I'm from the Letterman generation, so I never gave Johnny Carson a lot of thought until after I was out of college and Carson had retired from The Tonight Show. Part of it was that Carson was my grandparents' late-night talk-show host, and though I respected him the way I respected my grandparents, Carson's cool one-liners didn't make me laugh the way Letterman's meta-irony did. Aside from the occasional anniversary special, I didn't watch The Tonight Show much once I reached the age where I had some control of the remote after dark.
Sometime in my mid-20s, though, after Carson had gone into seclusion, I and a lot of other '70s kids began to take a longer look at Carson's generation, and to covet the cocktails, cigars and space-age bachelor-pad music of the showbiz hipsterati. Some cultural commentators at the time thought the slacker obsession with swingers was wrapped up in a pining for relaxed-but-manly archetypes, given successive decades of sensitivos and action heroes. For my part, the nostalgic urge was plainer and subtler. Even though I was born in 1970, the influence of '60s cool pervaded my youth, from the stucco-heavy architectural design at my local bank to the forest-green bubble tumblers in my parents' kitchen cabinet. Watching an old Tonight Showlike watching an old game show or an old sitcom or an old movieis like peeking back into a part of my youth I can barely remember. A glimpse of Carson behind that desk on that earth-toned set puts me back in my grandparents' den, hiding in a shag-carpeted corner behind the Barcalounger, stealing glances at the solid-state console TV set.
And watching Carson at the peak of his gamechatting up commoners and kingsmeant something to a boy from the Nashville suburbs. Carson on a soundstage in Burbank, palling around with Burt Reynolds and Don Rickles for an hour before heading back to his beachfront estate in Malibu, stood for a kind of sophistication and success that was almost impossibly alluring if you grew up a middle-class nothing from nowhere. There's a reason why American Idol uses those magic words "you're going to Hollywood" for its auditioning hopefuls. No matter the era, the idea of heading west for fame and fortuneor even just temperate weathercan't help but spark the imagination.
For me though, I'm more interested in the class and congeniality of the older era. It's not just the décor of the '60s and '70s that appeals to me now. It's the classically constructed jokes and the senseprobably illusorythat everybody in the entertainment business knew and liked each other. In recent years, it's been reported that Carson hosted a weekly poker game attended by the likes of Steve Martin and Chevy Chase, as well as old friends like Bob Newhart. Perhaps the saddest part of Carson's death for me personally is that I'm never going to get invited to that game. I'm not kidding. Carson was legendarily hard to know, unlike his predecessor Jack Paar, who opened his life like a book whenever the camera was on. Outside of The Larry Sanders Show's interpretation of Carson's personal lifeall mixed up with Letterman and the preoccupations of star Garry Shandlingnot much is known about what the late-night host was like in his own living room, as opposed to yours.
And it may be that, as Carson's generation dies off, no one will much remember how he was on TV either. Large chunks of The Tonight Show tapesalmost all of the '60s episodes and a good portion of the '70swere erased by NBC years ago, and what survives from that era are the well-worn clips that popped up on all the anniversary shows, even on Jay Leno's Carson tribute this past week. The DVD box set The Ultimate Johnny Carson Collection Volumes 1-3 runs through all the standards: the Ed Ames tomahawk toss, Dean Martin flicking ash into George Gobel's cocktail, Tiny Tim giggling, and all the guests from the swinger era drinking and smoking (and maybe exacerbating the emphysema that ultimately cost Carson his life). What's missing are the accumulation of torn-from-the-headlines jokes and flash-in-the-pan guests that really constitute the experience of The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson. Watching the DVDs, sadly, isn't too different from watching the half-hour infomercials for the DVDs.
The set's era-spanning clip shows and two final Carson episodesthe tear-jerker one with Bette Midler, and the one where he sat on a stool and showed the same damn clipsdon't offer much beyond a souvenir, but the discs' scant extras pretty much rock. The Ultimate Collection includes a video tour of the Burbank studio where Carson's Tonight Show was shot, and excerpts from some of the on-the-spot sports-themed filmed comedy bits he shot in the '60s, the broadcast versions of which are long gone. And then there's the most amazing feature: the 1982 NBC special Johnny Goes Home, with a sweater-clad Carson leading the viewer on a filmed tour of his tiny Nebraska hometown. He goes back to his old house and his old school, and walks down the main drag pointing out what's changed and what's stayed the same. There's wonder and enthusiasm in his voice, and the warm-toned film footage makes small-town Middle America look familiar and welcoming, if still too narrow for a talent like Carson's. Even in the home-movie footage, or bantering with his old classmates, Carson looks like a visitor, just passing through.
Still, since the cramped two-story homes of his neighborhood resemble the Old Hickory block where my grandparents and their friends watched Carson, Johnny Goes Home is doubly nostalgic for me. Even the "Carson Productions" tag at the endwith its '80s font and hint of Reagan-era neonbrings a pang, since that was the way all the Late Night With David Letterman shows ended in the '80s, when I started watching. Who knows, maybe someday The Ultimate Johnny Carson Collection itself will look like a charming relic of these times, once home-video packaging changes yet again. When that happens, I'll dig it out and resume my favorite pastime: watching a celebrity's life so that I can chase the ghosts of my own.