Bill Katz: He won’t be right back

Occasional contributor Bill Katz holds down the fort at Urgent Agenda. Bill is a man of many parts, a few of which go back to his days as a producer on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Bill writes to mark the twentieth anniversary of the last show with Johnny:

Tuesday will mark the 20th anniversary of Johnny Carson’s last show. There will be appropriate commemorations and notices. Already, PBS’s American Masters series has aired a two-hour remembrance.

But why? Why should we care? The man was a late-night host. He never appeared in a movie or had a hit record. He retired two decades ago. He died seven years ago. Most kids in college today never saw him. Those who did couldn’t possibly remember him. Many have never heard of him. What was the name of his group?

Those in the press who do remember will haul out the usual tributes: He was an institution. He was one of a kind. He was a funny man with a dark side. He set the standard. We won’t see his like again. His retirement marked the end of an era. You can add to the list.

And yet we recall him with warmth and fondness.

As some readers may know, I worked for The Tonight Show during its golden Carson years, and attended many meetings with Johnny. Maybe I can provide a bit of additional insight as to why so many people are noting this anniversary of his retirement.

Johnny Carson was great, and is remembered, because he was national. He was one of the few last entertainers who understood that he was speaking to an entire nation. Not once in all the meetings I attended did I ever hear Johnny use the word “demographics.” Not once. He appealed across generations. The old laughed, the young laughed. His successors, who surely bring their own talents, direct their attentions mostly to the “young demographic.” If you feel left out, you feel correctly. If you’re not in that young demographic, they just don’t care.

Today we are in an age where Hollywood, guided by the trendies in the intellectual and collegiate worlds, divides the nation into groups and sub-groups. Our national motto, “E pluribus unum” – “Out of many, one” – has been turned around. In Hollywood it’s now, “Out of one, many.” That was never Carson’s way, and the nation loved him for it.

Many say that Johnny did political humor, but he really didn’t. He did “politician” humor, poking fun at the gents with titles in front of their names, but never getting seriously involved in issues. To this day I don’t know whether he was a Democrat or a Republican, or neither. He never championed causes on the show. I don’t think he ever did standup in a coffee house or a comedy club. There were no fundraisers at Johnny’s home in Bel Air.

For Johnny never saw The Tonight Show as a talk show. He always reminded us that it was a variety show. The purpose of the talk was entertainment.

The interview notes he used, based on pre-interviews that the staff had conducted with guests, always contained zingers provided by our writers, typed in red print, for Johnny to toss in to keep things light.

Occasionally we’d get the sober cause seeker and savior to the world – the folksinger Buffy St. Marie comes to mind – but such types rarely became regular guests.

Johnny went through the sixties, seventies, and eighties, but we identify him with none of those decades. He was a national comedian who worked over the years, through convulsive change, but never went out of fashion.

He felt there was honor in giving people a few hours of good entertainment. He revered Jack Benny, who had the same attitude.

Nor did Johnny’s retirement end an era. That is nonsense. It is very rare that the departure of one person ends an era. Yes, we can say that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death in 1945 ended the Roosevelt era, but he’d been elected president four times. The Victorian era in England ended with Victoria’s death, but she had lasted the better part of a century.

Eras end when a number of key people pass, and when a cultural definition of a time or nation fades away. We could just as easily say that Frank Sinatra’s death in 1998 ended an era, or Dean Martin’s in 1995. Or Elizabeth Taylor’s or Steve Jobs’s just recently. Or Ronald Reagan’s in 2004. Each, in his or her own way, was as defining as Johnny, in Reagan’s case more so.

But consider this: When Johnny retired in 1992, the youngest serviceman to have fought in World War II would have been about 64. Today that service member, if still with us, is 84.

That’s the era that’s passing – the era of our protectors, of heroes, of an America that believed in itself. And I think, subliminally, we identify Johnny Carson with that era. He was one of the last of the great entertainers to have served in World War II. (So had Ed McMahon.) He had, in effect, signed up for his generation’s call.

He was one of the most disciplined men I’ve ever met…if only in his work habits. If we were in the middle of a staff meeting at a certain point in the afternoon, he’d look at his watch and say, “I’ve got to do the monologue.” And he’d get up and leave. Just a few hours later we’d be taping, and all we’d see on Johnny’s cue cards were key phrases. He’d memorized the jokes. He only needed a few reminders.

He took seriously the very tough business of comedy. If you don’t think it’s hard, try making someone laugh for an hour, intentionally, and with your clothes on. Then do it five nights a week.

It would be almost impossible to sum up Johnny’s legacy in a glib phrase. But if I had to, I’d say that no one in Johnny Carson’s audience ever felt excluded. I don’t know where his soul now resides. But I can assure you that, wherever Johnny is, he’s not worrying about how to appeal to the “young demographic.”

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