PBS featured Johnny Carson on its American Masters series last night. There is nothing like a look back to show you how much better things were in the past. You compare what Johnny was doing in the 60's, 70's and 80's to what passes for late night TV now--and it is no contest.
Johnny was obviously a better joke teller than any of today's hosts. David Letterman has never been comfortable doing standup--and for years treated the monologue as a joke--knowing the better part of his show was in the skits, the Top Ten List and Dave just being an all-around grouch. Meanwhile, Jay Leno tries too hard to make every joke work and the rest of the guys just aren't that funny (I'm talking to you Jimmy Fallon).
Carson was also the master interviewer--allowing guests to actually answer questions--rather than jump in on them to say something funny and steal the laugh. Watch the late night hosts now and see how many of them can't let a guest finish more than three sentences without cutting them off or trying to change the subject. That is definitely a lost art today--conversation.
Johnny also preferred to take gentle jabs at his celebrity and political targets--rather than turn his monologue into a ten minute advertisement for the party or candidate of his choice. The Daily Show and the Colbert Report are funny--but you know going in that you aren't going to hear a lot of attacks on Democrats--and that Republicans will always be portrayed as bigoted, ignorant and greedy. As one of the talking heads pointed out last night, you had no idea what Johnny's political alliances were--because he took both parties out behind the woodshed.
My best memories last night weren't any specific skit or joke or celebrity guest. For me, last night's documentary took me back to Friday nights at my Grandparents house, where my Grandma and I would stay up to watch Johnny. (Funny thing, the show's name was the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson--but nobody called it "The Tonight Show"--it was either "Carson" or "Johnny"). Amazingly, a woman in her seventies and boy in his pre-teen years could each find something to laugh about on the show--yet another mark of Carson's genius. I also thought back to watching Johnny's annual prime-time anniversary show with my Mom--the two of us laughing until we had tears running down our cheeks and our sides hurt.
I have to admit that I moved away from Johnny toward the end of his TV career. I was part of that generation that flocked to Late Night With David Letterman--lured in by the edgier comedy and the much more irreverent approach to television. I did come back right at the end as Johnny celebrated his long good-bye. That final show was actually the only time a Bette Midler appearance didn't make me change to another channel immediately.
I think we all knew back then that when Johnny was gone it wouldn't be the same. I guess we didn't realize just how much we would actually miss his magic.