Current Late-Night Comedy Hellscape Keeps My Memories of Johnny Carson Alive

Douglas C. Pizac

Next month, it will be 31 years since The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson aired its farewell episode. We all knew that Carson was irreplaceable. Greatly modified expectations got late-night fans through the first several years after Carson retired. The Jay Leno/David Letterman succession mess really threw a dark cloud over the beginning of the post-Carson era.


It is well known that Carson wanted Letterman to replace him. Personally, I always thought that Dave was too quirky for the Tonight Show audience. Heck, I thought he was too quirky for that time slot, but he proved me wrong on that one.

Because Leno and Letterman had already been on television so much, there was a familiarity that helped. They weren’t Johnny Carson, but the late-night genre didn’t implode when he signed off for good.

That was still a couple of decades off.

Even though I was a relatively young man when Carson retired, I had been watching him for a very long time. My paternal grandparents were night owls. Whenever I was visiting Tucson (I bounced around a lot when I was a kid) and at their house, they’d let me stay up late to watch Carson (people rarely called it The Tonight Show). It wasn’t too late. The show aired at 10:30 PM here, an hour earlier than most of the country. I think I was about nine or ten when they first began letting me do this. It was a show that I grew up with.

When I moved back to Tucson, I went to a Catholic high school, so my friends and I were scattered all over town. One of my friends and I would sometimes watch Carson together while on the phone. Maybe not the whole show, but at least the monologue, which was the original “Must See TV.”


Sadly, late-night comedy has now deteriorated into a series of leftist infomercials. Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, and Jimmy Fallon are just looking to get applause breaks for scoring political points. Fallon resisted for a while but was finally shamed into becoming a shill for the Democrats. James Corden didn’t do politics on The Late Late Show, but his tenure there (which wrapped up this week) took the show in a direction that just didn’t do much for me.

As regular readers of my Morning Briefing know, I’m a belated fan of Craig Ferguson’s years as host of The Late Late Show, which I am discovering thanks to YouTube. Ferguson had that young Letterman goofy energy and he never, ever took himself too seriously.

Greg Gutfeld still has a good time doing his thing on the Fox News Channel, but who knows what’s going to happen at the network after what went down with Tucker Carlson this week. Gutfeld’s success is all the more stunning given the HUGE disparity in overall audience size between cable and the Big Three networks. It’s a real David and Goliath ratings story.

It’s the dismal late-night fare from the Big Three that prompted me to write this though. As someone who grew up watching The Tonight Show, I still wish it was good. The fall from Carson to Fallon, however, is so precipitous that using the name feels like fraud.


The good news is that shows from the Carson years are all over the internet. I watch clips on YouTube. Whole episodes are also available on ad-supported streaming services like Amazon’s FreeVee and Tubi.

Yes, the experience can be bittersweet, especially when watching episodes that are filled with guests who I was a fan of growing up and realize that nobody on the panel is alive anymore.

Having an easily accessible reminder of just how good Carson was makes Colbert, Fallon, and Kimmel look that much worse.

Carson would do the occasional political joke, but he never let his personal politics be known because he didn’t want to alienate his audience. The Big Three late-night hosts deliberately seek to alienate conservatives. It’s pathetic and probably unsustainable. One thing’s for certain: there won’t be anybody binge-watching old clips of theirs 30 years after they’ve retired.

Even though it’s all Memory Lane stuff, I’m actually watching more Carson now than I did for the last five years he was on the air. I was doing stand-up all over the country then and was often at the clubs too late to catch the show. Those were the VHS days, so I wasn’t recording stuff at home when I was away for a week or two.

Johnny Carson’s legacy is such that people might be watching his stuff online another 30 years from now. I like having a platform to keep posting old Tonight Show clips to remind everyone how brilliant he was. I also hope some younger people will become aware of him along the way.


Kimmel, Colbert, and Fallon might want to give the old stuff a look and find out that they’re just not doing it right.

I will leave you with a clip of Carson and Don Rickles that originally aired in March of 1976. Caution: you can really lose a lot of time just watching the Rickles appearances on The Tonight Show. Even the bad ones are good.

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