Memory is a curious and unpredictable thing. I can recall few specific moments from 25 or 30 years ago, but I still hold on to an assortment of seemingly random recollections that are as vivid now as if they just happened yesterday.
In 1980 I watched the annual anniversary episode of The Tonight Show. These, you may recall, were always special shows featuring clips from the series’ long and illustrious history. After it was over I distinctly recall lying in bed that night and thinking, “What are we all going to do when Johnny Carson retires?”
That such a question would even occur to anyone is suggestive of the central place Carson long occupied in our popular culture. There had been plenty of shows I liked that were canceled or that ended their runs, and it was sad but hardly traumatic. Losing Johnny Carson was something else entirely.
For more than 30 years The Tonight Show was America’s national night-light. There may have been fights over the remote during prime time but anyone still awake at 11:30, 10:30 central, was almost certainly watching NBC, as Carson emerged from behind that rainbow-colored curtain for a monologue that was funny when the jokes worked and even funnier when they didn’t.
We’ve had no shortage of late-night talk show hosts over the last two decades, some quite brilliant in their own right, but none have approached Carson’s eminence. There wasn’t any part of the job that he had not mastered – effortless class and charisma, quick wit, perfect comic timing, the sketches and his staple of recurring characters (Art Fern was genius every time), and how he adapted his interviewing style to present each guest in the best possible light, whether it was Bob Hope, Madonna, or a woman from Nebraska with a collection of oddly-shaped potato chips.
But it’s the nightly monologue that most defined Carson’s preeminent position as a commentator on current events, and a national barometer on the issues of the day. There was no agenda behind the jokes accept for the crafting of a solid punch line. When the Democrats where in charge, they got skewered. When the Republicans took over, they got it too.
Back then, the perception was that all of us, the regular folks, were on one side, and the dopes we elected into office were on the other side. Now, it’s more about my dopes vs. your dopes. David Letterman was still making nightly Sarah Palin jokes two years after she and John McCain lost the election. It doesn’t matter if you liked her or not, that was lazy. And it was something that Carson, Letterman’s idol, would never do.
We are so divided now on political and social issues. Television, which used to connect us apart from these conflicts, now fuels these divisions more than any other source, save perhaps the Internet.
Johnny Carson, like Will Rogers in an earlier era, united people by pointing out the absurdity inherent even in the best type of government, and by deflating the pomposity of our most prominent public servants. I know John Stewart now fulfills that role for many, but there’s more anger in his attitude than bemusement. Perhaps that is fitting for our times.
The Tonight Show continued after Carson, of course, with Jay Leno as host. The circumstances surrounding his appointment over David Letterman left a bitter taste for some that resulted in yet another rivalry for us to argue about.
And so I return to the original question I asked in 1980: “What are we all going to do when Johnny Carson retires?” Now I know the answer. I wish I didn’t.