Here’s Johnny

By Steve Woodward

The cyber-universe is a cesspool of trivial content that sadly has become a “news feed” for growing numbers of low-information citizens. Of course, my denunciation of trending ingenuity has been repeated in previous eras. Pessimists in our nation’s past feared the automobile, radio, television, cable television, computers, and cell phones. All would erode our culture, and, to some extent, they have. But we agree generally — to the extent we as Americans agree at all — that progress is progress. 

Thus, I rise to pledge allegiance to YouTube. It is the world’s greatest repository of video content, from solemn Presidential addresses, to historic achievements, great moments in sports, as well as humanity at its most inane. Not sure how, but recently I happened upon a 1993 Kennedy Center tribute to Johnny Carson. 

I was transported to a place and time in our country we can not recognize today, in 2022. Guests were dressed up in formal wear, aka, tuxedos and black gowns. The evening was not hijacked by profanity laced rants. There were no “Tax The Rich” designer dresses (AOC at a 2021 gala). It is doubtful anyone boycotted. Nearby businesses were not boarded up in anticipation of riots. It was an evening dedicated to a talented entertainer who was engrained in the fabric of American life for 30 years during a 60-minute NBC television show, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, 1962—1992. 

Seated alongside Carson was a young President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary, and countless other self-proclaimed dignitaries. A celebration of Carson was a celebration of Americana. The evening included a live procession by the University of Nebraska marching band, tubas, bass drums and all the pomp and circumstance. The native Nebraskan was reclusive throughout his career, but brilliant when the cameras and lights were on. Carson was a master at delivery, and a keen chronicler of every day life. He interviewed Hollywood’s biggest stars with proper deference; political power brokers with respect, and, famously, derived the most laughter when quirky farmers and other regular people, the kind of folks he grew up with in rural Nebraska, appeared as guests.     

Carson and his writers were keen observers of the political landscape, but not with the intent of lambasting one side while protecting and defending the other, which is the sole of objective of current late night hosts (Kimmel, Fallon, etc.). In 1988, a Carson monologue directed attention to a Senator from Delaware who was running for President. Sen. Joe Biden was accused of plagiarism while out on the campaign trail. Carson quipped that Biden had gathered his staff to assure them, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” 

The 1993 proceedings at the Kennedy Center included an appearance by then up-and-coming late night host David Letterman, who spoke with genuine admiration for Carson, a role model and mentor. The Letterman of the early 1990s was funny and playful; he would devolve into an angry curmudgeon, diminished by sex scandals, before exiting the late night universe in 2015. Letterman seemed back then a worthy successor to Carson. The same can not be said of today’s post-Letterman lineup, who have forsaken comedy for Trump Delusion Syndrome, cancel culture and gender fluidity. They’re so woke they don’t notice their imploding ratings.

The Kennedy Center Honors continue to this day, the arbiter of popular culture relevance. But it, too, has lost its way. Organizers expressed such unbridled revulsion toward the 45th President that Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump bowed out of the annual ceremonies during the Trump White House era. The official reason was that the President did not want to be a distraction. In 2017, singer Lionel Richie, dancer Carmen de Lavallade and television producer Norman Lear said they would boycott a White House reception that is part of the agenda. 

It’s a safe bet that Johnny Carson would have shown up in 1993 if George H.W. Bush had won re-election by defeating Clinton. His monologues were renowned for humorous shots at sitting Presidents from JFK to Bush 43. But Carson was not in the business of savaging their characters or demeaning the officeholder’s families. America could use a Johnny Carson about now. We could use a wink and a smile. 

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