‘I’ll be right back’

‘I’ll be right back’

: Johnny Carson has died at age 79.

Once, many years ago, while I was a TV critic, I happened to be on a plane with Lucille Ball. She was in first class, of course; I was in business. I wouldn’t have presumed to bother her but I sent her a note via a stewardess. I said that I believed she and Johnny Carson had given my parents’ generation their sense of humor and comic timing. My mother (this will probably be a surprise to her) treated punchlines like Lucy; my father and his friends told jokes like Johnny.

Carson represented more. He was, of course, the original Jon Stewart, who showed so much of news to be what it was: a joke. He and other, edgier comics of the day made comedy relevant.

He was the best barometer of trends. By the time Johnny did it, it took over America. When I was a kid, I wanted a Nehru jacket (shhh… I can hear you snickering… be nice) and my parents would let me — until Johnny wore one. But when Johnny wore it, that meant it was no longer cool; the meme had gone mainstream.

Carson also represented the golden age of America’s shared experience in media. That era lasted about three decades, from the late ’50s to the late ’80s, when the three networks turned most cities into one-newspaper towns and we all watched the same thing. I don’t regret that era dying; it means we now have more choice and choice equals control. But it was a unique time in our culture, when popular culture became a common platform, a common touchstone for Americans. We all got Johnny’s jokes. [via Lost Remote]

: Michael Ventre says at MSNBC.com: “The day that television died was May 22, 1992. The day it was buried was today.” Well, that prose is a bit toooo purple. But then he signs off with a joke from Johnny:

  • Mark Potts

    Beautifully said, Jeff. And I hope NBC treats Carson’s passing with appropriate reverence and scale–I’m hoping for several hours of greatest hits and tributes this week. It’s the least they can do.

  • My brother stills tell jokes like Johnny Carson, with a dash of Bob Newhart. The Tonight Show was on the “don’t miss” list when I was growing up, along with Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and Carol Burnett.

  • Just last week, there was a story about how Carson was still still writing monologue jokes. And sending them to… Letterman.

  • Jim S

    CNN is currently doing extensive coverage. When I was young I didn’t need that much sleep every night and would just wake up at awful hours if the parents made me go to sleep early. So I went to bed just after the news on school nights but got to see the Tonight Show on Fridays, holidays and all summer. I always loved it. Remember Carl Sagan being on the show? Carson was an amateur astronomer and knew that other people could be just as fascinated if someone communicated it well.
    The editor of People Magazine is on now. His comment on comparing the current hosts to Carson: “It’s like comparing a garage band to the Rolling Stones.”.

  • Jim S

    Another thing just hit me. Watching some clips of the show…I wonder how much watching Doc Severinson influence me to choose a cornet when I chose a band instrument.

  • Is it just me, or is it a little crass for MSNBC to have an ad for DVDs on their obit for Carson?:
    “Heeere’s Johnny! The Special Collector’s Edition
    $112.48 Sale $112.48”
    Look’s like it might have been on sale on one point, then they boosted the price back up again.

  • It’s not entirely fair to blame Carson for Joyce Brothers – she got her start on quiz shows and gradually moved to the talk show circuit. Coincidentally, I had the tv on earlier – before I heard about Carson’s death – and happened to run across a showing of “Bonnie and Clyde” which got me thinking about how different talk shows were in Carson’s heyday and guests frequently included minor character actors like Dub Taylor (he plays Michael G. Pollard’s dad in “B & C” but was a frequent “Tonight Show” guest), authors, doctors, – a much wider range than simply booking whoever has a movie or tv show premiering in the next week….

  • Jim S

    Robert, that’s part of what I was thinking about when I mentioned Sagan.

  • Jeff,
    In case you didn’t hear, we New Englanders lost longtime Boston Globe political columnist David Nyhan today as well. He collapsed while shoveling snow this morning and died shortly thereafter at the hospital.
    Both he and Johnny will be sorely missed.

  • timshel

    I arrived here via a link from Terry Teachout. Terry is unimpressed with Johnny.
    All of which somehow makes me feel sorry for Johnny Carson. I wonder what he thought of his life’s work? Or how he felt about having lived long enough to disappear into the memory hole? At least he had the dignity to vanish completely, retreating into private life instead of trying to hang on to celebrity by his fingernails. Perhaps he knew how little it means to have once been famous.
    I don’t understand why people like Teachout feel that Johnny’s life should be viewed as one of mediocre accomplishments, as one diminished by failed opportunities. It’s similar in tone to Charles Pierce’s criticisms of Michael Jordan’s impact on basketball that was published in Slate this month.
    It’s true that there was a time during Johnny’s reign that he put it on cruise control. But during his last years on the air, he stepped up his game in response to the challenge coming from people like Letterman. Also, Johnny could find laughs in interviews with anyone, no matter how painfully unfunny the person was. Johnny was funny. Consistently. For years. Funny in a way that Bob Hope wasn’t. Bob Hope needed a team of writers to be funny. Johnny was funny off-the-cuff. He was a pro. When the writer’s strike happened in 1998, he did the show with only material he’d written himself. It wasn’t always great, but it was ballsy. He was in his 60s. An icon. He could have just waited for the strike to end, and everybody would have understood. Instead, he went out there at the risk of embarassing himself.
    Johnny might not have changed social consciousness, but he provided solid entertainment for years. Why that isn’t enough for some people is beyond me.

  • Did Lucille Ball respond in any way to your note?

  • Cridland

    The Tiny Tim/Miss Vicki show was the best (and highest-rated) evidence that Carson was more about Sinatra’s generation than McCartney’s. Tiny Tim was effeminate and falsetto without being gay (or truly sexually threatening); he was musically strange without being talented; and he was obscure and challenging without being meaningful. He was everything a Sinatra-era playboy *wanted* youth/rock culture to be.
    It didn’t work out that way.

  • Kat

    Johnny was better than anyone today–and he did it with taste and class–and no vulgarity.

  • Jim S

    Pardon me while I plan my skating trip to Hell. Kat just posted something I can agree with completely and with no reservations.

  • You know what I really miss about Johnny Carson? He actually conversed with his guests instead of doing PR-Performance Art like Jay Leno does. He also had impeccable taste in guests that included opera and classical musicians on a regular basis and a very judicious selection of rock and pop singers.
    Toward the end of the show, the pace would slow down, the music would grow softer, and off to sleep you would go. Today, they put the rock band on last and keep up the noise level high well into the Conan O’Brian show.