As we approach the twentieth anniversary of the last epsiode of "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson," our brothers over at Powerline have posted a reminiscence of Carson by Bill Katz, one of the "Tonight Show" producers.
I myself always enjoyed Carson, and I was always grateful that he permitted his head writer, Ray Siller (who became, and remains, one of my best friends) to send jokes to us speechwriters in the Reagan White House--nothing like some professional humor to enliven a draft. But I confess that I'd never thought of Carson as much more than an especially adept entertainer. Katz has persuaded me otherwise. Johnny Carson mattered.
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....
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....
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.
Johnny Carson entertained an America that believed in itself.