Many come to praise Johnny Carson others would rather just bury him

THE BALTIMORE SUN

His overall ratings were bad and getting worse. Young women -- the viewers advertisers most want to attract -- downright hated him. College students groaned when you said his name. If he hadn't announced his retirement a year ago himself, NBC might have had to step in and do it for him -- the affiliates wanted Johnny Carson out that badly.

"He performed horribly for us," said Arnold J. Kleiner, general manager of WMAR (Channel 2), the NBC affiliate in Baltimore. "The guy was a dog for us. The show was a dog for us."

If that doesn't sound like the Johnny Carson you have been reading about elsewhere in stories celebrating him as everything from "America's sandman" to the "barometer of the national mood," stay tuned, there's more to come, as they say on "The Tonight Show."

Carson is a popular-culture phenomenon of the first order and deserves some measure of celebration. He's a remarkably versatile comedian whose best monologues echo Will Rogers and even Mark Twain. And once he did rule late-night television. In 1979 NBC estimated that 17 percent of its overall revenues could be attributed to him.

Just surviving 30 years on network television is phenomenal in itself. Indeed, Carson's retirement Friday is a big, big deal because he has been such a fixture on the TV landscape.

But he has not been dominant since the early 1980s. And Carson's passing is as much a cause of celebration for some as it is cause for mourning for others. It is another signpost marking the end of the three-network and white-male domination of American culture.

For openers, Carson never spoke for all Americans. Whom he spoke for, if anyone, were some white, middle-class men. And it's mainly white, middle-class, male critics now saying Carson spoke for all Americans.

Carson and women

Look at Carson and women, for example. Carson did as much or more than anyone on television the past 30 years to perpetuate the stereotype of the dumb blond. In recent years, it should be noted, his consciousness was "raised." Instead of dumb blonds, he celebrated spacey ones. Eva Gabor gave way to Teri Garr on "The Tonight Show" couch.

Here are some "tribute" quotes from the ladies themselves:

"When I made my first appearance on 'The Tonight Show' in 1966," Charo told TV Guide, "I spoke maybe 20 words of English. Johnny would ask me a question, and I wouldn't understand him so I would just say, 'Yes, yes.' Finally I jumped out of my chair, shook my body and shouted, 'Cuchi, cuchi.' . . . 'The Tonight Show' kept inviting me back until I knew what I was saying."

From Eva Gabor: "I remember it was the most hysterical moment of my whole career, dahling," Ms. Gabor said. "We were doing 'Green Acres' at the time, and I brought Arnold the pig onto the show with me. I was wearing a beautiful strapless black chiffon gown. When we sat down, the audience was screaming. I hadn't said anything, so I looked down at Arnold, and he had done a No. 2. Johnny was reacting, and I laughed so hard that one of my bosoms jumped out."

Charo shaking her cuchi-cuchi and Eva Gabor with Arnold the pig and one of her "bosoms jumping out" -- that's how Johnny Carson liked his women guests.

And many women viewers returned the favor. Women 18 to 49 tuned Carson out in droves.

In the most recent Nielsen ratings in Baltimore, for example, only 6,000 young women watched his show nightly. By comparison, 22,000 watched "Arsenio Hall" and 17,000 watched "Nightline" (a show that skews male).

On some nights, Hall's local audience swelled to 30,000 young women -- five times Carson's. But maybe the best measure of how poorly Carson did with young women is the fact that 17,000 chose reruns of "Three's Company" with Suzanne Somers over him in Baltimore last February.

That kind of tune-out by young women means you can't give advertising spots away unless you are gangbusters in total audience. And Carson was anything but gangbusters in total audience.

Overall, nearly three times as many local viewers watched "Nightline" as watched Carson -- 72,000 to 27,000. Hall's audience was one and a half times as large as Carson's. And the Baltimore ratings are representative of what was going on throughout the country.

