Johnny Carson and the Transition Away from the Age of Innocence
Richard J. Garfunkel
January 22, 2005
This past weekend we were all a bit shocked over the passing of the great cultural icon of late night television, Johnny Carson. Carson, who had a legendary run, which may never be equaled, and was the model of consistency over that thirty-year period, died quietly, and without fanfare at his home in California.
Johnny Carson, who came into our lives with much anticipation in 1962, was the successful occupant of the seat basically created by the marvelous Steve Allen, of Hi-Ho Steverino fame. Even though I was 17 years old at the time, I was a veteran watcher of late night television. My parents had given me a large old television when I was about 12 and I was able to use that piece of furniture, not only a catchall for all sorts of clothes and other things, but as my own connection to late night baseball games from Kansas City and then from California. During those young teenage years I got to watch the great and still unequalled Jack Paar, our neighbor from nearby Bronxville, hold court nightly with his collection of disparate night owls and wits. I was too young and had seen very little of Steve Allen on the Tonight Show, which ran from September 1954 to January 1957. Allen a fabulous talent was the son of Irish vaudevillian comics and alcoholics Billy Allen (who died when he was two) and the very talented Belle Montrose, who toured all over America. In fact as a baby he was frequently watched over by teenager Milton Berle, in between his performances, and while Steve’s mother Belle was taking either her turn on stage or was out getting a “taste.” Allen, who had the most successful radio show in the history of Los Angeles, had developed his style with his packed live audience, when the singer Doris Day failed to appear on his show. He was forced to go into the audience and filled the missing 25-minute time slot with interaction with his fans. When Allen made his transition to prime time television in June of 1956, (for a time he was on late night and primetime simultaneously) he literally brought his whole Tonight Show team and format with him. Many of the same people like Skitch Henderson, his music director, and Gene Raymond, were then accompanied by his great ensemble group that included Louis Nye, Tom Poston, Don Knotts, Gabe Dell, Pat Harrington, Bill Dana and his wife Jayne Meadows. So anyone who had been too young, like myself, to see Steve Allen at midnight could experience the same effect and humor on Sunday evening, head to head against the established war-horse of that era, Ed Sullivan. Eventually in 1959 his program moved to Monday evening.
Jack Paar, who was recruited from CBS, where he had hosted several game and talk shows, took over the Tonight Show six months after Allen left. The successor show to Steve Allen’s effort was, Tonight! America After Dark, with hosts first Jack Lescoulie and then Al “Jazzbo” Collins, was a failure. Paar, who was best at interviewing, succeeded Allen, who had depended on frenetic pace and sketch comedy. Jack Paar was incisive, witty and highly emotional. Paar was a sensation, and until his last show and his transition to primetime, he was unequalled as a television personality. He was called the most imitated man in television history. Ironically, as great as both Steve Allen and Jack Paar were, along with their excellent primetime shows, they never broke the “top twenty” in popularity for any year.
When Jack Paar left the Tonight Show in March of 1962, the young Johnny Carson was anointed his successor. Because he was still under contract to ABC for another six months, the show was hosted by various people, that included Art Linkletter, Joey Bishop, Bob Cummings, Merv Griffin, Jack Carter, Jan Murray, Soupy Sales, Mort Sahl, Steve Lawrence, Jerry Lewis, Jimmy Dean, Arlene Francis, Donald O’Connor, Hal March and even Groucho Marks. The format basically stayed the same, and the anticipation was quite great. Unlike the emotional Paar, who was likely to blow up, Carson was unflappable. Carson biggest asset, besides his obvious durability, was his knack for salvaging disasters with a shrug, or a sigh, or a double take, that he had seemed to borrow from the great Jack Benny, who he admired. His body language became as much a part of his act as the lines he delivered. Unlike Paar, Carson tended to avoid anything controversial and was usually satisfied to keep his audience happy and amused.
I was an avid fan of Carson, and every one older than thirty-five is familiar with his routines. He had borrowed some of those concepts from Steve Allen, but unlike Allen he had no regulars or ensemble to work with. In the same way that Paar opened his show with a monologue and interviewed people at his desk, Carson also followed that format. Of course Carson was much more physical and versatile as a comedian than Paar, and people looked forward to his sight gags. Throughout that first decade in New York, I got to watch Carson almost every weeknight through the end of high school, most of college and in the early years of my marriage. Carson owned the late night and aside from a movie now and then, most people watch him and not his short-lived rivals on the other stations. To me he was irreverent, edgy, fresh, youthful and highly entertaining. His run began as the cultural era of the 1950’s started to wane. In a sense this era of innocence had transited from the fatherly feel-good years of Eisenhower to the Camelot Years of John F. Kennedy. Of course with Kennedy’s death in November of 1963, and the ensuing years of social upheaval regarding Civil Rights and Vietnam, the era of the 1960’s emerged.
