Rest in peace, Johnny - and America's cultural mainstream


WASHINGTON - I heard Johnny Carson before I ever saw him.

He was an indistinct voice coming out of the living room late at night when I was supposed to be asleep. I'd hear the brass punching its way through the familiar theme, Ed McMahon calling, "Heeeeere's Johnny" and then that wry, puckish voice saying things I couldn't quite hear, stuff that made my mother laugh even as I lay there wondering what wonderful thing I was missing.

But Mr. Carson was still there when I got old enough to see for myself. Still there, in fact, when I was married and had kids of my own. So I was stunned by the news that he died of emphysema last week.

His presence in the world, even 13 years into retirement, was something you took for granted. It's jarring to look up and find that he's gone.

You've heard Mr. Carson's death framed as the loss of a funny man, the loss of a man who made stars of countless other funny people, and it certainly is all of that.

But his death is also something else, the loss of another piece - maybe the last piece - of a different kind of American culture. Is it just me, or doesn't it feel like the mainstream has also died?

Maybe you remember the mainstream. Yes, there were always performers whose popularity was limited to a given age or ethnic group, but then there were those who drew us together across the lines. Ed Sullivan was mainstream. Carol Burnett was mainstream. The Cosby Show was mainstream. And Mr. Carson was the epitome of mainstream.

Watching his show was an American ritual, something we all did back when television was a uniting force. Indeed, some of those difficult days, television might have been the only thing we the people had in common. We were of different ages, races, religions and political parties, but we all loved Lucy, all grew up in Mayberry, all knew the theme song that began, "Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale."

All had points of reference in common.

Mr. Carson's death is a reminder that that moment is long past and that pop culture offers little - the Super Bowl aside - that still brings diverse people together. Yes, television still produces popular programs. But look at the numbers and you'll see that popularity itself isn't what it used to be.

Consider American Idol, one of the most popular programs of this era. Tuesday's show drew an 18.3 Nielsen rating. Now consider that I Love Lucy had an average rating of 67.3 in the 1952-1953 season. Restaurants closed when that show was on. Watching it was a communal experience in a way American Idol can never be.

The same is true of watching The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. It's important to remember that when he came to fame, there were only three television networks. At the moment of his death, there are hundreds: networks for people who like cooking, for people who like remodeling, for people who like movies, for people who like music videos, for people who like sports, for people who like news, for people who like cartoons, for people who like reruns.

Don't get me wrong. Having options is a good thing. But the unintended consequence is that the cultural mainstream has splintered into a hundred subsets. Johnny Carson was among the last of that generation of entertainers who could command a truly mass audience.

The people who are left in his wake command only fractions of a mass audience. For example, I've heard there's a fellow named Emeril Lagasse who has a cooking show that's popular with a certain segment of the populace. I've never seen it. And apparently some people enjoy a reality show that features washed-up stars living together in the same house. I haven't seen that, either.

I saw Johnny Carson, though. If you're of a certain age, you probably did, too. That's a powerful memory in an era when common points of reference are no longer common: Once upon a time, there was a man who reached everybody and had them all laughing at once.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun.

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