Thursday, January 23, 2020

Quote of the Day (Johnny Carson, on ‘Serious Issues')

“Tell me the last time Jack Benny, Red Skelton, any comedian used his show to do serious issues. That’s not what I’m there for. Can’t they see that? Why do they think since you have a Tonight Show, you will deal with serious issues? That’s a real danger. Once you start that, you start to get that self-important feeling. . . and you could use that show to sway people. And I don’t think you should as an entertainer.”—American talk-show host Johnny Carson (1925-2005), interview with Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes, Sept. 23, 1979

These days, the late-night talk-show realm is divided into multiple kingdoms like Game of Thrones—not just Stephen, Jimmy and Jimmy, but Conan, Samantha, Trevor, John, Seth, James and God knows who else. But from 1962 to 1992, there was really only one “King of the Night”—Johnny Carson

Nobody has equaled his hold on the audience’s affection since then—including Jay Leno and David Letterman, presumptive dynastic heirs who fought for his approval upon his retirement.

Carson, who died 15 years ago on this date at age 79 of emphysema, was awfully complicated offstage, as demonstrated on the American Masters special in his honor several years ago. But in front of an audience, his insecurity somehow melted away. Few comedians have given so many so much pleasure for so long with so little falloff in effectiveness.

At his height, Carson’s audience numbered 17.3 million viewers—more than Leno and Letterman combined at their zenith. He easily fended off rival claimants to his throne, including Merv Griffin, Joan Rivers, and the younger, hipper Dick Cavett and Arsenio Hall. 
Why hasn’t anyone approached Carson’s iconic status among today’s talk-sbow hosts? True, multiple viewing formats has encouraged more diverse watching habits, not to mention more intense competition. But I think Carson strongly hinted at the reason in the passage from the 60 Minutes interview quoted above.

I’m not sure that his viewers could have identified Carson’s political party. That allowed him wide latitude to go after Democrats and Republicans alike. When he did turn on a politico, the jab would not only land solidly but stagger the recipient. (Think of his “Governor Moonbeam” nickname for Jerry Brown.) By holding back on what he revealed to his audience—something that came readily to him—he did not have to worry, as so many of his successors must now, of being dismissed as partisan and/or elitist.

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