During Macworld Expo, a friend and I were having dinner, and talk turned to Carson. Ten years after he handed over The Tonight Show to Leno, we were still marveling at both Johnny's legend and at how successfully and completely the man had forsaken public life. I always thought that the latter was a damned shame. My big fear is that Carson will eventually suffer the same fate as Elvis. By the tenth anniversary of The King's death, Elvis had been reduced to a set of memes. He became both the beautiful young man deified in airbrushed portraits hanging in countless Fifties-themed diners and the long-past-it jumpsuited pill-popper lampooned in black-velvet paintings. And neither image provokes proper respect and admiration for a performer who influenced nearly every major artist who came after him.
No, the modern torch-holders of Elvis' legacy are the scores of Elvis impersonators whose vaudevillian snarls and gyrations have nearly completely supplanted the real thing in the public consciousness. Close your eyes and try to picture Elvis Presley and his music. Five will get you ten that you are, in fact, thinking of an Elvis impersonator's act.
Which on some level is probably appropriate, I have to admit. The very first person to impersonate Elvis wasn't Andy Kaufman...it was Elvis himself, at the end of his life. But when you go out and listen to the records he made before the cartoon overtook the man, you remember exactly how brilliant a performer he was. His early recordings are still fresh and thrilling. Some of the gospel tracks Elvis recorded before he gave up altogether can provoke genuine chills. It's all a pity, because Elvis' reputation might be irredeemable by now. When you think "Elvis," you think "Thankyew...thankyewverrmuch" and "Elvis has left the building." You can't help it; it's like hearing the 1812 Overture and trying not to think of the Lone Ranger.
After all, legacies require careful caretaking. The fact that Carson's DVDs are top-sellers is very encouraging. But it makes me cringe to imagine that there might come a time when the public's limited collective awareness, with a pressing need to free up some space for new "Saturday Night Live" catchphrases and reality-TV personalities, will ultimately strip Carson's legacy down so bare that it'll be reduced to Ed McMahon's "Hey-yo!!!" and a clip of a spider monkey peeing on Johnny's head. It's not inevitable; people will recognize brilliance if they see it. But while all of P.G. Wodehouse's 100 books remain in print, and you can click into iTunes and download 85 Elvis albums without even leaving your sofa, Carson's 30 years of "Tonight" shows are currently represented by a just a few DVDs. Of clips, mind you.
None of these discs present a typical "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" in its entirety. Cool: you can get Johnny's final two shows. They're hugely entertaining but the true power of Carson is represented by the dull routine, the overall continuum of broadcasts...a randomly-selected show in which his guests were the star of an NBC sitcom that you couldn't stand and a writer that you'd never heard of. Those shows are the ones that demonstrate why Carson was so damned good at what he did and why he was so sorely missed when he went away. He wasn't a comic or an entertainer: he was a broadcaster. His brilliance doesn't come through in a series of clips. You just can't get him unless you see him reacting to a live audience for an hour, and guiding two or three guests through their interviews. When the opening theme blared and Carson stepped through the curtains and into the lights, he was like a downhill skiier blasting through the starting gate. Night after night, you tuned in to watch Carson navigate from the top of the monologue to the bottom of the show, reacting to bumps and powering through straightaways as he went, emerging victorious every single time at the end. Carson was never about the material or the guests. They weren't why you tuned in; they were just the snow under Johnny's skis. When you tuned into Johnny, it was always because of the broadcast.
With Carson's passing, an entire generation of young adults have suddenly become Old. There's an entire generation behind us that never saw "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson." We will try — with embarrassing and dithering enthusiasm — to explain what the show was like and we'll fail. Completely. No doubt part of that's due to the fact that our childhoods are so deeply infused with memories of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. The first time my parents and I were in the same room laughing at the same thing, we were watching The Tonight Show together. Some years later, our bedtimes were defined by the start or the end of the monologue. That's some powerful mojo, and those kinds of memories are shared by nearly everybody who was born before 1980.
A couple of years after Letterman moved to CBS and the 11:30 PM time slot, he did a week's worth of shows in Los Angeles. Early in the week, Carson made a quick cameo — literally, a drive-by — in a video piece that had Dave and Paul touring the streets of LA.
It was just two years after Carson had disappeared into retirement, and the audience went nuts. In his final LA show, David ended his monologue by asking the audience to welcome a surprise visitor: "Mr. Johnny Carson." And out came Calvert DeForrest, continuing a running gag that had been going on all week. Everyone knew who was going to step onto the stage, but there was still that moment when let yourself believe that maybe, just maybe, it'd really be him.
DeForrest crossed the stage and passed by Dave's desk and waved to the crowd all the way to his exit. And then...Mr. Johnny Carson himself made the exact same entrance.
The audience quite simply died. The studio sank three inches into the ground as 600 people leaped thirty inches out of their seats and then landed on their feet. The audio engineer scrambled to his bank of sliders, to no avail: every mic was pegged into the red. Surely, VU meters exploded into showers of triumphant sparks, like the stadium lights when Robert Redford hit that home run at the end of The Natural.
Johnny sheepishly acknowledged the crowd and slowly crossed towards Dave's desk. As for Letterman himself, this clearly was the happiest moment of his life up 'till that point. It wasn't the fact that Johnny was appearing on his stage instead of Leno's. It was the simple fact that he was sharing a stage with Carson at all, being a witness to the tectonic waves of adulation that were being thrown at his mentor and idol.
It was almost a scary expression of love and it reminded me that feelings of rage and love both tend to fire from the same sector of the human brain. It was relentless, a living thing. There was just so much pent-up love out there for Johnny Carson, and this was the first time in two years that it had been provided with any sort of outlet. You could say that it was The Perfect Storm of audience reactions.
Dave crossed the stage and shook Johnny's hand. Johnny made some sort of gesture to Dave and then, getting subtle but delightedly enthusiastic response from the host...he crossed behind Dave and sat down behind the desk. Dave walked around and sat in his own guest chair, having proved against all probabilities that it was possible for him to grin even more broadly than he had when Johnny took the stage a minute earlier.
Johnny smoothed his hands across the surface of the desk, clearly savoring a point of view he'd enjoyed for thirty years and which he'd missed since 1992. At home, I was leaning way forward out of my chair, almost paralyzed with expectation: what would he say? This was almost a historic moment; Johnny Carson was back on a talk-show set, sitting behind a desk!
But the audience ruined it for everybody. They simply could not restrain themselves. Johnny gave the desk another affectionate pat, like an retired Western lawman feeling the saddle of a horse for the first time in a year and possibly for the last time of his life, and then, with a start that suggested to me that he was snapping himself out of his own trance, Johnny Carson raised his hands in protest, shook Dave's hand again, and then he was gone.
For good, this time. It was somehow satisfying that he got that last burst of adulation, unwanted though it might have been, regardless of the fact that it wrecked what was going to be the greatest television moment of the year. It was came all on its own, isolated from all of the hype and promotion that had surrounded his final Tonight Shows. This applause wasn't a formal and final thank-you, fed by a month of pre-publicity and anticipation. It was genuine as any applause can be when it's generated within LA's airspace. And when it was unleashed...it proved to be literally unstoppable.
So today, Johnny is dead, and we're all old. When the time comes for me to explain to my nieces and nephews why Johnny Carson was so terrific, I think I'm going to pull out my tape of that Letterman show and play Carson's final walk-on. And then I'll ask the kids what a man needs to accomplish in a lifetime and what he would need to represent to 600 complete strangers to receive that kind of welcome.