Furthermore, it didn't just start happening last year. Back in 1983, for example, Channel 2 began delaying the start of "The Tonight Show" from 11:30 p.m. to midnight and airing reruns of "Soap" and "Cheers" after the late news. NBC didn't like it, but the reruns did two and three times as well in ratings as Carson did.

Channel 2's Kleiner called his decision to return Carson to the 11:30 p.m.spot in recent years "one of my worst decisions ever." Kleiner feels that part of Carson's demise was that "Carson simply wasn't there. On Mondays, it was 'best of.' On Tuesdays, it was a substitute host. That left you 60 minutes on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday."

There are other reasons for Carson's demise. And you can find them even in the quotes from persons who clearly want to say mainly nice things about Carson on the occasion of his retirement.

Jay Leno, Carson's replacement, said in a Sun interview that what he most admired about Carson was his monologue. Leno called it the cornerstone of the show. But Leno also said that the cornerstone is going to change: "We will probably be going after younger viewers." Leno further explained the change of bandleaders, from Carson's Doc Severison to Branford Marsalis, saying, "Things change. Branford Marsalis, being black, it gives the show the look of the '90s. It's a different era. Now the show takes on an urban view. It's more representative of the country."

Carson and the barometer

That points to another large segment of the country that Carson, the "barometer of the national mood," didn't seem to speak to or for: African-Americans. It's no accident that Arsenio Hall's show was such successful counterprogramming against Carson and that it coincided with the rise of a multicultural sensibility.

Lawrence E. Mintz, associate professor of American Studies at the the University of Maryland in College Park and an editor of the Journal of International Humor, compares Carson favorably with the likes of Will Rogers. But he says it's ridiculous to talk about Carson speaking for all Americans. "The college students I teach, for example," Mintz said, "if you mention Carson, they groan."

Mintz said he is especially interested in all the tributes being heaped on Carson by other comedians as the countdown to his last show continues. Mintz says he believes it might be a result of the comedians' admiration for Carson's "incredible versatility -- one minute the wide-eyed Nebraska boy quality about him, and the next a sarcastic, hip Californian. He can go from broad character and skit comedy . . . to ad-lib quip interviewing in a

minute."

But Mintz also concedes that the tributes and praise might be so lavish because in celebrating Carson the other comedians also celebrate themselves: By treating his resignation as if it were Thurgood Marshall leaving the Supreme Court, they elevate the profession of TV comedian and talk-show host from entertainer to, well, "barometer of the national mood."

But if women, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Hispanics and others were all excluded, what "national mood" are we talking about?

Carson, who declined to be interviewed for this story, did have some effect on the popular culture of this country. One development that he played a major role in, for example, is turning the TV talk show into wall-to-wall plug-o-ramas where celebrities come not to talk but to plug their latest record, concert tour, movie or TV show. We now accept this as the norm, but go back and look at some of Carson's predecessors. Jack Parr actually tried to talk to his guests, and they didn't have to have something to plug to be on the show.

All this is not to put down the emotional connection some viewers may have made with Carson over the years.

But we shouldn't pander to those feelings, either. Some demythologizing of Johnny Carson is badly needed if we want to get at the truth.

Carson and today

The truth is that Carson and "The Tonight Show" have been in serious decline for at least a decade and barely relevant for the last half-dozen years.

From the golf swing at the end of his monologue, to the dumb blonds on his couch, to his autobiography, titled "Happiness Is a Dry Martini," Carson comes from a vanishing world where speaking to a certain kind of white, suburban, middle-class guy meant speaking to America for all practical purposes. It was a less complicated world of only three real TV channels, and all three of them were controlled by a culture of other white guys who got all the jokes, liked their martinis dry and worried about their golf swings, too.

The question today is not: Can Leno replace Carson? Carson hasn't been able to replace Carson the past 10 years.

The world, America and television have changed. Leno's moving in the right direction, recognizing that "It's a different era" and wanting to be "more representative of America today." But he's going to have to do more than just hire an African-American bandleader if he wants to find a viable niche in the new TV universe of multichannels and the new America of multicultural viewing.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
32°