a lot less attention to marketing tie-ins than you have now. He had people on because they were fun. There was no reason not to watch Carson, really, unless you were going through a phase where you felt somebody like Arsenio was hipper, maybe. But mostly, your other choices were "competition" like Joan Rivers or Charles Grodin or Merv Griffin (who was even less edgy than Carson) who were, at best, watchable occasionally (I disliked Rivers, and Grodin pretty much).
We got a little irritated when Johnnie started skipping out occasionally over his contract renewal, and when he started taking two days a week off, and when he trimmed the show to an hour, but mostly we kept watching because he was perfect for the format like nobody else on the scene (even now).
The young people today who are wondering what all the fuss is about may be forgiven since Johnny's departure was uncompromising a dozen years ago -- he hardly spent another second on TV, in interviews nor certainly in TV commercials. So he disappeared from the popular radar like few do, and the kids had no opportunity to become acquainted -- unlike other popular TV shows, they don't syndicate old talk shows. But never mind. The point is, Johnny WAS late-night for all Americans growing up who are age 30 or more today. But we know why the kids wouldn't know.
A large aspect of Carson's icon status is that Carson took a leaf from Paar's book in regularly introducing new talent, but Carson did it a lot more often and for a lot longer than Paar did. Nearly every comic who came up during Carson's 30-year reign, young or old, new or not, owes him a debt for giving them vital exposure on the Tonight Show -- Carson literally made careers overnight on a routine basis. The point is that our current culture is now populated by people whom we know as stars partly or entirely because we met them on Carson.
Comedians lived for getting onto the Carson show and died if they didn't, sometimes. The ironic part of that is, it turns out Carson was just booking his show -- he didn't have a despotic attitude, nor did he have the same melodramatic, life or death view of the booking of his comedy guests as the comics did.
A few comedy careers died on the Carson show too -- I recall two train wrecks by comics on the show, and their names are unknown today. One guy broke out in a flop sweat in the middle of his act -- he told the director in the studio "you can edit that part out" of the tape where he lost his composure after screwing up a joke -- but they didn't, they let it play. Ouch. Another guy suddenly blurted out that he had no joke and no laugh to finish his act, so he ad libbed his way off stage, slowly and painfully. He disappeared as well. There were other train wrecks by actors and such. If an actor appeared crazy or on drugs on Carson, they paid a hefty price for it in the public eye the next day.
Mostly Carson and his staff were such good judges of new talent that whoever got a first break on Carson became an instant national success -- Cosby, Pryor, Newhart, Steve Martin ("Let's get small!"), Carlin -- most of the mature comics on the scene today were 'made' at least in part by Carson show exposure. And other people, not necessarily performers, became famous through him as well, like Joyce Brothers or the potato chip lady from Fort Wayne, Indiana.
So that's why Johnnie's death is a big deal, and that's why they're calling him an icon, and why some youngsters don't get it -- when he quit being an institution, he quit for good and used his profit to sail around the world. But while he was doing it for 30 years, he was not just a comedian nor just the star of a TV show -- far from it -- he was just about perfect for the latenight talk show, developed the format as we know it today (in the post-Paar era) and therefore is synonymous with it. He is considered the man in whose shadow Letterman and Leno still stand.
Just a ramble, no special reason other than I've been mulling over the explanation of why Carson was so huge to so many. Can't spend too much time editing on all this text so if it's partly out of joint please excuse the "dump."
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Last edited by offeror; 01-24-2005 at 11:39 PM..