Farewell, Johnny!

Steven Stark

May 22, 1992|By Steven Stark

YOU would have to be living in some other galaxy not to know that tonight marks Johnny Carson's last night after almost 30 years on "The Tonight Show."

After more than 4,000 nights -- all the imaginary golf swings, the jokes about Ed's drinking, the pets from the San Diego Zoo and the skits featuring Carnac the Magnificent, Aunt Blabby and Floyd R. Turbo -- an era in television comes to a close.

In the history of television, Mr. Carson holds a special place. Other than, perhaps, Walter Cronkite, no other TV personality has persevered as long, with as much audience respect. The comparisons with Mr. Cronkite go further. Like the nation's leading anchorman, Mr. Carson delivered his version of the news each day. One came right before prime time -- announcing, in effect, the beginning of entertainment; one came directly after.

Like Walter Cronkite, Mr. Carson rarely appeared in prime time, where it might quickly have been discovered that his appeal was really to the elites who follow news or stay up late, not to the masses. And, like an anchorman (or a president), Mr. Carson was one of the few performers TV etiquette allowed to address the camera directly -- the culture's ultimate sign of respect and authority.

He was always a step behind most trends, but that gave this product of Nebraska his hold on his audience. If Mr. Carson began poking fun at Jimmy Carter or Richard Nixon, it was a sign that the end was near, just as Mr. Carson's move from New York to Burbank, Calif., in 1972 was a signal that New York was already dead -- both as an entertainment capital and as a mythical magnet for the American imagination.

He was a product of one of television's most enduring creations. Conceived by Pat Weaver in the early '50s, the program was intended to create a cheap, late-night show revolving around conversation. It is a tribute to Mr. Weaver that in the four decades since then, all late-night talk shows -- from rebel Arsenio to David Letterman to Joan Rivers -- have stolen "Tonight's" format, but never its ratings.

As TV scholar Brian Rose has noted, all late-night talk shows look the same. They open with the host -- a comedian -- emerging on stage to an orchestra blast. What follows is a monologue before a live audience -- often marked by banter between the host and the orchestra leader or sidekick. After a short skit or comic break, a few guests are welcomed and joke and exchange small talk with the host.

Johnny Carson's enduring contribution was to popularize this form, as he more than doubled the show's audience in his first 15 years. And though the program contained elements of vaudeville, variety and stand-up comedy -- anachronisms almost everywhere else on television -- the form was predominantly talk. From Phil Donahue to Barbara Walters to Larry King, all talk shows since then owe a large debt to Mr. Carson.

It is an odd form of talk, because it is usually impossible to remember what anyone ever said. The talk of "Tonight," and thus of much of television, is terribly formalized in its studied jTC informality -- always polite, somewhat witty, consistently upbeat, but rarely revealing.

"The Tonight Show" is the Chinese food of conversation: 20 minutes later, you're lonely. This may be part of its appeal, because it draws you back the next night for more.

To be sure, the radio talk hosts and Geraldos of the world have created talk shows that appear outrageous because they defy "The Tonight Show's" rather tame conventions. In contrast to their parent, these tabloid shows flaunt their lack of etiquette, their relentless downbeatness and their lack of humor. But at bottom, they share one essential attribute of "The Tonight Show" -- there's never any there there.

It says something that, at a time when talk radio and TV are engulfing popular culture, there is a parallel movement -- popularized by Deborah Tannen and others -- to deal with our consistent failure to communicate. Thanks to Johnny Carson and his considerable progeny, there are now ample opportunities for just about everyone to step in front of a microphone and talk to the masses. Even if, as on "The Tonight Show," they have absolutely nothing to say.

Steven Stark is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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