Trying to tell millennials about Johnny Carson is like trying to tell them about The Beatles. It only confuses them and reinforces the stark reality that as a baby boomer, I am well beyond the puppy stage.
But since television has been responsible for the degraded attention spans of a large swath of the general population and because, for a lot of people, history is a rerun of “Friends,” I’m going to take on the quixotic quest to hark back to another age, when newscasters actually did say things like “film at 11.”
Before Letterman there was Carson. Before Carson there was Paar. Before Paar there was Steve Allen, the man who actually invented “The Tonight Show.”
We heard a lot this past two weeks of the swan song of David Letterman and how indebted the over-populated talk show world is to him.
David Letterman was a talk show host, but if you had just landed from the fourth planet from the fifth sun on Alpha Centari last week, you might have figured that a leader of the free world or the man who invented Velcro (more about that later) had passed.
I know it sounds a little grumpy to huff and puff about television’s proclivity to heap inordinate amounts of praise on rather ordinary things, but when it comes to the grumpy-meter, nothing compares to the bitter, angry and oftentimes downright mean aperture of David Letterman.
I would venture Steve Allen deserves a tip of the hat. David Letterman was remembered for his embrace of the absurd. Personally, in his early years, that celebration of life’s downright weirdness provided a lot of good entertainment.
But it wasn’t David Letterman who put a basset hound in tails and top hat for Elvis Presley to sing “You Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog” to — it was Steve Allen.
When Jack Paar took over “The Tonight Show” from Steve Allen, he created a very different kind of talk show. … Believe it or not, it was a show where people talked. Not just celebrities hawking their latest record or movie or television show, but politicians, Nobel Prize winners and people who were just plain interesting.
Can you imagine Jimmy Fallon interviewing Fidel Castro? Paar did. It’s funny how people thought things could never measure up to Steve Allen and thought Jack Paar (who left the show rather abruptly), could never be replaced. … Then came Johnny.
Johnny Carson was that perfect blend of midwestern boyish charm peppered with a dark personality fueled by cigarettes and alcohol that allowed him to navigate through any Hollywood party. His quick wit (he was funnier when the written jokes bombed) and his authentic interest in his guests — especially if they were Jack Benny or Jimmy Stewart — resonated with his audience.
No one really equaled Carson’s blend of Hollywood hucksterism (which is the reason talk shows really exist) and a little dab of genuine intellectual interest and humanity.
Letterman was a different kind of talk show host. “Stupid Pet Tricks” and a cast of eccentric characters that meandered in and out of the course of the show were memorable indeed. And anyone who would cover themselves in a Velcro-covered jump suit and take a flying leap toward a wall thereby attaching himself like a giant human toy, was somebody I wanted to trifle a few minutes of my life with.
Over the years, the twinkle in Letterman’s his eye about life’s little absurdities changed to a sneer at a world he seemed to find uninteresting and cold. Plenty of private issues became public and a not so warm and fuzzy personality rose to the surface.
When Letterman did have “substantial” guests like politicians and non-showbiz types, the show either turned into a sycophant love fest or a source of mockery.
Thanks to YouTube and other Internet resources, there is another “talk show” host people can access. He had his own show where he had no guests at all and spoke directly to the audience for a half hour.
He also appeared as a guest on talk shows like Jack Paar’s show and even “The Merv Griffin Show.”
This TV star was Bishop Fulton Sheen and it can be argued he was the first televangelist. He is currently on the road to sainthood, but if there is anyone reading this who is within thirty yards of a computer I could not implore strongly enough they search Fulton Sheen and be prepared to be amazed.
He had an uncanny ability to distill big ideas into bite-sized morsels for mere mortals like us. He was elegant, a master of language, and if you watch him in his prime, you know he had an actor’s flair. He is the gift that keeps on giving, since he was also a prolific writer and his books are still available.
Imagine a Catholic priest dominating the airways, teaching Catholic doctrine to the masses. People have been trying to duplicate that ever since with variable degrees of failure.
Maybe Fulton Sheen was lightning in a bottle, but thanks to our brave new electronic world, his wisdom and inspiration is just a mouse click away.
Milton Berle, the man who earned the title “Mr. Television” by being one of the pioneers of the medium, once remarked about how his show was getting clobbered in the ratings by Fulton Sheen. Berle puffed on his cigar and shrugged, saying, “What do you expect? He’s got better writers.”