WE LOST so much more than Johnny Carson when he died Sunday.
The man who hosted The Tonight Show for 30 years was 79 when he passed. He was born in 1925 and grew up during the Depression and World War II. The country always loses when someone from that generation dies. When what has been called America's "greatest generation" vanishes, we will not see its like again.
Carson took over as host of The Tonight Show in 1962, in an America quite unlike the one we have today. For five nights a week, Carson would treat viewers to comedy that came within inches of crossing the line that separates the acceptable from the risque. Carson was a class act because he showed us how to be funny without crossing that line.
In fact, not crossing the line may have been why some scenes from the show were not only funny, but riotously so. Remember when actor Ed Ames, who portrayed a Native American on a television show, was trying to teach Carson how to throw a tomahawk at a life-sized drawing of a male figure? I don't remember if it was Carson or Ames who made the actual toss that ended with the tomahawk firmly planted where the figure's family jewels were, but both men lost it.
Would that scene be nearly as funny today? I think not.
Carson took over The Tonight Show in a nation more restrained and more reserved. Carson's generation observed certain standards of decorum and conduct that successive generations - the baby boomers and our children, whom I've dubbed "Generation Useless" - tossed out the window. Unfettered free speech and defying authority became the order of the day. Through the combined efforts of the baby boomers and Generation Useless, the dignity and class of America's "greatest generation" have been totally throttled out of society.
Consider what passes for television entertainment today.
There's American Idol, where the marginally talented are judged by Paula Abdul and two guys with no talent at all.
There's The Jerry Springer Show, still stinking out airwaves five days a week.
Then we have the show Maury, hosted by Maury Povich, which frequently has women who come on the airwaves and - in front of a television audience of possibly millions - howl and whoop and demand that one, or two, or three men be given paternity tests to see which is the father of their child. Or children.
We have profanities being used that Carson never uttered, because he could be genuinely funny without saying them. We have a ruckus caused by Janet Jackson's breast being exposed at last year's Super Bowl halftime show and relative quiet when, about 10 years earlier, actor Dennis Franz bared his bottom on an episode of NYPD Blue. Given a choice between having to look at Janet Jackson's breast or Franz's naked bum, I know what my priorities would be. But the America of 1962 would have tolerated neither.
America changed drastically in the 30 years Carson made us laugh on The Tonight Show and in the 13 years since his retirement. Some of those changes were good and necessary. Others haven't been as good. Some have been downright awful.
And the worst has been our diminishing capacity to be shocked, a byproduct of our consistently lowering the bar on behavior and comportment. Very little shocks us these days, because our constant envelope pushing doesn't allow us to be.
I'll indulge you with an example. The same year Carson took over as host of The Tonight Show the movie Cape Fear was released. It starred Gregory Peck as a lawyer in a Southern city with a wife and 12-year-old daughter. Robert Mitchum played the despicable swine, an ex-con sent to prison on the testimony of Peck's character, who wanted revenge by ravishing the lawyer's wife and daughter.
Cape Fear caused quite a bit of controversy when it came out, precisely because of the menace Mitchum's character posed to the 12-year-old girl. Such fare rarely made it to the silver screen back in 1962.
When I showed the film to one of my classes at the Johns Hopkins University, some of the students couldn't feel Mitchum's menace. A film about an ex-con who wants to rape a 12-year-old girl doesn't have the same impact today that it had 43 years ago. How could it? Today's society has 12-year-old girls who want to look, dress and act like the uber-hooch known as Britney Spears. And you wonder why Gov. Robert Ehrlich's wife spoke, using hyperbole, of shooting the woman.
Johnny Carson is the latest of the "greatest generation" to pass from us, and he certainly won't be the last. America will be in real trouble when the last member of that generation dies.