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Johnny Carson's primacy in the history of television cannot be understated. Carson's thirty-year stint as the host of NBC's Tonight Show from 1962 to 1992 remains the measuring-stick against which success in the American media must be measured. As Bill Carter -- a New York Times journalist who wrote the substantial history of the machinations and fiascos that ensued when Carson announced his retirement, and the effort to replace Carson began -- states outright "Johnny Carson was the single biggest money generator in television history. He was also the greatest individual star the medium had ever created." (Carter 3). This is astonishing when we consider that Carson took no part in the synergistic strategies that we associate with television in 2012: he did not appear in films, or regularly promote himself elsewhere in the media, he published no memoirs (and indeed published nothing save two joke-books from the earliest years of his Tonight Show stint) and refused to cooperate with a documentary about his life. In a profile of Carson, Orson Welles was quoted as saying "he's the only invisible talk host" (Tynan 1978). It is worth asking, then, just how Carson's supremacy was achieved. I hope through an examination of Carson's work on The Tonight Show to explain the way in which Carson's understated persona became so central to American broadcasting and to the American imagination.
It is worth beginning with an analysis of how Carson's public persona was constructed. Kenneth Tynan notes that, somewhat extraordinarily, Carson's fame and success were achieved in spite of being almost completely unknown outside of the U.S.:
Outside North America…Johnny Carson is a nonentity: the general public has never heard of him. The reason for his obscurity is that the job at which he excels is virtually unexportable….The TV talk show as it is practiced by Carson is topical in subject matter and local in appeal. To watch it is like dropping in on a nightly family party, a conversational serial, full of private jokes, in which a relatively small and regularly rotated cast of characters, drawn mainly from show business, turn up to air their egos, but which has absolutely no plot…most of what happens on the show would be incomprehensible or irrelevant to foreign audiences, even if they were English-speaking. (Tynan 1978).
By this logic, then, it is worth asking how Carson managed to serve as late-night television's representative American male for thirty years. I think this is rather easily understood. For a start, Carson was a veteran of the U.S. Navy, and once quipped that the high point of his career had been performing a magic trick for the first U.S. Secretary of Defense James Forrestal. To that degree, we can understand that part of his credibility and cultural centrality came from being part of the "greatest generation" and serving as a sort of representative adult, while maintaining what producer Fred de Cordova described as a "Peck's Bad Boy" quality (Tynan 1978). We must add to this that Carson was a Midwesterner, born in Iowa and raised in Nebraska. If Carson's persona carried a hint of sophistication, it was a sophistication that had to be acquired, and that was ultimately worn lightly. To some extent, it would be possible to see Carson as a kind of puckish reflection of Dwight Eisenhower -- however deliberately perverse or provocative this estimation might seem, it is a good way of understanding how Carson's combination of Great Plains wholesomeness and military service might contribute to provide a sense of representativeness for the viewing public. Just as mass military conscription in the 1940s and 1950s necessarily imposed a sense of group identity, and set the standards for permissible behavior, for an entire generation, so Carson's style of humor set the standards for permissible satire. His role as a wit was in some way representative.
And representativeness is, of course, what Carson's persona aimed at. Timberg notes this of The Tonight Show, claiming that "the talk show host is as much a representative of the people as an elected official." (Timberg 402). The format of Carson's show required subordinating his own star-power to that of the guests he interviewed, and it is important to note that -- contrary to the example set by most late-night network television currently -- Carson's guests were not always media celebrities and movie stars. It is hard to imagine Jay Leno, ultimately Carson's successor as host of The Tonight Show, conducting an interview with Margaret Mead or Gore Vidal, let alone Bobby Kennedy, but Carson did interview all of these. To a large degree, the rise of alternatives to network television have siphoned off more intellectual and political content into niche markets in 2012 -- any of those guests might find a ready place on cable channels, with talk hosts like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher, or Rachel Maddow. But at the start of Carson's run in 1962, there were only three nationwide television networks available, and the idea that Carson's show should be representative meant including content that might otherwise be deemed to intellectual. As Gore Vidal said of Carson in a Time Magazine interview: "He was very intelligent, very political and rather frustrated by the restrictions that had been placed on him [by the network]. So if he found somebody sympathetic politically, as he found me, you ended up helping him express what he meant -- but which he could not say -- because of NBC's all-sides-must-be-represented-at-all-times policy." (Lacayo 2006). The network policy to which Vidal refers is, of course, established largely in deference to commercial advertisers: a program which appeared to be courting controversy in some way might risk alienating its corporate sponsors. Tynan in 1978 notes the "impeccably diplomatic" way in which Carson avoided controversial topics during an interview, claiming that Carson's "no-trespassing zones include all subjects of political controversy, any form of sexual behavior uncountenanced by the law, and such matters of social concern as abortion and the legalization of marijuana." (Tynan 1978).
At the same time, however, Carson's reluctance to commit himself on controversial issues may have stemmed from an awareness of the enormous and undue influence that television can have upon the public. As a minor example of this, it is worth noting that the ubiquitous board game "Twister" only became ubiquitous because of an appearance on a May 1966 episode of The Tonight Show, where Carson played "Twister" with "Green Acres" actress and Hungarian temptress Eva Gabor. In this case, the content of the board game was actually deemed too sexual and controversial for certain markets: an executive from the Milton Bradley game manufacturer noted that "Sears didn't think it was appropriate for their catalogue." (DeMain 2011). However, the appearance of the game on The Tonight Show -- in which the faintly sexualized elements of playing "Twister" were fully in keeping with Carson's status as a representative adult capable of a certain level of risque humor -- caused it to sell over 3 million copies afterward, bypassing the distribution system of the Sears-Roebuck Catalog. If an appearance on Carson's show within the first five years of his hosting was able to have such a remarkable effect, then it is no wonder that Carson was cautious in his approach to matters of social and political controversy.
The most crucial factor, however, in establishing Carson's tone and purpose was advertised in the title -- the Tonight Show was originally created by NBC to provide a counterpart to the Today show, and in both cases a sort of magazine format was adopted. But the differences are clear by understanding the demographic: viewers of the morning program were more likely to be female, in years when women worked mainly as homemakers, or were men preparing to leave the house for work. But the evening program was defined by its time-slot -- this was assumed to be a time when there would be no children awake to view the program, and when adults might even be watching The Tonight Show from the bedroom. This is crucial, because it explains the success of Carson's youthful and puckish persona, used to define what was essentially acceptable "adult" entertainment for broadcasting. This is notable in Carson's only published book, which was itself a parody of an existing besteller. In the mid-1960s, "Peanuts" cartoonist Charles M. Schultz had a bestseller with a book entitled Happiness is a Warm Puppy; Carson, six years into hosting the Tonight Show, published a book of jokes (most of which were representative of the humor on the program) imitating the format of Schultz's book and entitled Happiness is a Dry Martini. This is the way in which Carson symbolized "adultness" -- if Charlie Brown and Snoopy indicated a humor that was suitable for children, Carson made it clear that his own humor was no more suitable for children than a dry martini would be. And indeed, Carson's book is full of winking jokes about sex, told in a style that would be permissible on television in…[continue]
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