Johnny Carson, who died this morning at the age of 79, devoted most of his adult life to that most ephemeral of endeavors, hosting a late-night talk show. I must have seen several hundred episodes of The Tonight Show in my lifetime, and I even went out of my way to watch the last one, yet I doubt I’ve thought of Carson more than once or twice in the thirteen years since he retired, just as I doubt that anyone now alive can quote from memory anything he said on any subject whatsoever.
By an odd coincidence, I happened to see a clip from The Tonight Show last night, on stage at the Acorn Theatre, where the New Group is reviving David Rabe’s Hurlyburly, a play set in Hollywood in the early Eighties. In the last scene, Ethan Hawke watches TV as he snorts all the cocaine he can cram up his nose, and it’s Carson that he watches, ranting wildly all the while. It startled me to hear again the once-familiar theme song and Ed McMahon’s stentorian Heeeeeere’s…Johnny!, yet a moment later I asked myself, How many people in this theater recognize the man on the screen? Not many, I fear.
Strange, then, to think that Carson was once one of the most powerful people in show business, that he could make (or break) careers, that his quips were quoted constantly, at least in the first years of his tenure. He gradually lost interest in The Tonight Show, appearing less and less frequently and to steadily diminishing effect, and in his last few seasons he bordered on self-caricature. Not that there’d ever been much to parody: his comedy routines were dullish, his charmingly casual manner too slender a reed to support vivid impersonation. My parents’ generation recalls Steve Allen and Jack Paar, his predecessors, in a way they don’t and won’t recall Carson, partly because TV was still something of a novelty back then but mostly because they were so much more idiosyncratic as personalities, Paar in particular. What’s more, they took chances, something Carson never did. He always played it safe.
The obits are being written now, the TV retrospectives being readied for tonight’s newscasts, and I’m sure they’ll be properly sentimental and respectful. I might even tune in NBC, his old network, to see what they have to offer. But probably not: I’m increasingly disinclined to wallow in nostalgia about nothing, which is what will be on tap for the next couple of days. And after that? A fast fade to black, I expect. American popular culture is cruel and brutal when it comes to the immediate past: it respects only extreme youth, and has no time for the day before yesterday.
All of which somehow makes me feel sorry for Johnny Carson. I wonder what he thought of his life’s work? Or how he felt about having lived long enough to disappear into the memory hole? At least he had the dignity to vanish completely, retreating into private life instead of trying to hang on to celebrity by his fingernails. Perhaps he knew how little it means to have once been famous.