Johnny & Ed's Tonight Show, As Well As Modern Comedy, Fades To Black
My great grandfather had been a fairly well known attorney in Italy thus had a wide range of people he had known through his life. Although he passed away when I was six years old, I remember him very vividly as a rod skinny spry old man whose boundless energy belied his eighty plus years. One of the aspects of this great old man I remember most clearly was that whenever he would learn that someone he had known had passed away, he was elated: "They're dead and I'm still alive!"
I envy my great grandfather's incredibly optimistic and enthusiastic outlook on his continued existence in the face of the deaths of people he had known. I've never been able to emulate that, as passings have a more traditional effect upon me. I remember the ones that have passed with nostalgia and sadness.
This grieving was surprisingly enough triggered this morning by the news that long time Johnny Carson sidekick and product pitchman Ed McMahon had passed away. I have known more than my fair share of television and motion picture personalities, but I never had the privilege of meeting Mr. McMahon... although I felt like I had known him and Johnny my whole life.
I was raised in a very unconventional household where I was treated as an adult from childhood. Therefore at my house while I was growing up, there was no such thing as a fixed bedtime for me. I went to bed when I was tired, and that meant that at least on four weeknights out of five, I'd stay up to catch Johnny Carson's monologue on The Tonight Show.
It is almost incalculable to be able to ascertain how profoundly watching decades of The Tonight Show affected me as an adult. So much of my own sense of humor was shaped by Johnny Carson in those magnificent and always memorable monologues which were able to leave both the studio and home audience in stitches. The most remarkable aspect of Johnny's monologues were that he managed to provide sensational comedy, night after night, for thirty years! And he managed to do so without relying on scatology, shock, or offensive political barbs, which seem to have become the mainstays of comedy in the 21st century. He made people laugh because he was a great standup comedian with arguably the finest sense of timing in the history of comedy.
I remember with remarkable fondness the afternoons I spent in the audience at the NBC studios in Beautiful Downtown Burbank watching this great man ply his trade. As any Carson Connoisseur will testify, the best bits were usually during the commercial breaks, when he would let loose with the stars in exchanges that would never be aired. I was present for one particularly memorable episode when diminutive songwriter Paul Williams took exception to George Peppard referring to him as a midget, and proceeded to tell Johnny to inform George that he wasn't "a midget, but a five foot powerhouse who's going to knock him on his ass!"
Those great, unforgettable moments all rushed back when I read about Ed McMahon's death. Johnny had passed away years ago, a man who was probably the best liked man in America except to the people who knew him personally and found him cold and dismissive offstage. But none of that mattered to the millions who tuned in night after night to hear Ed's signature "Heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeere's Johnnnnnnyyyyyyyyyyy..."
I cannot bring myself to watch Conan's Tonight Show. It's not The Tonight Show any more: It's only the transplantation of Conan's patently silly, stupid, and insipid insomniac schtick to an earlier time slot. Although I truly appreciate Leno as a comedian, his program wasn't The Tonight Show either. Without Paul Anka's anthem being blasted out by Doc Severinsen's trumpet and the infallible, innate chemistry between Johnny and Ed, it was just another late night variety show.
There is some great television comedy left in the 21st century. Two thirds of the episodes of The Big Bang Theory and about half of the episodes of Two And A Half Men certainly qualify, although the latter cannot seem to go through 60 seconds without uttering scathology or luridity. However, are there any great stand up comedians any longer? Not that I've seen... just a bunch of laconic or hyperactive bozos who have to drop three f-bombs into each sentence. There is no one left with the integral and unmistakable class of Johnny Carson.
That has to be the key word to remember Johnny Carson by: Class. He was class incarnate. Now that even Ed is gone there will be no more "Heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeere's Johnnnnnnyyyyyyyyyyy..." and I profoundly pity the generations of comedy audiences who will never know what remarkable zeniths were achieved, night after night, at 11:30 pm on NBC.
May God bless you and keep you both, Johnny and Ed. Thanks for the memories.