Friday, January 23, 2015

Comfort Food for the Soul

"It was so hot today that Burger King was singing, 'If you want it your way, cook it yourself.'"

Johnny Carson, 1977

It was 10 years ago today that Johnny Carson died.

And it's been almost 23 years since his last Tonight Show.

Time goes by too fast. Didn't I watch Carson just last night on the Tonight Show? He did another one of his hilarious Carnac the Magnificent routines, followed by a visit from George Carlin and those wonderful animals who visited from southern California zoos.

The Carson show was like the embodiment of Mother Gump's truism. It truly was like a box of chocolates. You never knew what you were going to get. The only thing you could be sure of — about 99% of the time — was that it would be satisfying in that way that comfort food is.

That's what Carson was — comfort food for the soul. If you were going through a rough patch, if you were anxious and couldn't sleep, you could switch on the Carson show, and it was like a visit from an old friend. When the show was over, your anxiety would be gone, and you could sleep through the night. Honest.

One of the things I admired most about Carson was how he interviewed the guests on his show. He understood what all great interviewers have understood — that the best interviews are the ones where the interviewer says very little.

That's easier said than done. I have conducted enough interviews in my life to know that sometimes you have to interview people who don't like to talk. I guess the assumption is that, because of the nature of their line of work, entertainers never tire of talking about themselves. I'm sure that is the case with some, perhaps many, but, in a TV career that spanned 30 years, Carson must have encountered celebrities who were reluctant to talk. Offhand I can't remember any.

That is an indication of how good Carson was. Even with the difficult interview subjects, he made it look easy — so easy that, even after you watch video clips from his Tonight Show career, you can't be sure that any of his subjects were difficult.

But there had to be some. There must have been, human nature being what it is.

Carson was always secure with himself and his talents. Each year, he tended to take off for a couple of weeks to go to England to watch the Wimbledon tournament. Whenever he went on vacation, he arranged for guest hosts to fill in for him. He never ran a repeat of an earlier show. He felt his audience deserved fresh material so, even though he wasn't there, he arranged for someone with talent to fill in for him.

He was always missed when he went on vacation, but people still tuned in because they knew Johnny would leave them in capable hands. Jay Leno was a guest host on the Carson show. So were George Carlin, David Brenner, Richard Belzer, Flip Wilson and Joan Rivers and many others.

It seemed to me that Carson filled the void that was left by the cancellation of the Ed Sullivan Show. Carson and Sullivan co–existed on network television for several years, and my impression, even though I was quite young and we didn't have a TV until I was in elementary school, was that Sullivan continued to be the guy who brought fresh, new talent to the American public. He was the one who gave America its first exposure to Elvis Presley and the Beatles. Carson, meanwhile, tended to stick with the tried and true.

That changed after Sullivan's show was canceled.

Carson probably never had the same kind of impact on American culture that Sullivan did. He didn't introduce the public to anyone who became as influential as Elvis or the Fab Four, but he still did his part to give Americans that exposure to up and coming talent.

We're brought up with the knowledge — the expectation — that everything dies. Some folks decide that, for whatever reason, they will be the exception to that natural law, but we know that, when all is said and done, no one will escape death. We cannot prove that everyone will die because clearly there are billions of living people on the planet. But there must have been billions who came before us in all of human history, and we know that, with the exception of a few people who were born around the start of the 20th century, all have died. Whatever your religious beliefs may be, that is an eternal truth. It passes no judgment on whether there is an afterlife.

If there is an afterlife, though, I hope Johnny Carson is hosting some sort of program to entertain the residents of heaven. If anyone deserves the best, it's the souls in heaven.

And Carson was the best.