Tuesday, February 01, 2005


By the time I was old enough to stay up and watch "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" it was already a long-established paragon of television. But it wasn't that great to me--when I was younger the humor didn't make sense to me, the host smoked frequently (seems he was always putting down a cigarette as they came back from a commercial) and honestly, Ed McMahon was frightening with his tinted prescription glasses and slicked back hair. As I got older and spent most late nights watching "Saturday Night Live" and "Monty Python"--as well as the local "Nostagia Theater" (with its cartoon, serial chapter and main feature) the random viewing of "The Tonight Show" was almost embarrassing. It seemed like something older people that were lonely and pathetic watched; the hip and cool were not even watching TV at that hour. The show felt like a gathering of dirty old men, with Johnny the cornfed ringleader. His guests were just as lecherous and it felt like they'd reached their zenith ten or twenty years before--people like Don Rickles, Buddy Hackett and Phyllis Diller. I wondered if my parents' parties were like the show, but didn't want to find out.

But the death of Carson the other day is sad for a lot of reasons. He did establish late-night talk shows as a viable concern. He did manage to introduce a new generation of entertainers to the populace (though, just as some of the comedians on Letterman's show seem way out there compared to him, Carson seemed square compared to his guests). And his life post-television should be a model for every has-been that hopes to make a comeback when they were never "there" in the first place: Carson walked away from his show and didn't show his face much ever again. And I really respect him for that.

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