I watched the American Masters documentary on Johnny Carson last night, happy that PBS had put it up on their site so quickly after it premiered, since I’ve yet to get even a hint of a signal from our local PBS station over the air. It was excellent, using a nice variety of sources (old family movies were the surprise; the man developed his famous tics early on, it turns out). Bravo, public television.
Other than sentiment, though, and nostalgia, I kept thinking about how our world has changed. And I kept thinking I had thought those things many times before. It took me a while to remember.
From February 2005.
I decided to give it a week, just to see what, if anything, I had to say.
I don’t have any anecdotes, after all. I never met him. I was never on the receiving end of his encouragement or generosity. He didn’t change my life, as far as I know, or particularly influence the way I thought or what I wanted to do.
I was curious, though, from the moment I turned on the TV that late Sunday morning and saw that Johnny Carson had died. I watched the coverage off and on that day, until both the clips and Don Rickles began to get a little repetitive. Maybe it’s because it’s a Sunday, I thought, a slow news day, but I suspected something else.
As the remembrances and testimonials continued into the week, someone mentioned that it was as if a head of state had passed away. I tried to remember if the death of another show business personality had ever got as much attention and I came up empty. It seemed that a good part of America got a little wistful for a week.
And I wondered about that.
There are good reasons, of course, and we’ve heard them all by now. How his Midwestern roots endowed him with heartland sensibilities that appealed to all of us. How his ownership of “The Tonight Show” (first figurative and then, eventually, literal) and his personal passion kept the quality high over that amazing run. How, during tumultuous times, we waited to hear Johnny’s spin in that opening monologue, to laugh before bed and talk about the next day.
But as I listened to, and read, the reactions of ordinary people, people like me, people who never sat on the couch and joked with Ed and Doc, I sensed something else, and I finally realized that I was hearing “I grew up with Johnny Carson” a lot.
It makes sense, too. That big chunk of demographic, the Baby Boomers, would have been anywhere from teenagers to toddlers when he started on “Tonight,” and while maybe their parents caught less of the show, sacrificing a few yuks for that 6am alarm and work the next day, a lot of us were night crawlers, at least in the summers and holidays, and Johnny owned the night.
It was that way for me, at any rate. Over the years, first as a teenager with a small black-and-white TV in my bedroom, then in college while I was supposed to be studying, or after the occasional swing shifts I worked in my 20s, I passed a lot of years with Mr. C.
The pictures that have been painted of this man in the past week or so are interesting, if only for the glimpse we get of a very private person who spent the last 13 years of his life out of the spotlight. We understand that he was painfully shy, uncomfortable in large groups or with strangers off the set. He battled booze, apparently. He was intelligent with a wide range of interests, including astronomy. He never lost his love of magic. He smoked like a chimney.
And, of course, he had that particular constellation of talents and traits that made him, simply, the best that ever did that peculiar job, and probably ever will.
Still, I wondered about all the fuss, and then realized the answer was there all the time, in my own house.
I went into my son’s room that Sunday, sat on his bed, and told him the news. He sighed, hung his head a bit, and said, “Oh, no.”
Think about this. He was born in 1990, two years before Carson left for good. How could he possibly know?
Because I taught him.
Ten years ago, for Father’s Day my wife gave me a set of Carson tapes, collections of moments, monologues and skits. And a few years later, I passed them on to my son, just to see if he liked them.
He wore them out, literally. He thought, this then 10-year-old boy, that this was the funniest stuff he’d ever seen, even if it was thirty years old. I thought so, too, and now, suddenly, I know what I think.
I think we used to share a lot more, all of us, families and strangers. And even though, as today, we could be divided about politics and war, we had things in common, things we saw and heard. Now our choices are seemingly endless, so you have your show and I have mine, she has her music and he has his, I’m on the Internet and you’re listening to your iPod and he’s playing a video game and she’s watching ESPN.
Choices are good, and change is inevitable, and there’s no going back to 1975, anyway. But my son and I sat and laughed again together that day, watching the clips, and it occurred to me that there used to be more of that. A time when a lot of us laughed together, at the same moment, at the same things, up later than we should have been, unable to resist, knowing that going to bed with a smile is a good thing, knowing that millions of your neighbors were smiling, too.
You can watch the entire show, for the time being anyway, online here.