I'm sure there are already hundreds of tributes to Johnny Carson all over the Internet by now, but I couldn't let his passing yesterday go unmentioned. Even though he'd been off the air for nearly thirteen years now, it seemed like he had always been around (and would be around forever), and it's really weird to know that he's not. Everyone talks about the youthful rite of passage when you're finally deemed "old enough" to stay up and watch The Tonight Show, and to some extent, that's still true today, though the TV audience is way more fragmented. When Carson took over from Jack Paar in 1962, there were three major networks--a mere pittance compared to the 500-odd channels (and yes, some of them are quite odd) available now. That meant that major TV shows would have a much more comprehensive audience than they do now, so Carson in his heyday really did have a certain stature that a Leno or Letterman or Conan can't match with their smaller, more specialized groups of fans.
I remember my own "rite of passage" quite well: the cool feeling to finally have a "big person's" bedtime; the nervous moments of laughter at a slightly off-color joke that I wasn't sure I wanted Mom and Dad to know that I understood yet; and oh yeah, how was it that someone named "Johnny" (a little kids' name in more-formal times) had white hair?
And yet, despite the coolness of being able to stay up late and watch it, there may have been a time when younger audiences rebelled against Carson in favor of younger, edgier comics. They might find themselves "grown up" and say that Carson suddenly lacked a bit of cool, but, as Lileks points out in today's Bleat, Carson ultimately had this sense of timelessness that gave his material a transcendent sort of coolness. If you were to watch some of his old shows today (which I can do, owning the "best of" collection on VHS), sure, you might laugh at the hideous checked suits he'd wear at times (surpassed in garishness only by the loud pink numbers Doc sometimes wore), and some of the topical humor would have younger viewers scratching their heads, but when it came down to it, his material will last because, corny bits and all, it was just so danged funny.
Personal favorite memories of the Carson-era Tonight Show? Hmm--let me think: "Stump the Band" for sure; the times when he'd make a soap opera out of camera shots of unsuspecting audience members; Carnac the Magnificent. Oh yeah, and anything involving animals. I'll never forget those visits from Joan Embery of the San Diego Zoo, and Johnny's reaction to the various creatures that she would bring to crawl all over him and his desk (especially the marmoset that relieved itself on his head). When the animals did unpredictable things, the looks he'd get on his face were priceless.
I always tape Leno's Headlines on Monday night, so hopefully I'll be able to catch a little tribute on the show tonight. He had a good five minutes when Jack Paar passed away a while back, so I expect an even bigger segment today. One thing's for sure--Carson left a legacy that won't be matched anytime soon; Letterman nailed it when he said, "All of us who came after him are pretenders. We will not see the likes of him again."
Oh yeah, and if I had a big band, they'd be playing Rob McConnell's "A Tribute to Art Fern" (named after one of Carson's most popular characters) this semester.