There’s Johnny: Johnny Carson, ‘The Tonight Show,’ and the Ship of Theseus
It’s hard to think of Johnny Carson without thinking of the Cleveland Browns. Take the Browns out of Cleveland, put them in Baltimore, start calling them the Ravens, and you’re not even talking about the same team anymore. The team we now know as the Cleveland Browns has a tradition reaching back no further than the late 1990s, when Art Modell packed up a town’s collective identity and outsourced it to Baltimore. Philosophers refer to this identity-crisis phenomenon as the Ship of Theseus, after Plutarch’s paradox of the ship that’s had all its component parts replaced and still sails under the same name. But I’m no philosopher, so I tend to refer to it as “the Tonight Show thing.”
I got to thinking of the Tonight Show thing all over again just the other week, when PBS aired Johnny Carson: King of Late Night, its sublime two-hour American Masters documentary, wherein an airtight case is made all over again for the singularity of its subject, as both broadcast talent and cultural phenomenon. Never is this case more convincing than when it reacquaints us with all those who scrambled after Johnny’s throne, all the guest-hosts, permanent guest-hosts, and other potential replacements; all the Shandlings and Rivers and Lenos and Lettermans. You may regard, as I do, the first and last of those names more highly than you regard Carson himself, and you may in turn wonder why any of these comedians, out of respect for Carson or at the very least for themselves, wouldn’t more freely acknowledge Carson’s uniqueness, and, in the doing, acknowledge their own uniqueness as well.
The alternative to this kind of self-affirming honesty is trying to convince yourself that in being “permanent[ly]” assigned to host the 11:35 EST NBC programming slot known as The Tonight Show, you’re actually stepping into Johnny’s shoes. If I were Johnny, I’d be offended. If I were from Cleveland, I’d warn them about the perils of rooting for laundry. If I were Jerry Seinfeld, I’d say to them, as Seinfeld does here, “You know, for my entire career, I’ve heard comedians in bars debate over who do you think is gonna get The Tonight Show when Johnny leaves. What nobody realizes is that when you left, you were gonna pack it up and take it with you. Which is what he did, because that show never existed again. There never was a Tonight Show. It was Carson.”
If Bill Carter’s book The Late Shift (1994) documented the backstage intrigue as Jay Leno and David Letterman vied for Johnny’s throne, then his latest book, The War for Late Night (2010), is a sequel in which Leno and Conan O’Brien not only vie for the throne, but try to convince themselves in the process that the throne still exists, as if it ever did. Given how thoroughly tuned in these guys are to the business of television–all the demographics and ratings and webcasts and DVR, to say nothng of the fully emerging primacy of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report–you’d think that they’d have come clean with themselves about what that entity known as The Tonight Show truly means, or doesn’t mean. There’s a cringe-making moment in The War for Late Night when O’Brien learns that, even though he’s been given The Tonight Show at 11:35, he’ll be following a newly conceived entity known as The Jay Leno Show. This puts a serious damper on his self-starring Johnny fantasy, until finally, according to Carter, “he told himself that something had changed for NBC, but nothing had substantially changed for him.
Finally he asked [his manager] Jeff Ross, “In this scenario, am I still hosting that show that Johnny Carson had that I watched with my father in my living room in Brookline, Massachusetts?”
“Yes, you are,” Ross said, looking for the right message.
“Then, I’m good,” Conan replied.
I only wish, for Conan’s sake, that he’d asked Seinfeld instead–that way he’d have known better than to be all appalled and insulted months later when NBC wanted to move Tonight to 12:05, in order to accommodate Leno.
If nothing else, he should have asked himself, “What would Johnny do?” What would the host of that show he’d watched with his father have done? He’d have done what he so often did, during the course of his career, and told the suits to go fuck themselves. Letterman was luckier. Letterman had been able, as documented in The Late Shift, to ask Johnny himself what he’d have done, back in ’92 when Letterman was agonizing over whether to prostrate himself before NBC. Should he damage his relationship with Leno even further while at the same time subjecting himself to such shoddy treatment, or should he, Johnny-like, take his one-of-a-kind talents to where they’d be better appreciated? Johnny gave him the answer and Letterman made the right decision; Conan did not. Letterman understood about the Cleveland Browns and the Ship of Theseus; Conan did not. Letterman understood, too, that Johnny had always striven to make The Tonight Show about the future, while Conan and so many other misguided souls have always been hell-bent on dragging The Tonight Show back into the past.
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