Friday February 7th, 2014 – Island Lake, IL
Jay Leno’s tenure has ended as host of The Tonight Show, but the only thing that pops into my mind is the amazing run Johnny Carson had. Nobody will ever again come close to the incredible dominance that Johnny achieved, and maintained for thirty years. Today’s world is not the same.
Just as Cy Young’s record of 522 pitching victories will never be threatened much less broken, Johnny’s impact on late night television carries the same enormous presence. Everyone after him will forever be compared, and they’ll lose – especially by those of us who watched him firsthand.
I remember sneaking out of bed as a kid when I was supposed to be sleeping and turning on the TV to see the comedians Johnny would introduce. It was a thrill to be up when I wasn’t supposed to be, and then in the summer when I could stay up I’d watch the whole show almost every night.
This took place over years, as it did with millions of other Americans. He was truly the king of late night TV, mainly because there was no real competition. Today there are not only too many actual shows competing, but that pesky little internet tosses a few ice cubes on the fire as well.
We’re all scattered more than ever, but Johnny came along at a time when the rich got richer to the point of ridiculous, and there was nobody else. Charlie Chaplin had that status in movies, but he was way before my time. Johnny is part of my childhood, and millions of others’ too. He’s the standard bearer, and even though he’s been off the air for 22 years he is still held in high esteem.
Earlier this week I finally picked up the controversial biography aptly titled “Johnny Carson” written by Johnny’s former lawyer and cohort Henry ‘Bombastic’ Bushkin. I remember Johnny talking about him in his monologues, but had no idea until way later it was based on a real guy.
I’d heard a lot about the book for a while, and was looking forward to reading it. I really liked the PBS documentary a while back about Johnny, and I thought they were fair with portraying a no holds barred picture of what he was really like. Johnny had human flaws as we all do, but he also was one of the biggest celebrities of the 20th century. He got to go where few others tread.
The book was an easy read, and I thought it was well written. Like with another book I really liked “Ball Four” by Jim Bouton, it stepped on toes because it painted a real picture of someone the public viewed as super human. Mickey Mantle was a human just like Johnny was. Period.
I don’t look any less at Johnny Carson because of his shortcomings, and in fact that makes the whole story more fascinating. We all dream of attaining that kind of status, but it doesn’t promise a care free existence for those precious few that get there. Mickey and Johnny were both troubled to a certain degree, and fell short of where they probably could have been. It adds to their legend.
Jay Leno is completely different than Johnny. I have nothing bad to say about him, and he was absolutely ‘the man’ when it came to standup comedy in the ‘80s. He was the top banana for sure and Jerry Seinfeld was second. Then there was everyone else. That was no small feat, and neither was hosting a network talk show for 22 years. Jay has had a fabulous career, and I don’t think he is done yet. He’ll surface somewhere else, you watch. But no matter what, Johnny’s still on top.
|Jay Leno hosted a successful network television talk show for 22 years. That's no small accomplishment.|
|But to a generation of Americans, Johnny Carson will always be the king.|