Johnny Carson died yesterday. Some of you may not remember him (he’d been off the air for thirteen years), but you’re reminded of him every night on television. David Letterman and Jay Leno owe their careers to him, as do too many other comics to mention, including Roseanne Barr, Bill Maher, Joan Rivers, and George Carlin. I remember seeing Carson and Bob Newhart discussing the then-new wave of standup comics getting sitcoms based on their material (a la Tim Allen and Roseanne) and both of them agreeing Jerry Seinfeld might do well in a sitcom. He might, not that there’s anything wrong with that.
It seems foolish to say this about someone I never met, even casually, but Johnny’s passing makes me feel a little older by making me even less connected to my youth. It was a milestone when I became old enough to stay up to watch the Tonight Show. I’m not a nostalgic person normally, but I feel a little of that come back every time I hear, or think of, the Tonight Show band playing the theme song. Tony Kornheiser uses “Tea for Two” as background music for his radio show’s email segment, but I still think of it as Johnny and Doc Severinsen’s acknowledgement of a joke that crashed and burned.
Carson was the master. Leno and Letterman are good, but Carson was primarily interested in making the guest look good; either of his successors will take the easy laugh before nursing a guest through an sub-par appearance. The greatest difference can be summed up in a simple analogy: I used to comfortably fall asleep in bed with Johnny on the tube; with his successors, I always watch on the couch and shut off the TV before turning in. I’m not sure I want these new guys in my house without keeping an eye on them.