William Katz: The Tonight Show, part 4

Occasional contributor Bill Katz holds down the fort at Urgent Agenda. Today he continues his series of reminiscences about Johnny Carson and the Tonight Show:

Ed McMahon died in 2009. His death attracted maybe five percent of the attention given to Michael Jackson’s. The reason was clear: It had been 17 years since Ed had last introduced Johnny Carson with “Heeere’s Johnny!” As Johnny himself used to say, “How quickly they forget.” Many kids in college today have probably never heard of Johnny Carson.
But for those of us who were part of Carson’s Tonight Show, Ed’s passing was a time to remember, and to wonder: What made that show so great?
The year 2009, aside from marking Ed’s passing, saw another milestone in the history of “Tonight.” Jay Leno left the show, succeeded by Conan O’Brien.
Not to disparage Jay in any way – he’s a gifted comic and a very nice guy – but Jay’s departure had nowhere near the impact of Johnny’s. Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show was a national institution and Jay’s was not, and it’s as simple as that.
But why was it a national institution? Maybe I can suggest some answers:
First, broad appeal. I was at many meetings with Johnny Carson, and not once, not once, did I hear him speak the word “demographics.” Carson was a showman. He knew what business he was in, and it wasn’t “targeted demographics.” He was there to entertain any member of the public who wanted to tune in, and viewers across the generations did. In his farewell show in 1992, Carson said, “I can only tell you that it has been an honor and a privilege to come into your homes all these years and entertain you…” That was the theme of his career. When he heard the applause he didn’t ask how old the applauding hands were.
Leno’s “Tonight” was entirely different. It was so clearly aimed at the “young demographic” that I sometimes felt like an intruder, a parent peeking in on the children. Yes, Jay was funny, and his political jokes were the equal of Carson’s. But there was a part of America that was missing, which is the central reason why Leno’s Tonight Show could never be the institution that Carson’s was. No one ever said that Jay put America to bed at night. Johnny did that.
The second reason that Johnny’s show was great was the concept of “star.” My, how that idea is diminished today, when wannabes waltz across the screen and are called stars if they speak more than five words. Johnny benefited from having on his roster an army of stars who’d been built and trained by major studios. They knew how to be movie stars.
The “targeted demographic” crowd informs us that only the young are acceptable stars. But I recall the great Tonight Show broadcasts with Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Bette Davis, Jane Wyman, and Rita Hayworth. Now those were stars, dammit. They didn’t talk about their latest experience with Botox. And, like the show itself, they spoke across the generations, and the generations, including the “young demographic,” listened. They entertained a nation.
The third reason for Carson’s greatness was stability. Carson took over “Tonight” from Jack Paar in 1962. He continued for 30 years, through eight presidents, starting with Jack Kennedy and ending with Bill Clinton, a man who, as a teenager, had shaken Kennedy’s hand. Johnny was there through the greatest period of social change in modern American history. And yet, he never seemed to change.
He was our island, our reminder that the nation went on, despite the turmoil and the predictions that the sky was about to fall. He would’ve loved to take down the “global warming” crowd. After all, it was Johnny who’d mention that it was cold outside. Ed would reply, “How cold is it?” Johnny would answer, “It’s so cold that…” Fill it in. Johnny would have had Al Gore in his sights.
And so in 2009 we remembered an institution, now gone, called The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. They don’t do shows like that anymore because the “suits” who took over the business, with their flow charts and bar graphs, don’t understand showmanship, and never will.
Oh, let me close with a Tonight Show story. I see there’s a new film out about Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey Jr. as the great Baker Street sleuth. It reminded me of one of my favorite nights as a Tonight Show pre-interviewer. At my request (I begged, I begged) the show flew over from England one Robert Fabian, the legendary “Fabian of Scotland Yard,” one of England’s most famous detectives. He was retired by then, and I was sure he’d have great stories to tell.
Well, Fabian turned out to be some detective. Sure, he did have some stories to tell. And the best was about the period in 1930 when, as a young cop, he’d patrolled outside the home of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, as Doyle lay dying. Fabian’s job was to make sure no one made any loud noises along the gravel road.
But Inspector Fabian also had some quirks. He was the only guest in the entire history of the Tonight Show who, when he was introduced, walked in the wrong direction – toward the band, not toward Johnny. (I wondered at the time how many clues he might have missed doing that as a detective.)
And, after his stint on the show was done, he made a panicked call from his hotel, telling me he’d lost his trench coat. A detective without a trench coat is like Barack Obama without a teleprompter. We found the coat draped over a chair in our office.
And Fabian’s cure for the crime wave then gripping America? “The cat,” he said, meaning the whip. I’d have liked to see him go after Al Qaeda.
Another evening on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, a national institution.

The previous installments of Bil’s reflections on the Tonight Show can be accessed here (part 1), here (part 2) and here (part 3).

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