Whoooooooo's Johnny?

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The change in the booking patterns of The Tonight Show was inevitable. The reduction of the Tonight slot from 90 mins. to 60 meant something had to go: authors and opera. Pop and rock ruled the charts (though Carson was never comfortable with hard rockers). As for the 1972 move to L.A. — well, no, Southern California isn't a cultural wasteland, and there were airplanes even then to bring the culturati out west. But it's a company town, whose main products are movies and TV shows. The choice between, say, Joan Collins and Joan Sutherland was no choice at all.

Carson was willing to cede the class audience to PBS, as long as the mass stayed with him. And they did. It was a Q.E.D. of his own maxim: "People will pay more to be entertained than educated."

"We work from the morning papers, and sometimes the audience isn't yet aware of what's happened in the news." —Carson to Kenneth Tynan, 1977

It's a truism worth repeating: Carson's nightly monologue helped set the nation's political and social agenda. The credit given to CBS anchor Walter Cronkite, in turning America against the Vietnam War with the raising of an editorial eyebrow now and then on his nightly news show, is more appropriately Johnny's. When he made jokes about solemn topics like Vietnam, Watergate, errant Senators or TV evangelists, he enabled the audience to laugh the problem away. Presidents too. In one of his Carnac routines, where he played a swami who can divine the questions to answers he read from cards kept in a hermetically sealed jar since noon today on Funk & Wagnall's porch, the answer was: "A tongue, teeth and a foot." And the question: "What's inside Ronald Reagan's mouth?"

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Carson made TIME's cover in 1967

If Carson can be said to have crucially tweaked popular opinion on one subject, it would be New York City, his base of operations since 1957. ("New York is an exciting town where something is happening all the time, mostly unsolved.") A near-nightly barrage of jokes about the city's crime rate, corruption and all-round filth began in 1964, with the Kitty Genovese story: a woman, attacked and murdered in Kew Garden, Queens, got no help from the dozens who supposedly witnessed the assault. It mattered not that many particulars of the story were false, or that in 1964 New York, also a prime target for Republican barbs about urban atrocities, enjoyed a lower murder rate than, say, Phoenix, the home town of G.O.P. Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.

The anti-New York gibes escalated throughout the decade and beyond. Finally, in 1972, Carson moved himself and his show to Los Angeles. The reason, from today's vantage point, is simple: he had found his perfect roost, his natural circle — a star among stars. Back then, though, to New Yorkers, it seemed less that he had left us than that he had abandoned us. Johnny to City: Drop Dead.

You could cite the Carson monologue, when it took a stand, any stand, as evidence of a cleansing chutzpah, for he called powerful politicians and the nation's largest city to task with a wit much more corrosive than Will Rogers' a half-century before. Or you could say that Carson's monologues, making equal and indiscriminate merriment of movie stars and statesmen, Super Train and Three Mile Island, Cat Stevens and Kitty Genovese, reduced all current events to showbiz — that when everything was refracted through the prism of set-up and punch line, nothing was worth taking seriously.

This tendency devolved, six years after Carson's departure, into the late-night boys' reaction to Monicagate — a dirty joke that led to an impeachment. (Letterman developed a naked obsession with Clinton jokes; he was demanding new ones from his writers years after Clinton left the White House.) The host-comics were finally shocked out of their terminal facetiousness by the terror attacks on the World Trade Center. For a couple of years after that, they played by President Bush's rules, and kept the looming war in Iraq off-limits for prickly criticism. (Excepting, always exception, Jon Stewart and the fearless, salubrious "Daily Show.") They should have asked themselves: why we can't satirize Bush as we did Clinton?

Carson proclaimed that he was a nonpartisan mocker. But to replay his monologues in the mind is to hear what would today be called a liberal voice. "In the monologue, Johnny will attack malfeasance, illiberal behavior, constitutional abuse," Carson producer Fred de Cordova told Tynan: "But then compassion sets in. He was the first person to stop doing anti-Nixon jokes." And of the characters Carson occasionally assumed, the one clearly meant to be ridiculed was Floyd Turbo, the right-wing gun nut. Carson embodied, with his usual diffidence, the starched, unemphatic, indeed implicit liberalism common to hosts of the day.

The trouble was that, over the years, Carson's monologues retained their level of topical sophistication, while his studio audiences grew duller, less attuned to the issues he ridiculed. Not that Johnny was ever Mort Sahl or Will Durst, but his remarks demanded a certain savvy of his listeners regarding the news of the day — savvy the visitors to Burbank didn't always possess. (He should have had Stewart's well-read audience.) To make a topical joke, he was thus obliged to lace the set-up with a brief civics lesson, explaining who the malefactors were and how they'd screwed up; only then could he get to the punch line. Some critics charged Carson with contributing to the dumbing of America; in fact, he wasn't the perp but the victim. At times, he was too hip for his own room.

By the end, during the last year when Carson had long since announced his impending retirement, the star got his biggest cheers not during the monologue but when he walked onstage; the crowd came not for comedy but for celebrity spectacle. Carson would make three state visits a week, and the audience responded like tourists at Buckingham Palace. Leno has turned his entrance at the beginning of the show into a hand-slapping, mandatory-standing-O ritual, as if he were a pop-star Pope. The cheers for Letterman last nearly as long, and so predictably that, between the announcement of tonight's guests and the host's first joke, any viewer can reliably take a bathroom break and miss nothing but the rote acclaim.

"You know, when you die, we're not gonna do this for you." —Drew Carey to Leno, on last night's hour-long Tonight Show tribute to Carson

Leno, a very funny standup comic before he got a desk job, built his rep on a kind of lunchpail liberalism, expressed in a wry exasperation that escalated to outrage, possibly mock, possibly not, in his 6-min. spot. That, anyway, was the persona he created in the early 80s — though on Letterman's show, not on Carson's, where he was persona non grata for a few years. (A clip of Leno's maiden appearance on Carson offers a hint why: he's wearing a wide-lapeled olive green atrocity, from the house of Calvin Klutz, and sporting as close to an Afro as someone of Italian-Scots ancestry could grow.) When Leno, after winning over the The Tonight Show naysayers, sat in for Carson as guest host, he became an equal-opportunity detractor, as if to demonstrate he was now ready for post-primetime.

But Johnny's ratings were still high, his advertising revenue higher, his status as a TV legend secure. Those shoes were bigger than Bob Lanier's — who, if anyone, could fill them? He had an answer: "Who could follow Carson? Well, believe me, somebody can — and will." Leno had been designated permanent guest host in 1987; when he was subbing, the show's ratings had often matched or surpassed Carson's, and with higher viewership in the 18-to-49 age group that advertisers drool to reach.

Carson may have preferred to lay hands on Letterman, whose 12:35 show followed his, and who, when Carson threatened to quit Tonight in 1980, had been mentioned as most likely to succeed. Dave got the Late Night gig in 1982, and within a few years had the most widely praised show (not just talk show) on TV; he, not Carson or Leno, was the hot topic of conversation; the young people, bless 'em, loved him. Letterman was also more sympatico to Carson, and vice versa. Another Midwesterner (as also were Cavett and Mike Douglas), the Indianapolis native had revered Carson from childhood, when he'd watch Johnny get laughs by toying with contestants on Who Do You Trust? As he told TIME in 1982: "There was one guy who balanced a lawnmower on his chin — quite a booking coup — and Carson just made fun of him. I thought, 'What a great way to make a living!'"

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