Film Studies: The man who tempted Americans to stay up way past their bedtime

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The Independent Culture

Johnny Carson died last Sunday in his magnificent Malibu home. He was 79, and the cause of death was emphysema; the model of cool relaxation had always smoked too much to handle his nerves and insecurity; the most liked man in America (a title he bore for years with modest aplomb) was wound very tight. Of course, I realise that many of you will be asking who was this best liked man in America? Well, Johnny Carson enjoyed Britain - especially the tennis at Wimbledon - because he could come and go without being recognised or pestered. Perhaps the best-known face and voice in America in the years from 1962 to 1992 was a stranger in other lands. And he liked it that way.

Johnny Carson died last Sunday in his magnificent Malibu home. He was 79, and the cause of death was emphysema; the model of cool relaxation had always smoked too much to handle his nerves and insecurity; the most liked man in America (a title he bore for years with modest aplomb) was wound very tight. Of course, I realise that many of you will be asking who was this best liked man in America? Well, Johnny Carson enjoyed Britain - especially the tennis at Wimbledon - because he could come and go without being recognised or pestered. Perhaps the best-known face and voice in America in the years from 1962 to 1992 was a stranger in other lands. And he liked it that way.

Do you remember the Stanley Kubrick film, The Shining, where Jack Nicholson goes crazy in the empty Overlook Hotel and begins to threaten his wife and son? Do you remember his rampage, as he comes after them with an axe? Do you remember the axe shattering the door, with Jack's wild face revealed in the gap, and his terrifying "Here's Johnny!"? For every American that was the world turned upside down, for those words were the nightly refrain by which his loyal sidekick, Ed McMahon, introduced Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show (11.30pm on NBC). Johnny, tall, upright, and usually in several shades of grey, would then slip through the curtains, stroll forward and deliver the "monologue", a string of jokes about current news in the age of assassinations, Civil Rights, Vietnam, Nixon, Iran, "arms for hostages" and Ronald Reagan. In comedy skits on the show, Carson could do a very amiable impersonation of Reagan. But what was less remarked on was the way, already, that president had learned timing, hesitation, wryness and self-mockery from a close study of Johnny Carson.

The Tonight Show was essentially five days a week, and it ran an hour and a half. Carson took famous vacations and nights off so that all manner of other people (from Burt Reynolds to Joan Rivers, from Dick Cavett to Peter Bogdanovich) might sit in for him. Nevertheless, I once calculated that by any cautious estimate, Johnny had been on the screen for at least 5,000 hours over the years. In conventional movie terms, that is 2,500 movies. And that's why, Carson had no equal - not even Cary Grant, whom he resembled in shyness, smartness, and lethal counter-punching style - as a model of what an American man might be.

The Tonight Show was the father of American TV talk shows. There was the opening monologue, a chat with Ed - where they mused together over the follies of the world - and the way in which neither one of them could hold on to a wife for very long (at least, not their own). There were comedy sketches, with guest comics. And then there were two or three guests who sat on the sofa and talked with Johnny. He had infinite range. He could flirt with Angie Dickinson and talk ideas with Gore Vidal. More than that, he had the mischief and the wit to flirt with Vidal and delve into Angie's otherwise neglected intellect. He did not much like guests who were there to plug something (though that monotony did creep in). He preferred talk for its own sake, and while he liked to keep the level light, funny and fit for the family, he did not forget that his America was going through great turmoil. No one quite knew or guessed Carson's political allegiances (he was from Iowa and Nebraska, Mid-Western calms, or doldrums), but he was quietly liberal over the years in the sense that he liked some guys and not others.

He did not just build The Tonight Show into a programme that over 10 million watched. He persuaded a country that has very little developed sense of night life and which often has finished dinner before 7pm that they might stay up late, simply for the sake of good talk and Johnny's whiplash timing. In a country rather frightened of class or urbanity, he was an emblem of sophistication. At the same time, he seemed to discover the strange emptiness in television: the longer he was on the more mysterious he became. For there was an odd loneliness to him (again, quite close to Cary Grant), a feeling of detachment or wonder that there was so much silliness around. Kenneth Tynan wrote a brilliant profile of Carson for The New Yorker, a tribute to his immense screen skill, but a portrait of a rather desolate, anxious man, not convinced or reassured by his own great success and his famous ease on screen. If you were interested in the slow escape of air from American self-confidence, Johnny Carson was an intriguing test case.

Other talk shows tried to compete and there were murmurings at the network about Carson's time off. He called the bluff. He said he'd quit. Whereupon, NBC caved in, gave him more money, reducing the show from 90 minutes to 60, and even ended up letting him walk away with ownership of the show. This only added to his authority and his charm, for he had outstripped the stupid business and simply underlined the uniqueness of his status.

He did his last show in May 1992. Bette Midler was the final guest. She came on and sang "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)", very quietly, very privately, yet in a way that spoke for millions. Carson wept a little and he promised he would be back, in various other shows. That never happened, save for one appearance on The David Letterman Show. Carson reckoned Letterman was his natural heir, and he was probably irked that NBC gave The Tonight Show to the coarser Jay Leno. In fact, the mass of modern late-night shows only taught us how Carson had left an unfillable gap. The sophistication is gone, and I suspect that millions of Americans - exhausted by the pursuit of happiness and saving the world - simply go to bed earlier. Late night television is now a place where stupid talk competes with pornography, wrestling and movies you've never heard of.

So Carson retired to Malibu, and waited for his end. He was never a member of any Hollywood social circle. He was a loner, and he confessed that he was not good with people, or a man that comfortable in his own skin. It is therefore not just remarkable, but eerie, that for 30 years he was unmatched in his impersonation of the opposite of all those things. I do not mean to say there was a demon in Carson, or even a haunted soul. But for every non-American who has marvelled at the facile grace of "Have a nice day!" from strangers and walked on wondering what might lie behind that token bonhomie, Johnny Carson was the question mark. He was the man on television in an age when that was becoming the definition of the presidency. The comparison with Reagan is fascinating. For the suspicion lurks that beneath the flawless image of charm and cool there was nothing there.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

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