Why Johnny Carson Was More than Just a TV Entertainer

Culture Watch

Mr. Alger is a free-lance writer.

You know someone is not a mere celebrity when the death of that person can knock Donald Trump’s wedding off the front page of major newspapers, and that was certainly the case with Johnny Carson.

Carson, who died at the age of 79, was not a simple celebrity, not simply a transient personality saturated throughout the media one day and gone just as suddenly. No, Johnny Carson was a social and cultural centerpiece of society for multiple generations of Americans for more than 30 years.

In the future, just as historians have gleaned specifics of daily life in the past from personal letters, journals, and library archives, one will be able to have a fair gauge of much of the general United States between the early 1960s and the early ‘90s by viewing tapes of the "Tonight Show."

Forget socio-economic backgrounds, Democrat or Republican, one continuity in the country for over 30 years, Monday through Friday, coming on NBC after the local news, was Johnny Carson, whether he hosted the show or not.

While most are consumed with the present moment -- the pendulum between past and future, with possibly the full comprehension of the true revolution of the electronic age yet to come -- staggering, ofttimes frightening, projections of how one comes to view the world and the individual’s place in it are changing in the blink of an eye, though sometimes almost imperceptibly. Contexts are changing, changing rapidly, and ideas of time and space have leapt forward more radically in the past couple decades than in perhaps all the millenniums of prior recorded history combined, but what does it all mean?

Sven Birkerts, a renowned critic and author, notes in his book, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, that he has long been interested in following what he calls his “thesis of a millennium transformation of society” and the incredible changes taking place in how people see themselves in relation to the world.

Birkerts uses the example of viewing American domestic life, or he could now say Johnny Carson on the "Tonight Show," to study the past four decades and observe the monumental changes in technology and the impact that has been made on daily life.

“In less than a half century we have moved from a condition of essential isolation into one of intense and almost unbroken mediation,” Birkerts writes in Gutenberg Elegies. “A finely filamental electronic scrim has slipped between ourselves and the so-called ‘outside world.’ The idea of spending a day, never mind a week, out of range of all our devices sounds bold, even risky.”

Birkerts, the editor of AGNI, the literary journal published by Boston University, point is further emphasized by the growing phenomenon that so many people are now only one click away from a blog, and with the arrival of ever multiplying blogs, information overload is inevitable, with many hopelessly lost between what is real and what is Memorex.

Yet, if you think of Johnny Carson, he represents a familiar figure who entered American households, people’s living rooms and bedrooms, on a weekly basis for nearly 30 years in a time slot previously held in a similar format by Steve Allen and Jack Parr, respectively, since the"Tonight Show" went national on NBC in June of 1953. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that when Jack Nicholson, playing the character Jack Torrence in the film version of Stephen King’s novel The Shining, crashes an ax through the bathroom door and calls out in a frenzied voice to a terrified Shelly Duvall, who is cowering in a bathrobe holding a knife, “Heeeere’s Johnny,” the audience laughed at the instant recognition of the opening of the "Tonight Show."

It was great juxtaposition, and director Stanley Kubrick knew that the audience would get it. Safe, comfortable Johnny Carson from middle America counterposed by the mad caretaker played by Nicholson in the film about a haunted hotel in the isolated, snow-filled mountains. And it worked because Johnny Carson wasn’t just a star, or an entertainment personality, it worked because Johnny Carson was part of the subconscious of America for thirty-plus years and nothing more needed to be said.

From October of 1962, when Groucho Marx introduced Johnny Carson as the host of the Tonight Show until his last show in May of 1992, the late night talk show host and comedian had a major impact on American culture, and not just television. A master of the monologue, Johnny Carson was solely responsible for launching so many careers, far too many careers to even begin to mention.

Truman Capote, the famed author of In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, can serve as an example of the power of the"Tonight Show" with a number of controversial visits, including his first in 1968 when he claimed that the FBI were searching for the wrong man when they were trying to track down James Earl Ray after the fatal shooting of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Capote, who lived in the same building in Manhattan as Carson when the show was taped in New York, would venture on to the "Tonight Show" to engage in one-sided sparring matches with opponents. In one well-known squabble with Jacqueline Susaan, author of the best selling Valley of the Dolls, according to Capote biographer Gerald Clarke, Capote dismissed Susann as someone who looked like “a truck driver in drag.”

Clarke writes in Capote: A Biography , “His remarks were cruel, of course -- though no more than her imitation of him -- but they contained enough truth to cause howls of surprised recognition from the studio audience.”

The Capote anecdote, however, is not so much about Capote as it is about Carson and the power and influence of the "Tonight Show," with the show serving as a forum to immediately reach a mass audience. True, there were less channels at the time, and the cable networks were yet to really proliferate, but still, the"Tonight Show" was a force which created instant recognition for guests who were on it.

Peter Beard, the accomplished photographer, gives another example of Capote and the power of the"Tonight Show" in George Plimpton’s Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career. Speaking of Capote, Beard states, “He’d had a lot of very successful Johnny Carson shows, and he realized that the audience responded to him because it was the Johnny Carson show, not because of his writing.”

Beard continued about Capote in Plimpton’s book, “He realized that writing was so much work -- it’s lonely, isolated work, and it wasn’t worth it. When he could go on Johnny Carson and have millions of people respond to him, that the ratio of input to result was more satisfying to him.”

One only has to think of Freddie Prinze as an example of a young comic catapulting to success because of the"Tonight Show." Prinze guest hosted the"Tonight Show" on Dec. 6, 1973, and was subsequently signed by producer James Womack to star in the TV series “ Chico and the Man” with veteran actor Jack Albertson.

“We have rather abruptly replaced our time-honored and slow-to-evolve modes of communication and interaction with new modes,” Birkerts writes in his first essay in The Gutenberg Elegies. “We have in significant ways surmounted the constraints imposed by nature, in the process altering our relation to time, space, and to each other. We have scarcely begun to assess the impact of these transformations -- that will be the work of generations.”

So, which came first, the medium as the message or the message as the medium? It doesn’t matter in Johnny Carson’s case because the one unalterable fact for close to 30 years was that at a certain moment the curtain would open and loyal sidekick Ed McMahon would announce, “Heeeere’s Johnny,” and what would be would be.

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