Funny with Class: Johnny Carson, 1925-2005

Johnny Carson

Johnny Carson died of emphysema on the morning of 23 January. One is tempted to make a bad joke here. Lord knows Carson made enough of them in his career. The awful commercial parodies, the tired old Amazing Karnak bit, the cracks about Ed McMahon’s drinking or Doc Severinsen’s outfits. But we can forgive all the recycled schtick as audiovisual comfort food, the reliable routines that much of America used as bedtime stories for the 35 years of Carson’s run on The Tonight Show.

Steve Allen started the program, Jack Paar took it on in 1957, and Johnny inherited it when Paar walked out in disgust with the network, in 1962. But it was Johnny’s show through and through, and no one before or since has done it so well. Leno tries, but he walks for the rest of his career in Carson’s shadow, like so many others.

Johnny Carson was that nebulous thing, a “television personality.” Not an actor, though he had been known to make the occasional cameo here and there. Not a performer, like many of the talents he catapulted from the club circuit into stardom, though he spent his teenage years performing magic and ventriloquism in his native Midwest. His monologues were written by committee and frequently hobbled by a certain glib, showbizzy corniness.

His primary job was basically to appear on television five nights a week and be “Johnny Carson.” Fortunately “Johnny Carson” was to be. He worked the camera and his guests with a breezy, laid-back persona, often flustered but never edgy. He endured the almost certain disasters that befell him every time Jim Fowler or Joan Embery would show up with wild animals in tow with amazingly good humor. Letterman has turned the concept into his own postmodern mindfuck, but for Carson, the point was always low-key: “It’s just TV, folks.” He was a comforting presence on the tube through three and a half tumultuous decades, and America was grateful for him. Carson’s on. Everything’s okay.

After Johnny left TV in 1992, ending with a sentimental bang watched by some 50 million people, he spent his retirement with the same kind of aplomb he demonstrated in his working life. No comebacks, no desperate appearances on other people’s shows to remind them he was still around. He wrote short humor pieces for The New Yorker and contributed the occasional uncredited joke for David Letterman’s monologues. The only time he popped back onto the tube was in cartoon form, on an episode of The Simpsons, and it is telling that that show, notorious for its glee in convincing celebrities to mock themselves, kept its mitts off Carson’s dignity.

What may be Carson’s most significant contribution to our lives, culture, and collective future, however, was not what he brought to his show but who. The Tonight Show entertained the nation at night, and its power to make or break performers was huge. Carson was ever the conscientious steward of this power, and he used it to introduce musicians, entertainers, and most importantly, comedians who appealed to his sense of talent and relevance. Johnny gave the world George Carlin, Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Jerry Seinfeld, Roseanne — every major comedian who broke out in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s did so through Carson’s graces. It was Carson’s personal barometer for value that shaped pop cultural tastes, and in many ways continues to do so. Carson knew what was funny, and he knew how important funny was in difficult times. And he did funny with class.