By now, everyone has heard Johnny Carson died Sunday at 79. Another cultural icon from by youth is now gone. But here's something you won't hear anyone saying today: Carson's shtick was kind of lame. At least I thought so after age 15 or so.
About the time I was 13 or 14 I was staying up most week nights and catching at least his monologue. This was cool because, a) I was finally able to stay up that late and, b) I finally "got" most of his jokes. But as I moved through my mid teens and was able to take in even more of the world and the comedy in it, well, Johnny really lost his edge in my eyes. And, for me, he never recovered.
Don't get me wrong, the man was clearly a pioneer in the world of entertainment. And what he did, hosting a late-night, fluffy talk show, he did well. The Tonight Show was a rock of stability that could always be counted on - it was a known quantity. It was not must-see but if you really needed something mildly entertaining later in the evening, Johnny was always there (or, in later years, one of his often more talented stand-ins). It became less of a stand-by for me as cable TV flourished and TV options expand but somehow it was comforting to know it was there when none of the other 50 channels had anything on.
By the 1980's, when I was in my 20s, I was sure Carson was the king of stale, lame comedy from another era. I always got the impression even he wasn't too sure what he was doing was all that good. He seemed to have this look on his face when doing his many characters that almost conveyed a sense of wonderment that anyone thought this was funny. But he still had a huge audience who wanted that known quantity.
And if you want to know what killed him, remember that smoke curling up from behind his desk when he would come back from the commercial breaks.