Monday, May 22, 2017

Wheeere's Johnny?

A quarter of a century ago, the last real King of Late Night retired. His preferred successor, David Letterman, crashed and burned in a mess of predatory behavior towards interns and bitterness. NBC's chosen successor, Jay Leno, was good for little more than making sure Americans got their Recommended Daily Allowance of smarm and then some. None of the people who would now be on my television after 10:30 -- if I bothered to turn it on then -- are worth the movement of my finger on the remote.

Aaron Goldstein, writing at National Review, muses on Johnny Carson's manner of handling political humor. Carson made plenty of fun of politicians -- they are, after all, worthy of mockery in so many ways -- but his was an equal-opportunity snicker. He made fun of whoever was in the White House because that person was in the White House. He made fun of politicians who said or did dumb things because they did dumb things that could be made fun of. He opened his monologue on the Monday of his last week on the air by thanking Dan Quayle for making sure he'd have enough material for that last week by delivering the infamous "Murphy Brown speech."

But he viewed his platform as a place to tell jokes, not to try to bend things to his own political will. Carson's nephew, interviewed in the Goldstein article, says that Carson even eased up on the Richard Nixon jokes when told they were causing the 37th president to drink more heavily.

Would Carson have made fun of President Trump? Of course! He made fun of Private Citizen Trump when the self-proclaimed artist of the deal kept having to declare bankruptcy and decided that marriage was less of a commitment and more of a "Spin the Bottle" game. He would have made fun of Trump tweeting and giving seventeen different stories about the same event and not filling government posts and a host of other things that the 45th President is screwing up. But he also would have made fun of former President Obama, and former President Bush and former President Clinton and Al Gore and Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and Vladimir Putin get the idea.

Nobody would have ever called Carson "woke." But he didn't have to be. He was good -- at a level that the likes of Stevie Colbert and his oral sex jokes are unlikely to achieve. Or understand.


Brian J. said...

I wonder if he would have made fun of Obama. So many other entertainers who started pre-2000 blow in the direction of the contemporary prevailing wind in Hollywood.

Friar said...

I think so, but probably in a generic kind of way...the teleprompter, the "Let me be clear," the "if you like your plan" sort of stuff. Not real substantive satire, I imagine -- if he'll lay off Nixon he'll lay off anyone. Probably would have gone after Michelle Obama's school lunch stuff. Some needling, anyway.

I imagine it would be the kind of thing where he would still feel comfortable inviting him on the show afterwards: He made a little fun of Reagan as governor of California but had him as a show guest in the mid-70s.

CGHill said...

On the air, anyway, Carson was never cruel or vicious. (Various biographers indicate that he was far different off the air.) The only person who really disliked him seemed to be Joan Rivers, and that was, at bottom, a personal matter.

Friar said...

Yes, especially up until the end of his career he was no prize offscreen for many people. He and Rivers fell out after she got her own show and didn't tell him; word was he felt personally betrayed because of the help he had given her. No way to know, but if he did hold that grudge for that long it indicates something other than a cuddly teddy bear nature.