Johnny Who? Here's Jimmy Fallon, the First Late-Night Host Too Young to Have Worshipped Carson

By Carson, Tom | The American Prospect, January-February 2014 | Go to article overview

Johnny Who? Here's Jimmy Fallon, the First Late-Night Host Too Young to Have Worshipped Carson


Carson, Tom, The American Prospect


The story goes that Johnny Carson, who hosted NBC's The Tonight Show for count'-em 30 years--from 1962 to 1992-loved vacationing abroad because no one outside the United States knew who the hell he was. That certainly wasn't the case here at home. In his heyday, basically the entire time he had the job, Carson wasn't famous the way, for instance, Jane Fonda is famous. He was famous like Bayer aspirin or, to the more troubled members of his audience, Jim Beam. Outdoing even that plummily narcissistic Polonius, CBS news anchorman Walter Cronkite, he was 20th-century American life's most reassuring constant.

Once he was done, he vanished from public view as if he'd been television's Lawrence of Arabia, just with fewer hang-ups about revolutionizing a vast wasteland. Impervious to the latest fashion because he was so alert to it, Carson could always be counted on to deliver the goods. In his case, those were chiefly a reassurance that nothing could be too wrong with this loused-up world if Johnny could be puckish about it and an unerring reminder that you don't need to be hip to have style. The first was a fib, and the second was true, and no one in TV history has ever merged them the way he did.

Because the art of talk-show hosting is as evanescent as ballet-DVDs of Carson's reign won't cut it; you have to have seen it on that night--his name is more or less meaningless to anyone under 4,0. He'd have been OK with that, too. Part of his appeal was how he managed to convey that he was a flinty realist about such things while letting us know that the world hadn't quite gone all to hell yet.

Today, his legend only looms large to a select group. Any halfway compassionate human being should feel sorry for them, because they're Carson's fellow talk-show hosts. Poor Dave, poor Jay, poor Conan O'Brien!

They grew up with Johnny and know they're the Corleone sons after the Godfather's shuffle off this mortal coil. Sonny (Jay Leno) is bluff and hearty, with a lurking penchant for thuggery; just ask O'Brien, who replaced him as The Tonight Show's host for seven months in 2009 before Jay decided he wanted his old job back. Even if he knows he's the shrewdest of the three, Michael (David Letterman) will always be crotchety about whatever mysterious thing he forswore-earthly happiness, apparently--in order to make good. Fredo (O'Brien) is still fumbling for his gun.

They can all be some of Pop, but none of them can be all of Pop. Too bad that was what Pop raised them to aspire to.

WHEN LENO HANDS OFF The Tonight Show to current Late Night host Jimmy Fallon in February, Fallon will be unique: the first big-league talk-show host who's too young to be haunted by Carson's example. Just 17 when the great man called it quits, he grew up watching Saturday Night Live, which was the making of him when he joined its cast. Seeing what a non-custodian of tradition will do with the job could be interesting, because The Tonight Show's odd status as some sort of sacred vessel is almost entirely due to the fact that Johnny Carson once hosted it.

As full of himself as Leno can be, which is plenty, he's always been conscious of being somebody's replacement. (The news-anchor parallel is Dan Rather's taking over for Cronkite on the CBS Evening News, and Rather's jumpy look whenever something reminded him that he wasn't Cronkite--like realizing he was on TV, for instance--will always be a strangely endearing memory to people who can remember both men's handling of the job.) Leno was smart enough to know he couldn't mimic Carson's style, not least because his own style--such as it was and is--was well formed and familiar by then. Even so, it's a cinch that Fallon won't be haunted by Leno's example, because Leno wasn't hired to redefine the nature of the gig. He was hired to keep the damned thing going as Johnny's ghost smirked and sighed.

What made Leno a good choice to replace Carson was that he's the sort of dolt who thrives on official sanction and felt validated when the crown passed to him. …

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