Get PJ Media on your Apple

Ed Driscoll

Citizen Carson

April 1st, 2014 - 4:51 pm

Rob Long reviews Johnny Carson, the new book by longtime Carson confidante Henry Buskin, in the latest issue of Commentary:

It’s all gone now, of course. The American television viewer is a silo’ed creature, binge-viewing on cable dramas or watching clips on Hulu—the second screen of the smartphone always there, demanding attention—and with hundreds of channels to choose from, who can blame them? They even have plenty of late-night talk-show choices, too: There are Kimmel fans and Letterman fans and people who claim to be Team Coco, and all those guys do a pretty good job serving their small slice of the late-night audience. But nobody owns it all. Nobody commands an audience the way Johnny Carson did.

That’s why reading Johnny Carson has a slight Sunset Boulevard vibe to it. It’s not just the parade of 1970s celebrities that Bushkin trots out—your Joyce DeWitts, your Tom Snyders, your Sherman Helmsleys—it’s about the kind of man, and the kind of business, that doesn’t really exist anymore. Carson’s successors are either cranky weirdos like Letterman or giggling boys like Conan and Fallon. It’s a very different kind of man who sits in the big chair these days. There’s nothing emotionally remote about Conan O’Brien. Jimmy Kimmel isn’t cool and detached. When David Letterman has a bad day, every single viewer knows it. If anything, the guys who sit at the desk at 11:30 (and later) are all exposed nerves, all beta male, guys who drive their kids to school and show up at soccer games.

And that’s an improvement, of course, for those who live with them and love them. But it somehow makes the job seem less important.

In Sunset Boulevard, when Joe Gillis recognizes Norma Desmond for the first time, he says, “You used to be big.”

“I am big,” she replies. “It’s the pictures that got small.”

In the television business, it’s the opposite. The pictures have gotten huge—some screens are 60 inches across. They just seem small because they have Jimmy Kimmel on them.

I haven’t read Bushkin’s Carson bio yet, but last summer, I re-read on the Kindle King of the Night: The Life of Johnny Carson, Laurence Leamer’s earlier biography. As I wrote at the time:

We think of William Randolph Hearst and the fictional Charles Foster Kane as media tycoons encasing themselves in living mausoleums as old men, but Johnny Carson was basically entombed the minute he was hired by NBC to replace Jack Parr as the host of the Tonight Show, except that we were invited to tune-in and watch every night. As an audience, particularly during the blow-dried bell-bottom polyester lacuna of the 1970s, we were lucky Johnny was as cool as he was, a byproduct of the early 1960s Sinatra, JFK, Miles, Steve McQueen definition of cool, not the Brando/Fonzie primitive angry young greaser definition of the word. When Marshall McLuhan defined television as a cool medium in the mid-1960s, Johnny personified it – both cool and television. Especially the latter half of the equation.

Or as Kenneth Tynan wrote in his epic 22,000-word(!) 1978 New Yorker profile of Johnny Carson, “I once asked a bright young Manhattan journalist whether he could define in a single word what made television different from theatre or cinema. ‘For good or ill,” he said, ‘Carson.’”

But all transactions involve tradeoffs. While Johnny’s net worth soared as the most popular man on the most popular medium of the mid-20th century, Johnny paid a terrible personal price himself.

Today, the rest of us pay the price, now that all of those who made mid-century show business so watchable have left the stage. My home theater includes a Roku box, a Blu-Ray player, Sirius-XM, and all of my CDs, via the Amazon Cloud. It’s all instantly accessible via a few button pushes.

It’s a 21st century bleeding-edge electronic mausoleum for a dead culture.

Comments are closed.

All Comments   (4)
All Comments   (4)
Sort: Newest Oldest Top Rated
T.V. has become such a trashapalooza that I've gone Netflix only, patiently awaiting the day Turner Classic Movies becomes available as an online subscription stream. Culture has become so fragmented that the mass media simply doesn't appeal to folks with specific narrow tastes anymore. I'm done with these new shows about bad people doing bad things in hip and stylish ways. Screw em. Too much to do around the house, anyways.
16 weeks ago
16 weeks ago Link To Comment
Probably not news to Mr. Driscoll or most of his readers, but "American Masters" 2-hour program on Carson is still available in streaming video, and it's superb. http://video.pbs.org/video/2230341415/

I wouldn't say Johnny didn't dance on the edge of weirdness a time or too. Ed McMahon's obsession with the then-just-released movie "Deep Throat" seemed, in the mind of this then-young-teenager, to affect the show's "culture" in interesting ways for a while back then.
16 weeks ago
16 weeks ago Link To Comment
The first talk show host on The Tonight Show was Jack Paar. He was as emotional as they come. Trying to claim that today's hosts are somehow the inferior products of our time - if that's what he's doing - is simply wrong. Carson might have been different from most other talk show hosts but it wasn't because he was active in days gone by.
16 weeks ago
16 weeks ago Link To Comment
"Johnny paid a terrible personal price himself”

Let’s home his fame and wealth comforted. Plenty of people suffer terrible personal prices without either fame or wealth. No biographies are written of them.
16 weeks ago
16 weeks ago Link To Comment
View All

One Trackback to “Citizen Carson”