End of a TV era

May 22, 1992

The death of bandleader Lawrence Welk Sunday at age 89, and the retirement tonight of Johnny Carson after 30 years as the nation's most famous late-night talk show host, mark the end of a TV era.

Both men entered America's living rooms during the "golden era" of television's first decade; 40 years later the nation has changed, but not their style of making people happy. Re-runs, syndication and foreign sales probably ensure the two will still be going strong into the 21st century.

Mr. Welk and Mr. Carson both played to the tradition-bound, middlebrow, middle-class suburban America portrayed in sitcoms like "Ozzie and Harriet" and "I Love Lucy." That audience stayed loyal to them through the social and cultural upheavals of the 1960s, even as the baby boomers and the rock-'n-roll generation were turning popular culture upside down.

To younger audiences Mr. Welk, who began his musical career playing German polkas on the accordion at country dances in his native North Dakota, was impossibly "corny" when compared to the swivel-hipped Elvis. Mr. Carson was a bit more with it, but his witty monologues seemed tame beside the pointed political commentaries of comics like Lenny Bruce and Dick Gregory. During the '80s, baby boomers zapped to Mr. Carson from the rival "Nightline" show, mainly during commercials, just to eavesdrop on their elders.

It is possible that the broad middle-American cultural consensus Mr. Carson and Mr. Welk courted so assiduously never truly existed, that the fragments and fissures in American society later revealed by FM radio narrow-casting, niche magazines and cable TV were there all along but remained largely invisible until new techniques of mass communication arose to exploit them.

What is certain is that no one will ever again become a household name playing Mr. Welk's brand of bubbly, big-band "champagne music," nor will anyone else's monologues become quite the kind of political and social barometers Mr. Carson's were.

Television, along with the rest of the nation, has moved on. But the late bandleader and the late-night comic surely will be remembered as two of its great pioneers.

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