From the Great Plains to L.A.: The Intersecting Paths of Lawrence Welk and Johnny Carson

Article excerpt

As the popular host of the "Tonight" show for nearly 30 years and Hollywood's most powerful icon until his retirement in 1992, Johnny Carson stands as a significant cultural indicator of late 20th-century America. Born almost a quarter of a century earlier and several hundred miles north of his Nebraska counterpart, North Dakotan Lawrence Welk bridged two eras: pre-World War II United States, when radio reigned, and the postwar era, when television took over.

Although it might seem counterintuitive to consider Welk and Carson in juxtaposition, many things linked them as personalities and as entertainers. Both were the beneficiaries of perfect timing, launching their careers when, first, radio and, then television were in their infancies. Both established large and loyal followings by creating public personas that came across extremely engagingly on the tube. And both were small-town boys from the transitional area connecting the Midwest and the Great Plains who retained strong ties to their boyhood social environments while adapting themselves skillfully to the new conditions of American society that rapidly emerged after World War II.

Welk, who got started in show business in the 20's just as radio was coming into its own, successfully managed the transition to television and became a national cultural hero in his own right, making a personal fortune in the process. Carson, the ultimate creature of television, accumulated even greater wealth and popular acclaim, emerging in the process as perhaps the most powerful person in the entertainment industry. Toward the end of his "Tonight" show tenure, People magazine gushed: "He is Mr. Television. Titan of talk, minister of celebrity, night watchman of the global village, comedian laureate of a nation that loves to laugh itself to sleep."

Only in its reference to the "global village," a term Marshall McLuhan popularized about the time that Carson catapulted to the top during the early 1960's, did the magazine err in its characterization. The "Tonight" show's brand of humor, it appears, was not exportable. In 1981, when NBC tested the waters for an abbreviated version of the program in Great Britain, it flopped dismally. "Who is this Johnny Carson guy?" inquired one London viewer. "I find it very difficult to laugh when the chat-show king is earning a multimillion-- dollar salary reading cue boards." A TV critic for the London Daily Mail remained mystified: "His monologue could be in Swahili for all we get from it."

What rendered the program incomprehensible to Brits was exactly what made it so popular in the United States, reflecting the gulf separating the two countries' popular cultures. (The Beatles and the Rolling Stones did much to bridge that gap during the early years of Carson's reign on the "Tonight" show.) The Nebraska-bred talk show host's comedic approach was essentially as a reactor. "I'm a reaction performer," he told a writer. "I react off a situation." His monologues, the favorite part of the show for him, contained commentaries on the political and cultural developments of the day. Careful to suppress his personal biases and opinions, Carson aimed his barbs willy-nilly at all points on the political spectrum, providing a running, if irreverent, commentary on changing times. In the process, he emerged as a significant cultural barometer. "I never really believed Nixon was finished," one magazine writer noted, "until Johnny Carson began making Watergate jokes."

Possessing an intuitive sense of what Americans wanted to watch and what they were thinking, Carson dished up easily digestible fare, making the "Tonight" show a juggernaut which saw more than a dozen rivals come and go, and which, for a time, was raking in 17 per cent of the entire network's profits. "He is as crucial to the understanding of the nature of middle America (not necessarily in a geographic sense) as he is crucial (in a personal sense) to an understanding of the nature of television," proclaimed a Life magazine cover story in 1970. …