Monday, January 24

Good night, Johnny.

When I watched the final Tonight Show With Johnny Carson, the host fought back tears and so did I.

Yesterday, I cried alone.

I should be writing today's Marchand Chronicles right now. In fact, I should have wrote it yesterday, but I couldn't. I wanted to write about this. But I didn't feel it was appropriate because I didn't have the relationship, and yes it was a relationship, that so many millions of Americans had with him. I was 11 when he bid goodbye in 1992.

But the magical bind he had with all of his adult viewers was, from a kid's perspective, even more awe-inspiring. To me, that was what adults did; when company came over and the kids were sent to bed, they retired to a room and talked over a smoke and a highball (though of course those were eventually frowned upon on-camera). Johnny was able to reduce that to a one-on-one conversation with his guest, but it was all for the audience, both in-studio and at home, who couldn't possibly participate in the talk but somehow always could.

So on those rare occasions when I was allowed to watch, I did so with vigor. Adults watched Johnny and when I did, I felt like an adult. And somehow Johnny was all things to all people: Ed McMahon called him a brother, the regular guests and audience considered him a close friend, and to a kid he was the genial old uncle who let you in on the adult world with a wink and a smile. Johnny once asked a young Joey Lawrence whether he ever watched The Tonight Show, and Joey, with a child's unfiltered honesty, said "Usually when I'm up vomiting." This was hilarious to me, since many nights I was watching for that exact reason, too, and the comfort that came with sitting down to watch the show was so total that no matter how awful I felt I was never able to stay awake long enough to watch David Letterman afterwards.

Letterman, in what could perhaps be the smartest thing he's ever said, reacted to the news of Johnny's death by saying "All of us who came after are pretenders. We will not see the likes of him again." He or Jay Leno would have reacted to Joey Lawrence by trying to riff off it for an even bigger laugh; Johnny was big enough to react to unexpected zingers by letting the audience see him as the butt of the joke once in a while.

But what made him the King of Late Night? An endless stream of humorists have offered myriad reasons: his gentleness and humility; his quick wit; his charisma marked by permanent kindness. And they're all right, but there's a different reason: Johnny's comedy was steeped in the traditions of vaudeville, radio and early TV and he learned and borrowed from all of them. He was Groucho Marx and Red Skelton and Bob Hope all at the same time, five nights a week. Comedy was work to Johnny but he worked so hard at it that, like all of the legends of their fields, he made it effortless. Even in the twilight of his life, he still worked; former producer Peter Lassally said that Johnny occasionally wrote and sent monologue jokes to David Letterman, and he used them. Leno relies on idiots saying stupid things in "Jaywalking" for laughs; Letterman uses Rupert from the Hello Deli or Biff Henderson or his studio audience; but The Tonight Show wasn't With Johnny Carson, it was Johnny Carson, and Johnny Carson was the show. Nobody ever said they watched The Tonight Show. They watched Johnny Carson.

But Johnny's old-school experience tempered his personality as well as his work. He eschewed the spotlight as often as possible, preferring to let the guests shine. He would do anything for a laugh, but not in the abrasive fashion of today's more cutting-edge comics. When he left, he left for good, forgoing the neverending parade of farewell tours that plague aging entertainers. And when Worldwide Pants sent him the standard fee for all the jokes Letterman used, Johnny sent the checks right back.

This all culminated in The Look. Right after Joey Lawrence uttered the word "vomiting," the camera cut to a close-up of Johnny's face, and there was The Look. It's indescribable but instantly identifiable. America recognized it because when the dinner turned out like charcoal or the car got a flat tire in the rain or the kids bathed the dog and got water and suds everywhere, they had The Look, too. Everything has just gone completely unaccording to script, and from a distance, of either space or time, it's hilarious, but for just that moment it's a gulp of sour milk.

The best Look was when one of Jack Hanna's animals peed on him. How completely embarrassing, but yet in perspective, not that bad. Johnny went through three divorces and lost a son to an automobile accident, but in the moment that was the absolute worst thing that could possibly happen. But it was uproariously funny, and Johnny knew it but he couldn't show it; that would spoil the moment. So he put on The Look and let the audience laugh until they couldn't anymore.

It worked on Ed McMahon, too. One memorable moment featuring "Carnac," Johnny's huge-hat psychic, had the "prediction" of "Sis, Boom, Bah." When Carnac opened the envelope to reveal, "The sound of a sheep exploding," Ed completely lost it. And Johnny let him lose it, and let the audience lose it watching him. Any show that's come along in the last decade would not have; they'd have played off it and moved on. They're so convinced that they have to pack as much as possible in to hold viewers that they've lost the je ne sais quoi that Johnny Carson was all about.

Granted, Johnny had that leeway because he had an audience of millions and no real competition; but he also understood that humor comes both from the careful construct of jokewriting and the spontaneous moments. And he held those moments with the loose grip but steady control of a yo-yo artist, letting it hang as long as possible because he knew he couldn't manufacture anything as funny. The old showbiz adage says "Never work with children or animals," because of their unpredictability, but watch a DVD of Johnny's best moments and you'll find kids and critters running all over the studio. Because viewers connect with them. Because they make memories happen at home, Johnny made memories on his show with them.

For three decades Johnny cultivated his relationship with the audience like a master gardener does his perennials. Television doesn't work that way for anyone else; it constantly finds the new, the edgy, the zeitgeist, then burns it out and looks for something new. Lileks, in addition to echoing the kid/adult statement I made (okay, the other way around), says that Johnny wasn't hip. Of course not: "hip" implies both rebellion and evanescence; Johnny built his show to be the exact opposite, comforting and durable if sometimes imperfect.

Which is sad. Letterman said we won't ever see the likes of Johnny again, but that's due to the nature of entertainment that arose from the void he left as much as his unique talent. Johnny Carson married that talent to the time-honored traditions of comedy to create TV's perpetual motion machine. And in life, as in the medium, he was one of a kind.

Good night, Johnny. As America — and I — did so often when or after watching you, may you rest in peace.


Location: Mishawaka, Indiana, United States

I graduated with an English degree from the University Of Notre Dame in 2001, and in 2008 I have a day job that has nothing to do with my degree but gets the bills paid in a semi-regular fashion. (I have running water five days a week!) The idea is that once I get turned around on my bills, I go to grad school. I also have an idea for cold fusion. Anyone's guess which will be feasible first. In non-work mode, I'm usually reading columns by famous and well-read thinkers, blogs by critically praised writers, or sometimes blogs by overzealous cranks who make me laugh. I yearn to be all three at once; until then I'll settle for being the third. I also have an undying love for the Chicago Cubs and Notre Dame football. Praise them and I'll buy you a beer; curse them and I'll dump it over your head. If that's not enough, I'm becoming quite the fan of no-limit Texas Hold'em. My games have one of two results: I either win all the money or whine because I didn't win all the money.

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marchand chronicles has such massive readership and influence that it makes me weep.
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Damn right.


What's Your Line?


I absolutely love the name of your site.

Scott "Big Trunk" Johnson, Power Line
Just the name? Not the content? . . . I'll take it.

You have something in common with Dave Barry, Hemingway, and Mark Steyn: I'm not linking to them, either.


That's good stuff there Mark.

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Psst, it's "Mike."

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Okay, so I don't really have a copyright. But I still don't want you ripping me off. Reprint it all over the Internet if you like, but give me proper credit and link back to me. Besides, if you're going to plagiarize, steal from someone with some talent.

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