BIG SHOES: This TV Legend Left A Void That NOBODY Since Could Fill

Written by Steve Pauwels on May 25, 2017

To some, a quarter-century might seem to evaporate in a few blinks — but it’s obviously a significant chunk of time. Lots can change in twenty-five years.

This week it’s been that long since Johnny Carson stepped aside as host of the iconic Tonight Show. Passing into that uneventful retirement, he quietly passed away in 2005. For me, whoever Carson’s successors, he’ll always be the figure most inextricably linked to the late-night forum. Likely, that’s because the Iowa-born former magician was the face of the program nearly all my formative years, even into my mid-adulthood; an impressive thirty-year stint, debuting in 1962. It seems holiday- or vacation-evening visits to my grandparents’ house routinely ended with Johnny chatting up someone on the ever-glowing television.

No denying, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (TSJC) is indelibly stamped on my youthful memories. So, how intriguing when a few months ago I stumbled across re-airings of the one-time NBC staple (Antenna TV, seven nights a week at 10 PM (est).

I’ve tuned in occasionally to reminisce and — genuinely unexpectedly — found myself startled: Carson’s program provides ample confirmation how the entertainment industry, and thus our culture, have been transformed in my comparatively brief lifetime. A transformation of jolting proportions, I might add; not always beneficial ones:

— It’s unavoidable noticing how much slow-w-w-w-wer things were back in that era. The rhythm of The Tonight Show circa 1970s/80s/90s is easy-going, downright slumberous at times. The observant contemporary viewer can’t help but pick up, quickly, there’s no convulsive, rapid-fire shifting from monologue to skits to video bits to man-on-the-street interviews to conversations to — well, whatever. Post-Carson, this all became de rigueur across the late-night talkees’ channel-scape. Was it David Letterman who mainstreamed the manic format? I’m not sure; but, while comedic turbulence can be effective and humorous in carefully parceled out doses, Johnny somehow managed to keep masses engaged for three decades without all the exhausting clutter.

Upon initially discovering TSJC re-runs, I promptly detected long-pauses between the celebrity conversationalists; sudden, wordless gaps in their banter. For a guy soaked in 2017’s Gatling-gun entertainment tempo? It was unsettling. Usually there was no more than one comedy sketch — if that — plunked amidst the night’s activities. Sure, Carnac the Magnificent, Floyd R. Turbo and Aunt Blabby turned up reliably — but served in easily digestible doses, not frenetically and gluttonously force fed to an ADHD viewership.

Jarringly absent? Today’s over-hyped, remorselessly choreographed vibe.

Jeff Sotzing, Carson’s nephew and eventually show producer, recently reflected on the contrast with current after-hours offerings:

There’s so much pressure to get huge ratings every second of the hour. It’s difficult to be natural … On The Tonight Show, the atmosphere was casual and free-flowing. Johnny and Ed [McMahon] could spend eight minutes talking about how sharks and certain species of birds must remain in perpetual motion. That wouldn’t be possible today.

A generation weaned on modern go-go-go diversions is ill-equipped to tolerate — let alone appreciate — simpler, leisurely pleasures; the kind offered by Carson and Co.

Millennia before TV’s emergence, the Creator exhorted, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). The stark juxtaposition between late-night fare of Carson’s day and ours underscores that “be still” part might pose a more daunting challenge than ever for fidgety, endlessly distracted consumers.

— Of course, like many funny men whose careers flowered in the 1960s and ’70s, Johnny Carson’s humor traded on political topics; but his quips were rarely mean-spirited. An equal opportunity wisecracker, “he never so much as hinted as to how he identified politically. He poked fun at whoever was in power,” writes conservative commentator Dennis Prager.

For some reason, the front-man of ABC’s current Jimmy Kimmel Live! had originally struck me as hardly a seething, take-no-prisoners Lefty — but I’m beginning to think I was misguided on that score. Increasingly, Kimmel’s monomaniacal screeds against the current president come off as gleefully vicious, bordering on creepy; (and not particularly amusing, either.)

Among the twenty-first century’s nocturnal gab-fests, a host that is not fashionably, ostentatiously progressive, if he/she exists at all — NBC’s Jimmy Fallon, perhaps? — would be the exception demonstrating the irksome rule. Snarky nastiness against all-things Republican, especially any pol or movement savoring of traditional conservatism or –gasp! – “Christian conservatism” is the talk-show order of the day (or night.)

