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The Last American Fireplace
Hartley Pleshaw  

Johnny Carson’s first job in show business was as a magician; in a sense, he never stopped being one. He was a television host with the same format, in the same time slot, with the same network, with top ratings and demographics, for thirty years. If there’s a word other than “magic” to describe that kind of career, I have yet to find it.

What was perhaps most extraordinary about Johnny Carson was just how ordinary he was. He was not particularly innovative or creative; he was no Lenny Bruce, Ernie Kovacs or Peter Sellers.

The Carson show style was even somewhat anachronistic. Ed McMahon was the last of his breed, the “professional announcer” from the bygone radio days of  Don Wilson, Ben Grauer or Gabriel Heatter. Doc Severinsen (and, before him, Skitch Henderson and Milton DeLugg) continued to blast out big band jazz some forty years after rock supplanted jazz as America’s premiere form of pop music.

Even in his field, Carson was a curiously neutral figure. Steve Allen was more creative, Jack Paar more provocative, Dick Cavett more cerebral, Merv Griffin more emotive, Mike Douglas and Art Linkletter more sentimental, David Susskind and William F. Buckley more serious.

But Carson triumphed over them all. No one, and nothing, could touch him. His “ordinariness” was the likely reason for his fantastic success.

In terms of both style and substance, Johnny Carson was the perfect mirror of America. By combining Midwestern humility with bi-coastal sophistication, he became the televised, late-20th Century Mark Twain or Will Rogers: America’s master Master of Ceremonies.

Carson understood he had to keep America awake, but also not send it to bed tossing and turning. He wanted to cause neither trouble nor boredom. He had to keep his audiences (studio and otherwise) in New York and Los Angeles laughing, but not at the same time alienate that small bit of America between Manhattan and Hollywood. (Through it all, he never forgot his Nebraska origins.) A dyed-in-the-wool whitebread, he nonetheless meshed well with the urban ethnic sensibility of so many of his guests (particularly the comedians and the musicians).

Ed Ames’s tomahawk malfunction not only gave Carson his biggest laugh, it also defined him, and made his reputation. Another host might have panicked, or vulgarized it to death. But Johnny Carson knew exactly what to do when a harmless routine turned into television’s most famous (if—it being 1964—unintentional) visualization of castration. He played it cool and hip (the Nebraska boy said to Ames, “I didn’t even know you were Jewish!”): hilariously outrageous, but inoffensive. (His nightly monologues would forever follow suit.) The tomahawk incident thus confirmed Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show as America’s Cultural Crossroad.

Carson mastered the art of the Acceptable Risk. Ed Ames lost control of his tomahawk, and Joan Embry’s and Jim Fowler’s animals often lost control of their bodily functions, but Johnny Carson never lost control of anything. No small feat in the times in which he ruled.

Johnny Carson was perhaps the only television personality—or public figure of any consequence—to emerge from the 1960’s unbroken and unbowed. It was no accident or coincidence.

A visit by liberal politician John Lindsay would quickly be followed by one from conservative Ronald Reagan. During one particularly rough week during the Vietnam War, a performance by anti-war singer Joan Baez would be swiftly followed by one from the pro-war Bob Hope. During one of his “crusades,” Billy Graham denounced “the street-corner vulgarity” of TV talk shows; shortly thereafter, Graham appeared on Carson. When Carson did his trademark golf swing at the end of each monologue, there was no question where the ball went: straight down the middle of the fairway.

Indeed, the only major change during the three decades of the Carson show was its location. After spending the ‘60’s in New York, Carson moved the show to Hollywood; by that time, he himself was a bigger star than anyone already there. Gone were the discoveries from the New York cabaret scene (e.g., Woody Allen, Barbara Streisand and Bette Midler) and literary world (e.g., Jimmy Breslin, George Plimpton and Truman Capote), but if Carson turned his show into a Hollywood infomercial, few seemed to mind. For good or bad, as much as anyone, Johnny Carson created the post-1960’s American celebrity culture.

In the end, Johnny Carson’s greatest legacy will likely be that of his status as the last unifying force for all of America, before the tyranny of demographics shattered the national consensus. No one, in show business, politics or any other field, ever connected with America better, or longer. Johnny Carson served as the Last Great American Fireplace.

The TV talk show remains, but with Johnny Carson gone, there will be No More to Come.  

 

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Prior Columns by Hartley Pleshaw