Monday, January 24, 2005

The King is Dead...Long live the King.

Sorry to interrupt, but this can’t be helped.
It was my sincere intention to complete my current series before I went on to any other subject. The story of my brother’s current battle with Alzheimer’s Disease has taken more than six weeks so far, and it’s been excruciating to try and get through. As a matter of fact, I’ve got plenty of other story ideas I want to get to. They’re all lined up in queue inside my head just waiting to be written as soon as I can get this current gorilla off my back. However interruptions happen, such as my side posts at Christmas and New Years, because they’re holidays that merit such timely recognition. Now another event has occurred, which in my world deserves similar pause and reflection.

The King is dead.

No, I’m not talking about Elvis — he’s still working the graveyard shift down at the 7-Eleven. I’m not talking about some Middle Eastern potentate or even the King of Beers. I’m talking about the King of Late Night. I’m talking about Johnny Carson.

Johnny passed away around dawn Sunday morning in his Malibu, CA home, apparently due to complications from emphysema. It was no doubt the result of his many years of cigarette smoking, which makes it all the more disgusting and painful for me to take.

You see, I come from a long line of smokers. I am the only one of all my brothers who has never smoked. My Dad quit 22 years ago after having smoked on and off for 23 the previous 43 years. All of his family have been heavy smokers, including my paternal Grandfather, who himself succumbed to emphysema in 1973. I guess that makes Carson’s death a little more personal for me. And it also makes me a little more angry because it circles back to add a stinging reminder as to my own failure as a parent; the fact that despite the example of our family’s history I apparently couldn’t make a strong enough case to prevent my own children from becoming smokers themselves.

Shawn and Amy tell me that they are mostly ‘social smokers.’ They acknowledge that it’s a harmful habit and that someday, they will definitely quit. But as I’ve told them to no avail, I’ve grown up around it and would dare say that I’ve known quite a few more people in my lifetime who after only smoking for a few years have tried to quit and found it extremely tough. How tough, I can’t say, because thankfully it has never been my problem; yet it’s obviously something that’s difficult to deal with, so why start in the first place?

Okay, okay...I’m veering way off course here. It wasn’t my intent to make this post a rant about smoking. I’m not a cigarette-Nazi, and quite frankly it doesn’t bother me to be around it; after all, like I said, I grew up with smokers; I’m used to it; it’s not a major issue. What I do have an issue with is the fact that it has killed yet another person; a person I grew up with; a person I truly loved and thought the world of: Johnny Carson.

You all know who he was, but if you don’t have a clear recollection of actually witnessing him host The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, you likely don’t know what he was. He was a pioneer. He not only defined the genre of late-night talk, he was The Beatles of talk show hosts. He set the standard. He broke the mold.

In the 1960s, when I was between 8 and 12 years of age, there was no cooler treat than being able to stay up until 11:30pm to watch The Tonight Show. I always felt so ‘grown up,’ getting the chance to laugh at the sometimes racy, certainly ‘adult-oriented’ humor of Johnny and his guests. Carson defined the now standard concept of the comedic monologue to begin each show; now it’s standard practice. It may not have started with Carson, but he became the standard-bearer for its use to subsequent generations of comic talkshow hosts to follow.

I know that a lot of you thirtysomethings probably think that Johnny Carson was a little old-fashioned, compared to the raucous, zany or hip, urban styles of David Letterman, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien and Arsenio Hall. Certainly they all fed off of the Carson genre and added their own special augmentations, most of which are both funny and worthy of praise in and of themselves. But if you were to ask them (and all have been asked over the years) who is the greatest of them all, to a man they point to Carson.

Everyone watched Carson. Of course the fact that there was no cable in all but a fraction of U.S. households in even the latter years of his run didn’t exactly hurt his ratings. But the fact is, Johnny Carson was the definition of water cooler discussion. His show was what everyone talked about in the office the next morning. His monologues were often the topic of discussion for morning radio DJs throughout the country. And perhaps as importantly, all America knew that if someone made an appearance on the Tonight Show, either as an interviewed guest or a musical performer, that person or band was important. They had made it. That’s how significant Johnny Carson’s influence was.

Johnny & Ed
I had actually been thinking about Carson recently, and wondering how he was doing; it seemed amazing how time had flown since he left the public eye. After leaving The Tonight Show on May 23,1992, he basically went into seclusion, making public appearances very rarely and television appearances almost never.

Carson’s sidekick for over 30 years, Ed McMahon would go on, following The Tonight Show to enjoy perhaps his greatest celebrity with the syndicated Star Search TeeVee series, while also putting his face on seemingly any show or product he could throughout the decade of the 90s.

Yet even as McMahon’s public presence began diminishing over the past few years, I was still hopeful to see Johnny to resurface at some point. Unfortunately he stuck to his guns just as he’d said he would when he announced, “When I retire from television, I’m going to stay retired from television.”

And now he’s gone...and I feel like shit.

I feel as though someone just reached into my soul and ripped out a huge chunk of my childhood, not to mention a good part of my adult life. I don’t know anyone my age who didn’t think the man was The Man. He was, quite frankly, a hero to my generation; someone to be admired.

Johnny Carson was 79 years old; not exactly a spring chicken, but three years younger than McMahon, who is now 82. Not that I would have ever wished it upon him, but I always figured that Ed would be the first to go.

The Boy Who Would Be King
When we were kids, my brother Alex and I would pretend that we were Johnny and Ed. I was Carson, of course.

We would do imaginary interviews with greats like Jimmy Stewart (with me doing double-duty with an extremely lame Jimmy Steward impression). Of course Zha Zha Gabor would always stop by with her legendary cat and her even more legendary question to Johnny (which I would learn only years later are merely urban legends). And of course, Carnac the Magnificent would make an appearance as well, giving the answers to Ed’s questions before they were even asked.

But now all these years later I hold in my hand the LAST question. It has been hermetically sealed inside a mayonnaise jar, sitting on Funk & Wagnall’s porch since noon today.

The question is a simple, “Why?” However, we’ll never know the answer. Carnac won’t be making any more appearances.

The King is dead.

Long live the King.

Photo Courtesy Carson Productions, Inc.
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