America stopped for a moment yesterday when news came that Johnny Carson had died. At least a thirty-year chunk of 20th century history died with him. But it’s the twelve years that he was out of television and out of the public eye that clinched his stature. It doesn’t take a genius to understand Carson’s kind of television, not exactly anything to write home about in the first place, changed for the gut rot worse since his departure. Compare a Carson monologue with Jay Leno’s, and it’s as if Fred Astaire had been succeeded by a slob strip-club proprietor.
The thing is, everyone liked Johnny Carson, even my father who never watched television. Once in my college years he caught me watching an opening monologue. To my surprise, he asked me who that fellow was, noting he liked the way he carried himself and found him downright handsome. Of course afterward I suspected my father found Carson a mirror image of sorts. As I saw it, they were similar physical types, liked tennis, had an ease with people and an easy smile — and loads of reserve. It’s what made them manly and irresistible. It’s also what Americans will be eternally grateful to Carson for. He had a zone of privacy before some yo-yo coined that phrase. He gave us a bit of his public self night after night, and that was all we were going to get. Society functioned better under such understandings.
I can’t remember a thing Carson said, not even a punchline, except maybe for those chronic references to beautiful downtown Burbank. What mattered was how he said things, calmly, with perfect timing, never verbosely, always with an easy smile or some other facial gesture, alternately mischievous and sheepish. He better than anyone understood that he wasn’t engaged in life-saving work, and that intellectually he wasn’t going anywhere. Late night is late night.
But wait — I do remember a punchline. Once, during one of those ghastly but corny sketches in between the monologue and the chatting up of guests, he played an advice columnist. One ostensible letter was from a young father, worried about his and his wife’s new practice of having their young child sleep with them. What might happen, he asked. Johnny’s reply: “Well, it looks like the kid’s not going to have any brothers or sisters.”
Think about it. That’s what passed for racy in those days. Not everything needed to be spelled out. Plus it ended with a good old-fashioned dose of common sense.
Sure, Carson was susceptible to cheaper humor. The sorry Carol Wayne episode comes to mind. But at least with Carson he knew we always knew when he was being naughty. By and large, he maintained what in retrospect were genuine standards and professional decorum. He was in show business, that’s all.
Now all his obituaries will reproach him for having smoked too much. Or for being a stranger these last dozen years. What they’re really saying is that he didn’t need us. Good for him.
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