by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
January 26, 2005
JOHNNY CARSON AND OUR OWN MORTALITY
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- The death on Sunday of Johnny Carson raises some thoughts about entertainment and mortality.
If only because death is so frightening, most of us seek some kind of immortality. We have children so our genes can sail down through the ages. For centuries painters, writers and composers have made art in the hope that their work would last longer than their mortal bodies.
Since the advent of film and recording devices, actors, musicians, singers and yes, even comedians, can also play the immortality game. Greta Garbo's looks and Maria Callas's voice are still available to us. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers will dance forever as the feathers escaping from her dresses float lightly around their faces.
"One of the pleasures of steady movie-going is that if a performer has lasting power, you can grow up and then older along with them," writes New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis. "That's true of stars you discover when they're young adults and even more so for those you follow from childhood, like Elizabeth Taylor and Winona Ryder. There is something satisfying about that first encounter... which becomes a marker by which to view the past, both theirs and yours."
Each generation chooses the stars with "staying power" who will be their "marker by which to view the past." My generation chose Bob Dylan and the Beatles; for many of us, the death of John Lennon was our first experience with the loss of a contemporary. But for close to 30 years, Carson was America's marker. His death is very much a death in the family. And every death teaches us a little more about our own mortality.
People call Carson the epitome of Middle America, but the truth is that he was one of the coolest people on television. He brought hip into America's living rooms without America knowing what it was. He was bawdy and politically incorrect in a way the censors would never allow today - one skit had him talking about a girl he knew in high school, "Gina Statutory" - wink, wink; he compared her to Lincoln because "everyone took a shot at her in the balcony."
Carson was unimpressed with authority. He took the charisma of Frank Sinatra's performing style - and life style - and translated it for America's living rooms. His was a dual personality - earnest, sincere and polite on the surface, and sharp and cynical beneath. When he retired, it took two to replace him, Jay Leno for niceness and David Letterman for irreverence.
Entertainment can be an ethereal business. Carson based a lot of his performing style - especially his timing - on the great comedian Jack Benny. When I was a child, Benny's television show could reduce me to fits of explosive laughter. But although his shows are still available on kinescope, they are rarely shown today.
Milton Berle, "Mr. Tuesday Night," introduced vaudeville comedy to television and was forgotten just a few months after he died. When Bob Hope died, he was eulogized to the skies, but I haven't heard his name mentioned since. Of all the great early television comedians, only Lucille Ball's shows still have cultural currency, and that may be because each tells a story of its own.
Carson is less likely to be forgotten. He mentored so many great talents that his shows will be raided for clips for the foreseeable future. Several of his "Best of" collections are available on video.
Also, by the time Carson retired, his work (which he inherited from Steve Allen and Jack Paar and refined) had been refracted by multiples. Anyone on television today with a desk and a chair for interviews - Letterman, Leno, Conan O'Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, Jon Stewart, a plethora of skits on "Saturday Night Live, a host of failed hosts, and even Ellen DeGeneres, in her way - is his descendant. He was also the great inspiration for Garry Shandling's hilarious backstage comedy, "The Larry Sanders Show."
Carson's influence was international. On National Public Radio the other night, I heard an interview with a late-night talk show host from Tsibili, Georgia. The guy had copied Carson to the point of having his own "Heeeere's Johnny" introduction.
There was always a downside to Carson, too. He had Sinatra-like macho and disdain for women; it came through clearly in the cleavage-heavy bimbos he chose for his skits. His move to show-taping signified the end of edgy live late-night television. Intellectual conversation disappeared over the years, to be replaced by celebrity shills. And he never had to make conversation with Ashlee Simpson or a gangsta rapper covered in bling, so we'll never know how well his storied good manners would have held up in the modern age.
But when I look at pictures of Carson now, I feel something like a deep and abiding love for the man. In spite of his well-known aloofness, he gave his audience some ineffable but precious part of himself. He was America's "marker with staying power" for 30 years. His death has shown us our own mortality.
Imagine what it will be like when Dylan dies.
[Editor's Note: We cannot imagine that.]
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.