Friday, October 23, 2009

Johnny Carson

It is customary in blogland to honor someone on the day they died rather than on the anniversary of their birth. But who knows if I will be doing this in January and I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to someone who I admired greatly as a child and young man, someone who helped determine the direction of my life.

Two hosts of the Tonight Show and nearly seventeen and a half years ago, Johnny Carson left the Tonight Show and I cried. Nearly six years ago he died and I cried again. I had a few male role models when I was growing up and Johnny Carson was one of the biggest.

As I mentioned here once before, I first heard the sounds of the Tonight Show from the other room when my father would come home from work more than forty years ago and settle in front of our old 16 inch black and white television with the antenna and bad reception with a Pepsi and a box of Cheezits and laugh.

Carson began the Tonight Show when America was a completely different country.

He was on television every night before the Civil Rights movement was subjected to the violence it endured in Birmingham, the murder of Medgar Evers, the March on Washington. The same day Carson took over the Tonight Show, James Meredith enrolled at the University of Mississippi—the resulting riots about which caused JFK to send 5,000 federal troops to quell the violence.

He was on every night before JFK was assassinated and while all the assassinations that followed throughout the 60s, including the murder of Lennon (who he knew) in 1980 and the attempt on Reagan in 1981.

He was on every night before JFK ramped up Vietnam and through its end in 1975 and all the years after while America came to terms with exactly what Vietnam was and what it meant to our divided country.

He was on before JFK made us all aware of the Cuban Missile Crisis and left the Tonight Show several months after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

He was on before the 60s counterculture grew and on to the early-90s nostalgia of 60s counterculture.

In this space, I have written about the power of popular culture to transform our world politically—especially specific entertainers, like Michael Jackson and the Beatles. The same can be said for Carson. His easy humor and gentle charm got us through all the difficult moments during his thirty years on the air mentioned above and many more.
And it is for having enabled us to cope by being there every night (except Mondays, guest hosts and vacations) that Carson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1992 and honored by the Kennedy Center in 1993 for his contribution to American culture.

Carson saw America through one of the more difficult periods in our history, save for the Revolution, the Civil War, the Depression and World War Two.

It can be argued that Carson helped facilitate some of the transformation America went through with regards to Civil Rights because he launched the careers and gave valuable national exposure to so many black entertainers like Bill Cosby, Redd Foxx, Flip Wilson, Richard Pryor—and that’s just comedy. Let’s not forget Sammy Davis Jr., Ike and Tina Turner, Muhammad Ali.

Carson was the last Tonight Show host, and one of the last talk shows hosts other than Dick Cavett, to feature authors and scientists and thinkers back when the Tonight Show was 90 minutes and some even after it became an hour long.

While Carson did showcase some members of the counterculture, his biggest contribution in this area was helping to launch or strengthen the careers of those like the Smothers Brothers who would feature the alternative mindset through humor and music.

Had the nameless (and brainless) NBC executive not decided to erase the entire Tonight Show tapes from the 60s, we would obviously had a better idea of Carson’s 60s legacy. Instead, the legacy with which we are most familiar is after the show moved from New York to Burbank and became more focused on Hollywood entertainment for its guest list, and may be deemed as more showbizzy. If we had his 60s Tonight Shows, we may have had a better idea of how great his achievement on American television really was.

Perhaps the closest we can come to that is the show with Bob Hope, Dean Martin, Judy Carne and George Gobel from 1969. The segment where Gobel is doing his bit and Dean Martin keeps flicking his cigarette ashes in Gobel’s plastic cup without his knowledge is at the end of this post.

At one time, he was the highest paid person on television and its most powerful person. As Jackie Mason said upon Carson’s death, “He will go down as the most powerful personality in the history of that whole damn box.”

Carson owned the Tonight Show while hosting it and he never let NBC executives control him as Leno and O’Brien were forced to tolerate. Carson walked in 1967 for more money and when he returned after NBC caved to his demands, he remarked that NBC stood for “Nobody But Carson”.