Another Sotzing tidbit: “[H]is uncle stopped making jokes about Nixon when he learned that the 37th president was heavily drinking because of it.” Read that again. Would that brand of media sensitivity — from a superstar of Johnny Carson-esque stature — be conceivable presently? Under any circumstances?

Once again, Prager: “[Carson] believed that he had a … responsibility to offer Americans of all political persuasions … a place where everyone could laugh together, every night.”

Meanwhile, in 2017? Anyone not hewing to the statist-favoring, Democrat-elevating, libertine/secularist script will probably feel anything but welcome among the late-night set. Usually, conservative-minded patriots’ only guarantee they’ll get some mention is as an acidulous punchline.

— Aspects of TSJC were properly considered risqué — but today’s bedtime-television tête-à-têtes? Off-the-chart vulgarity. Johnny’s worst was positively quaint by comparison.

Since I take seriously the New Testament’s exhortation against “coarse jesting” (Ephesians 5:4), I don’t approve of the former Tonight Show‘s regular double entendres – even so, the filth rampant among the current crop of talkees is stomach-churning; an unrelentingly vile, profanity-ridden sex-a-thon (See: Colbert, Stephen, May 1, 2017). Were the scatological, the salacious, the gynecological, the scrofulous to vanish from their repertoire in a flash? Modern after-dark blab-fests would collapse altogether.

A 1983 exchange I caught the other night between Carson and the now-deceased Sir Roger Moore witnessed the two men self-censoring, openly weighing whether certain bawdy yarns should be repeated; then mutually, firmly determining: No, not proper for the public airwaves.

Nowadays, the verbal sewage would have guffawingly flowed, the audience whoopingly egging them on; the networks might have teasingly bowdlerized with conspicuously placed bleeps. (Hee, hee, aren’t we edgy! )

A dash of irony or puckishness certainly can have its place. A non-stop cascade of feculence, however, speedily becomes insufferable; and poisons a society.

— Lastly, surprising for a Hollywood-centric platform, yesteryear’s Tonight Show exhibited a charming absence of self-centeredness (at least contrasted with today’s confabs). It’s fascinating that, while Carson was at the helm, when each guest was finished, he/she would customarily slide over one seat, making room for the next visitor. The pattern would repeat itself until, by program’s end, four or five raconteurs might be lined up like kewpie dolls, respectfully listening to one another, intermittently spicing up the proceedings with their conversational two-cents.

In 2017? It’s a rarity to see any late-night luminary drop in and then stick around once his/her ten minutes are up. HI, there! Blah-blah-blah … See ya later! I’m a busy person with places to be, y’know!

On the heels of eight years of Barack Obama’s pompous solipsism, and now ensconced in the subsequent age-of-Trump – our first Reality-TV Chief Executive — the TSJC approach seems refreshing; and bizarre. Etiquette straight from a planet of anachronistically civil aliens.

Writer Aaron Goldstein dubbed Johnny “the King of Light Night, and of Good Manners”. Maybe that comportment rubbed off on those visitors entering his nationally televised soirée the end of each workday?

One 1974 segment featured novelist William Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist, extrapolating at length on the topic of satanic possession. His presentation included playing a nearly fifty-second recording — audio, not video — of a howling, snarling, demonized teen-age boy. Got that? Sound alone, no images included. As the clip rolls, Carson, Blatty and the other three guests (actor Fernando Lamas, comic Richard Pryor and actress Robyn Hilton) politely listen, along with a rapt studio audience. Again, only sound; no visuals.

Try envisioning millions of twenty-first-century viewers sitting motionless for that. Or the show’s modern producers allowing it to happen at all. I’m not certain which scenario seems more preposterous in our micro-waved, multi-plexed, three-hundred-channel-cable-TV, music-video-saturated, smart-phone-obsessed America.

Twenty-five years? A relative pittance time-wise. But thinking back to Johnny Carson’s day versus ours? One might mistake it, culturally at least, for another geologic age.

Image: Excerpted from: By AllyUnion at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by AllyUnion using CommonsHelper., Attribution,

Share if you agree lots of troubling changes have developed in modern culture since the Johnny Carson era.

Steve Pauwels is pastor of Church of the King, Londonderry, NH and host of Striker Radio with Steve Pauwels on the Red State Talk Radio Network. He's also husband to the lovely Maureen and proud father of three fine sons: Mike, Sam and Jake.