As a teenager, I hated Johnny Carson. Then came the pandemic.
By Jason Zinoman
In the last few months, at the end of news-packed days, as the noise of my cooped-up children gives way to the calmer sounds of sirens and fireworks, I have found myself uninterested in seeing any of the current late-night hosts transform the horrors of the world into jokes. I get my fill on Twitter.
Since the pandemic put normal life on pause, the only talk show I have regularly watched is, oddly enough, “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” which airs weeknights on Antenna. This isn’t because I am seeking escape in the pleasures of my childhood — although I have done that, revisiting “Heathers” and A Tribe Called Quest as if they were old friends. But Johnny Carson holds no nostalgic appeal. When I was a teenager in the late ’80s and early ’90s, he represented the bland center of the mainstream, a toothless holdover from a Vegas-infused era of show business. What could be less cool than pantomiming a golf swing?
I returned to his show first out of professional curiosity. Despite being the most visible and powerful comedian in America for three decades, building the talk show into a juggernaut on NBC before ending his run in 1992, Carson has mostly vanished from the public consciousness, discussed more as a gatekeeper than as a performer. But once I started bingeing old episodes of “The Tonight Show,” I found something oddly calming about his topical jokes about Watergate, Iran-Contra and other grave events that no longer seem urgent. Comedy plus time equals a certain indifference. But it wasn’t only that: Carson hosted with an unusually light touch and an equanimity that stands out in today’s hyperventilating culture.
His monologue jokes are OK, steadily mediocre if sometimes corny constructions with amusing word choices (“topless kazoo player riding a yak”) but never as funny as the way he self-deprecatingly recovers from ones that bombed. He lingers on those, holding a pause or leaning forward ever so slightly, goosing the audience for more laughs at his expense. David Letterman admired this about Johnny Carson, and you can see the influence. But whereas Letterman brooded over his flops, Carson never seemed angry for more than a moment, or for that matter, particularly thrilled. The guests ran hot and cold, but he never budged from room temperature. There is something even eerily alien about his temperament, as if he was observing humanity from a distance. Critic Kenneth Tynan once described Carson as “an immaculate machine.”
Whenever Carson did get remotely flustered, he would always find his bearings by focusing his boyish glare at the audience at home. The intimacy on this show was in the relationship between Carson and the camera, and he could look at it like they shared a secret.
To be sure, Carson’s studied neutrality contained darker undercurrents — most importantly, the old boys’ club sexism that shows up in the tediously leering asides that female guests like Bo Derek and Elke Sommer are subjected to and even in the monologue. In 1984, on the day that Walter Mondale picked Geraldine Ferraro as his vice presidential candidate, the first time a female politician had been chosen in that role by a major U.S. political party, Carson asked his audience how many thought it was a good idea to have a woman on the ticket. Loud applause. Then he asked how many thought it was a bad idea. About the same. Then came the punchline: “How many think we should move ahead slowly and start with Boy George?” The premise plays like a parody of the pernicious lies of both-siderism.
While Carson hardly changed over the years, one thing I learned from watching episodes over several decades is that his show definitely did. When I watched Carson’s final years, his interviews always seemed like the product of much rehearsal, mapped out and focused on the promotional business at hand. But when Carson took over from Jack Paar in the 1960s, “The Tonight Show” was an hour and 45 minutes, and for much of the 1970s, it was 90 minutes before settling into an hour. In the early days, with that much time to fill, you can’t plot out every moment, and the show was by necessity looser. In the 1970s (when the desk sat on a shag rug), his conversations with guests were freewheeling, with him frequently pausing to smoke a cigarette. He was more willing to talk at length with Truman Capote about capital punishment or suddenly decide to ask every guest on an episode what they recall about their sixth-grade teacher.
A master of small talk, Carson listened intently, interjecting strategically, livening up an interview by drawing on a seemingly limitless store of canned jokes and even occasionally poems. When actor Orson Bean told a story about someone who cut off an arm, Carson said that reminded him of an old joke about a guy with one finger: “He was a great pickpocket: He only stole key rings.”
But the main reason that Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” is so fascinating today is its guests. Since there was so much less competition back then, he always got the biggest stars in America. On a given episode, you could see Jim Henson, Mel Blanc and Jack Benny together, so you get to hear the original voices of Kermit the Frog and Bugs Bunny on the same couch, in dialogue with the greatest radio comedian ever. Just as newspaper archives provide a first draft of history, Carson’s show provides an evolving portrait of the heights of fame and talent of the moment — in Hollywood but also the comedy clubs.
Seeing Rodney Dangerfield or Steve Martin on the show was guaranteed to be a treat, but there’s also a number of forgotten comics such as Ronnie Shakes who are reminders that the funniest people alive do not always make it big. Long before James Corden brought multiple guests at the same time onto U.S. talk shows, Carson created fascinating moments of interaction, like the time Roger Ebert panned “¡Three Amigos!” sitting next to Chevy Chase, who had just finished promoting it. Carson played the straight man effortlessly, looking just uncomfortable enough to appear polite.
Toward the end of his run, “Saturday Night Live” bitingly satirized Carson in a sketch where Dana Carvey played a version of him trying to stay current by rebranding himself to mimic Arsenio Hall. Struggling to catch up to the times, he called himself Carsenio. In his book “The Late Shift,” Bill Carter reported that Carson was furious at NBC for airing that sketch. And even as a kid, I recall thinking it was merciless. But today I see it a little differently. One reason the joke is funny is that it’s absurd that Carson would try so hard to reinvent himself. Carson’s success was built on an inhuman consistency.
That sounds boring, and perhaps it is. But it’s harder than it looks to pull off, and in stressful times, it can provide soothing comfort to numb yourself before bed.