Carson monologue was the daily group therapy session for the country as we navigated 30 years of turmoil and recovery. Carson’s gentle humor appealed to so many on almost all sides of the political spectrum.

Many people allayed their fears during his monologues, conceived their hopes and made plans to realize their dreams by seeing others do it through their first appearance on his show.

While I did not think all of Carson’s attempts at sketches and characters fit his style and some of his conceptual humor was obviously borrowed from Letterman’s Late Night show, and may have been an obvious stretch to capture younger viewers, his comedic strength was obviously his conversational wit and ability to poke fun at himself and his failed monologue jokes.

Carson was an intelligent man who had a tremendous appreciation for the comedy and show business icons and institutions that came before. Because of the length of his tenure, he was a bridge to almost all that came before.

He had an easy-going style and charm, a handsome face with soothing, twinkling eyes. Everything about Carson to me as a kid when I regularly started watching him in the early 70s was perfect. There was no other place to find spontaneous humor. He was kind and quick with guests.

He mocked Watergate almost mercilessly in his own style. He may have done the same with Iran Contra but I was unable to watch him regularly then because of the tenuousness of my daily existence in New York back then.

I was so taken by Carson that I sent him Carnak jokes when I was 13 and did oil portraits of he, McMahon and Severinsen also when I was 13 or 14 and was going to send them but didn’t.

I became a disc jockey at the age of 19 because Carson started in radio. I developed a comic style long ago first borrowed from Carson, then others.

In 1980 I told Jay Leno in his dressing room where a bunch of local comics, including former “Family Feud” host, Ray Combs, were discussing comedy and show business when Leno was opening for Perry Como when he asked what my career aspirations were, that I wanted to take over the Tonight Show, but not from Carson—I wanted to take over from the person who took over from Carson.

Obviously I blew that opportunity this past June, or way back in 1993, or way back in 1980, depending on how you think show business works and what you know of me.

A dream came true in 1984 when I appeared on the Tonight Show in March of that year via videotape as a Bad Mime character for a Robert Klein segment from New York for “NBC’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes”. The part was created by a former David Letterman writer and friend. Carson laughed loudly at my only line and that filled me with endless joy and a sense of accomplishment. I sent the videotape to a former performer friend and never got it back.

Because of Carson’s gentle style and institutional status he was mocked by some in the 70s who did a harder-edged comedy and mocked as well in his later years on the Tonight Show because he was an older institution and therefore a target of ridicule by some younger comedians who now don’t seem to even have a career.

Carson’s wit, timing and encyclopedic memory always made him better than his material. He almost always stepped outside the material, mostly with just a look. Had he trusted newer comedy writers his could have expanded his appeal in later years. But he always trusted older comedy and never seemed to want to explore. His older writers did not seem to be able to handle the Letterman style of humor.

I wish those who release the Best of Carson DVDs would just repeat the shows as they were on Comedy Central or some other cable channel. I also wish they would go back into the early 70s and release more material from those shows.

Watching a Best of DVD right now, the comedy seems timely, like the shows I am watching that are thirty years old now were taped this evening.

The genius of Carson’s longevity is that his humor was witty, spontaneous and intelligent with just enough playful silliness on good nights. That’s why he worked well with animals, children, old people and average Americans.

And he was more than just a comedian he was also a showman as well as an intelligent conversationalist. He had a personality which was magnetic and with which one could easily identify, which harkens back to old show business, rather than simply being a performer. You knew Carson, or wanted to know him.

He understood what entertainment really was and he endeavored to bring the best to his audiences for thirty years. He loved to laugh which helped him as an entertainer because he entertained himself. He also admired clever and inventive comedians and gave them every break he could.

He left when he knew it was time and he never looked back. That made his legacy even greater because he had integrity, while single-handedly spawning the next generation of late night American television talk show comedy.

He’d be 84 today.