Many people have been tuning into The Tonight Show to catch Johnny Carson’s last few weeks as host, which has led to lots of talk about how Carson has become looser, tougher, more biting in his final days. The point seems to be that since he knows it’s just about over, Johnny has a new, what-the-hey attitude that has given his monologues fresh energy.
But in most cases, what people really mean when they say all this is that they haven’t bothered to tune in The Tonight Show for years, and now they’re surprised at how impish, naughty, and spry Carson has remained after being taken for granted as America’s preeminent talk-show host for much of the past 30 years. The fact is, while his audience changed (got older, got younger, left him for Arsenio, returned to him as relief from Nightline), Johnny remained the same, and on the occasion of his departure we’re all a bit startled to realize just how much we’ll miss his consistency, his sheer longevity, his presence.
”Over at Euro Disney, in France, the attractions are a little bit different,” said Carson in a recent monologue. ”In Fantasyland, for example, the French women shave their legs.” That one caught me laughing — silly, vulgar, and surprising, it’s a solid Johnny joke, one that plays to the interests and prejudices of middle America without being boorish about it. But during Carson’s final days, the real amusement in watching the show doesn’t come from the host’s monologues, where the fussy one-Democrat-zinger-for-every-Republican-zinger rule frequently reduces fairness to a form of torture.
No, it’s the guests who have trooped on to say their goodbyes who have been either truly funny (best, perhaps, was Martin Mull, reciting a cheerfully sarcastic poem about how much Johnny has meant to him — not much, it turned out) or unintentionally so (insufferable James Woods being coy: ”Johnny, if you could have one guest from anyone born in this century, who would it be?” Johnny’s earnest answer: Thomas Edison. Zzzz… ).
For a lot of us, Carson really retired a while ago, the first time Dana Carvey did his Carson impersonation on Saturday Night Live. At once mean and respectfully accurate, Carvey had everything down cold — not just the twitchy mannerisms (the right index finger flicking at his right eyelid, the constant, nervous squaring of his boxlike shoulders), but also the way he would often greet even the mildest guest anecdote with the exclamation, ”Oooh, that’s wild! Wild stuff!” Carvey was pointing out the way Carson had become increasingly out of it, seemingly unaware of the pop culture around him — anything could throw him for a loop and earn the overstated appellation of ”wild!”
Still, it is also possible to see that quality as one of Carson’s strengths — he didn’t run around trying to keep up with the latest trends. His old-guard show-biz polish ended up seeming not quaint but classy. And Carson’s oft-remarked chilliness, his extreme unwillingness to reveal much of himself, has really paid off as he bids The Tonight Show farewell. It means we’ve been spared lots of sappiness, lots of worked-up emotionalism; it means we’ve been able to watch something rare in a media era characterized by teary confessions and feel-good breast-beating: a graceful exit.