On Jan. 23 I was in my study writing when my son came in to tell me Johnny Carson had died. Any thoughts of putting more words down on paper stopped at that moment. I went to the Web and for the rest of the day read stories on his life and death and watched clips from The Tonight Show. My eyes were watered with tears.
Now, here we are in March and my mind still wanders back to him. Most people at CityBeat are pretty young and, while they know of Johnny, they don't really know what he was about. I asked Hannah, our front-desk person, if she knew who Tiny Tim was. The ukulele-playing, stringy, longhaired pop singer was a frequent guest of Johnny's; he married Miss Vickie on The Tonight Show in 1969. Hannah said, "Tiny who?"
I shouldn't be surprised at this, yet I am.
My young co-workers have no idea the impact that Johnny and his guests had on some of us baby boomers — me in particular.
The late 1960s and early 70s: Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. So had Robert Kennedy. The assassinations shocked me. I was a young college student working at an office equipment store downtown to help pay the bills. I had moved from a small farm in East Enterprise, Ind. and was trying to get used to city life. The Vietnam War was at its height and social unrest in this country was manifesting. I was afraid of being drafted. I was scared and overwhelmed most of the time.
But come 11:30 at night, I could relax a little. Johnny would be on television to entertain me. His monologue would sometimes bring up current events, but he never tackled the serious issues like war or assassinations. That was fine with me. He was there to simply make me laugh and to give me an escape from all the hell going on in the world.
I got older, got used to city life and got married and had a family. Of course, the hell in the world never stopped — one thing replaced another — but Johnny never stopped either. During Watergate and the horrible Reagan years, he continued to make me laugh with Carnac the Magnificent, the Mighty Carson Art Players or his monologues, which — even when they bombed — still worked. It was always a hoot to watch Johnny's facial expressions while trying to worm his way out of a bad joke.
As I continued to get older and as my family and job responsibilities increased, it simply became difficult to stay up late, but I would always try to at least catch his monologue and the next bit after that before he started to bring out guests. If Joan Embery from the San Diego Zoo were going to be on with some animals, then my going to bed early was called off, because Johnny was hysterical with them.
For almost 30 years he got me through some pretty difficult times simply by making me and millions of others laugh. It was no small gift and I didn't even see the end that was coming.
But it did come. Johnny retired from The Tonight Show in 1992, and I was there watching with a lump in my throat. I thought surely he would come back in some way, do something else. But except for writing a few magazine articles and slipping jokes to Letterman on occasion, he never did.
A few weeks ago my son downloaded a couple hours of "best of" Carson clips for me and I asked him if he thought they were funny. "I laughed my ass off," he said. That made me feel good. If a 20-year-old thinks Johnny is funny, then maybe I should educate some of my co-workers on what they've missed. Or maybe I'm overreacting. Maybe "out with the old, in with the new" is how it should be.
Late night television has changed since Johnny left. I kind of like David Letterman and think Conan O'Brien should replace Jay Leno right now (Why wait five years?). But for the most part, I've given up staying up late. Most of the new bleed of talk show hosts wants to tackle the serious issues in the world. I'm just not up for that, because I'm all too aware that the hell continues. One thing still replaces another.
The war in Iraq continues. Osama bin Laden is still on the loose. We're stuck with four more years of Bush. North Korea has nuclear weapons and, Lord help us all, Martha Stewart has just been released from prison.
I say a reluctant goodnight, Johnny. I sure could use you now.