May 22, 1992, began like most late May days usually do in Malibu. Fog shrouded the coastline. The sun rose at 5:48. Johnny Carson rose about an hour later. He walked across the street to his tennis court at 9:25. A reporter padded alongside.
“How does it feel?”
Carson may have recoiled, or may have smiled — the precise reaction has been lost to posterity. “Pretty strange,” he said.
In 10 hours he would wrap his 4,532nd edition of “The Tonight Show” — his last — and then disappear forever. But “Tonight” went on. The short history since then: Carson’s successor, Jay Leno, left in 2009, Conan O’Brien took over, Leno returned in 2010, was replaced by Jimmy Fallon in 2014. Fallon and “Tonight” now regularly lose to a rival show and host that eviscerate President Donald Trump on a nightly basis.
Pretty strange indeed.
Twenty-five years ago Monday, the country said goodbye to arguably the purest entertainer television had ever created. For 30 years he had done that spry two-step as the curtain parted, and he acknowledged the rapturous applause. For 30 years, Ed McMahon bowed to him on the left side of the stage, Doc Severinsen on the other, while a succession of many thousands of guests paid their respects.
With Carson gone, viewers then shopped. Some stuck with Leno. Others went to David Letterman. Cracks in the habit widened further: Jon Stewart attracted a crowd, then Jimmy Kimmel on ABC. More cracks: Stephen Colbert arrived, Bill Maher, too, later O’Brien (on TBS), Samantha Bee and Trevor Noah.
Twenty-five years later, most late-night viewers are out for blood, or at least comic catharsis.
How would Carson (who died in 2005) feel now? Pretty strange or pretty alienated. It’s even conceivable he’d struggle as a late-night host. The game has changed that much.
Carson’s enduring success was partly the result of perfect timing — his own, and NBC’s. Over most of the three-decade run, there were just three networks, and two had largely conceded late night to NBC. Johnny ran the table, but that didn’t mean he was about to upend it either. Political jokes were safe, nearly apolitical. Richard Nixon became fodder only when it became obvious he was already toast. Jokes about Ronald Reagan’s faulty memory or genial cluelessness were about as far as Carson would go.
In an interview with Rolling Stone on the 15th anniversary, he explained that Vice President Spiro Agnew was an easy target when no one really knew who he was, but “when he became the voice of so-called middle America, all of a sudden the jokes were not particularity funny. When he fell into disfavor, then people would buy the caustic material. Same thing with Nixon.”
Carson knew exactly what middle America would accept. He was middle America.
By disposition and temperament, Johnny Carson was a sphinx, or as Orson Welles once told a writer, “he’s the only invisible talk host.” He seemed to exist only for those 60 minutes each weekday, then vanish into the ether. “What made you a star?” he was once asked. “I started out in a gaseous state, and then I cooled,” he famously replied.
What did Carson really think about off-camera? What did he feel? Who knew? He wasn’t about to tell.
In a classic New Yorker profile on the occasion of the 15th anniversary, Carson told English theater critic Kenneth Tynan, “I don’t want to get into big debates [on the show] about abortion, homosexuality, prostitution, and so forth. Not because I’m afraid of them but because we all know the arguments on both sides, and they’re circular. The fact is that TV is probably not the ideal place to discuss serious issues. It’s much better to read about them.”
Johnny Carson was comfort food for a nation, a reassuring presence when reassurance was needed, or when an easy laugh was. Night after night, year after year (then decade following decade) the routine hardly varied, the jokes mostly palatable. (“If life was fair, Elvis would be alive and all the impersonators would be dead”). His self-deprecation bound him to us. His effortless recovery from a failed joke as routine as the familiar golf swing. He made people feel good. He still does (you can watch him in repeat on Antenna TV weeknights at 10).
The sun will still come up this morning in Malibu. But everything else — everyone else — has changed. Pretty strange. Maybe just a little bit sad, too.