Johnny Carson was able to keep himself and his show above most of the tumult and controversy raging around our own little world. Carson was able to attract many of the big stars of the previous decades that were still around and willing to be on television, and he also discovered and promoted many new and talented personalities. But from my perspective he was still the young boy from Nebraska, who loved and worshipped the great names and personalities of show business. He was at his best with Hope, Benny, Astaire, Groucho, Jimmy Stewart and many others of their like. He could lean back in his chair and laugh with the rest of us. He never put himself in competition with a great act or a legendary personality. That is where his was at his wisest and best.
I always believed that Carson, who rarely ventured outside his late night venue, except for his terrific job hosting the Academy Awards and his occasional nightclub act in Las Vegas, was most comfortable behind his late night desk. For my money his consistency, which was his great strength, started to wear on me. After watching Carson for ten years, and then having to worry about two young children, born in 1973, and 1976, along with the responsibility of getting up very early and commuting into New York, my interest in late night television started to wane a bit. I started to find Carson repetitive and not as interesting. As the years went on, and he worked less, and less, it was tough to find out whether he was on, or it was a guest host, or a re-run of The Best of Carson. I still tuned in, but the lines were getting stale, the routines predictable, and the guests were getting younger and younger. The stars that I loved to see, in the same way Johnny liked to interview, were disappearing from the scene. I could not relate to the common culture and I could care less what many of these vacuous airheads were saying. One experience really turned me off. Carson’s production people would play re-runs of older programs that usually were quite topical to the season or what great star was scheduled to be next on. In other words, they scheduled old Christmas shows during the holidays. Often it wasn’t easy to tell what was current and what was the recent past. Every year Jack Benny made an appearance around Passover and quite often he told an old joke about the holiday and Carson responded in his typical non-offensive but edgy way. This particular year, a re-run of a seasonal Jack Benny appearance was shown and within a few days Jack Benny was on live. Well Benny told the exact same joke, not realizing that he was repeating what had just been on a few nights earlier, and Carson said the same adlib retort, as though his writers had looked up the older script to replicate the earlier success. Well after that I, to a degree, soon tired of Carson. I had a feeling that I had been listening to every thing again and again. I am often reminded of the eclectic movie Ground Hog Day when it came to the repetitive nature of the Tonight Show. To me this was proof- positive that Carson had run out of ideas, routines and guests. Of course every once in a while I would turn him on to catch his opening monologue, especially if there was an important event in the news that was happening at the same time. He still was funny, he still was unflappable and every so often he had some one on whom was worth seeing. But I felt that Carson hung on too long. This show became his life and he was not willing to let it go. He was clinging on to his youth while it passed by.
In the end he was caught betwixt and between. On one hand he knew that he was getting to be “old hat” and on the other hand he wanted to work and stay in front of the public. It was an incredible run and I am sure that young audiences appreciated his great talent and consistency. But to me he was bored with his guests and his old routines, and I was certainly bored with them also. In listening to the retrospectives of the last few nights I have come away with certain perspectives. One of those was that he was a consummate professional who really honed his craft and lived the part. The other was that he was basically a lonely man, who like many stars before him lived for the moment on stage. He was uncomfortable with fame, and adulation, and attempted to guard his privacy with intensity. He was able to laugh off his marital troubles on the air, and therefore put them to rest. No one ever knew about his children, his family, his upbringing, his education, his political views, his interests, his social commentary, if he had any. Johnny Carson came into the public eye with those fresh good looks of the mid-western boy next door. He was a veteran of the 2nd World War but talked little of his experiences on board the famous battleship Pennsylvania, a veteran of the attack at Pearl Harbor and a participant of many Pacific campaigns. Unlike Paar who constantly revealed himself, Carson was constantly striving to stay fresh and topical to the times, and avoided dwelling in the past. I saw Carson as an unemotional professional who rarely allowed his deeply hidden emotions, if he had any, to come to the forefront. Johnny Carson, though a sophisticated personage, became symbolic of the paradoxical1950’s through a perceived combination of mid-western innocence and an edgy tiptoeing around taboo subjects. He became the master of subtle double-entendres and raised the “wink” and “eye-rolling” to an art form. In that sense, he was favorably compared to the Jack Benny, one of his idols, who was the master of the double and triple take.
His passing was a surprise, to many of us, because he never really seemed to really age or get old. Coincidently he died at almost the same age that Steve Allen did in 2000 (age 78) and also died within a year of his famous predecessor Jack Paar, who died on January 27, 2004. He embodied that youthful trim American look that most of us admire. He was glib, optimistic and never seemed to be troubled. He dressed sporty and well, and to see him without a tie was a special event. He never abused his colleagues and employees, but they all knew who was boss. He had an ongoing charm that enabled him to relate to the famous and the average common man or woman. He reacted in they way most of us would react. I am sure that every one agrees that his unprecedented run of thirty years will never be equaled or even challenged.