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January 24, 2005

The Carson Era

I'm not sure if you happened to have watch any news...on any station yesterday, but apparently the only things even remotely news worthy was the death of Johnny Carson. So for those of you too young to remember Carson, and desiring to hear more than the usual funeral type gushing that goes on after someone dies, I'll give it to you straight.

Carson was always like that guy that's a friend of your dad's, who smokes and drinks makes jokes, but never goes to church. He was from the era when dirty jokes were told in private, but jokes with dirty connotations could be slipped out if done the right way. A friendly guy whose bad choices left him with lots of problems, which he simply turned into more things to joke about, like ex-wives and parties he couldn't remember because he got too drunk.

When I was younger I never got to watch him, because bedtime was at 10pm sharp, but on the rare occasions my parents stayed up past 10 and I manage to not drift off before 10:30, I would go to sleep hearing the muted sounds of Paul Anka's "Toot Sweet" which Carson used for his theme song. I still can't hear that song without remembering Anka's boast that he got $200 every time the Tonight Show aired -- and that was for 32 years, 52 weeks a year, 5 nights a week.

When I got older and could stay up later, I'd watch the show, initially a badge of "adulthood" that I got to stay up, later simply something to do when you didn't want to go to bed at 10. Carson's monologues were clean by today's standards, but full of innuendos and suggestive hints. I still remember in 1978 when one of the networks aired a made for TV movie with a title I won't print here. Carson mentioned it numerous times, before commenting that he was doing so because it was the first time he had been allowed to use the word, and followed up by saying that he couldn't wait until they made a movie title The S.O.B.

Another of Carson's usual methods of humor were jokes on himself. I can't remember how it started but he and one guest got into a sort of food fight which ended in Carson putting a raw egg down the guest's pants (a man) then smashing the egg followed by calmly placing one down his own pants and doing the same. He spent the rest of the show squirming in his seat and making faces.

The culture was different back then and so was the humor. Carson avoided politics, but still managed to do mostly current topics. There've been a lot of backhanded insults at Jay Leno in the past 24 hours, since his humor is very different from Carson's -- "class" is the words used to distinguish the two. Carson was from an era where a certain level of restraint was observed. Leno is from a more modern culture where openness is considered a virtue. But Carson epitomized the light-hearted side of the World War Two/Early Baby Boomer Generation. A culture where propriety, or at least pretense to it, was valued more than frankness. By the late 80's the culture had shifted, and Leno and Letterman's bluntness was more in vogue.

That would also explain Carson's unwillingness to be in the spotlight after his retirement. While others of his generation or older had no problem allowing the world watch them age, Carson, like some (Jack Lord comes to mind), wanted the image of his best years preserved. There are no images of Carson, aged, wrinkled, or affected by disease/medication like there are of Johnny Cash, Jerry Lewis or Bob Hope, among others. Carson traded the spotlight for the perpetuation of his image, as it was, strong, in control, full of life.

You never really get to see a person until you can watch them in a situation they have no control over, and can see how they react. Ed McMahan and Dick Clark pulled a practical joke on Carson several years ago, where they hired some actors who could do a British accent, so thick it was incomprehensible. They arranged for Carson to be surround by these people at a party of some sorts. While not able to understand anything being said, Carson still paid close attention, smiled, and nodded, and was the perfect gentleman. He had no idea cameras were on him.

That's the image I have of Johnny Carson, confident, yet considerate. It's unfortunate that so much focus is put on the physical, because that aspect of Johnny Carson, which never changed, would've served better as the marker we hold in our memories for him.

Posted by Jack Lewis at January 24, 2005 06:21 AM

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