All right Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up

18 January 2010

Wheeere's Johnny??

In the midst of all the commotion over Jay and Conan and Dave and ... the question of who will sit behind the desk at 11:30pm eastern on NBC really seems irrelevant and pointless--does anyone really care anymore?

There was a time when that desk was the most famous desk in the country, next to the one in the oval office, and who sat there had relevance and was a fixture in every American's daily, or nightly, life. America went to bed with the Tonight Show and the man that kept us up after the nightly news and kept viewers tuned in even after they knew the sports and weather, was a guy from Nebraska that knew a little magic, how to tell a joke and how to play a gag... Johnny Carson.

For over thirty years Johnny Carson tucked us all in and made us all smile before we closed our eyes for the night---truly one of the toughest jobs in television! You watched Carson, not the Tonight Show. No one ever did it better and though the format remains pretty much the same as it was when Steve Allen began hosting in 1954-a desk, a band, a monologue, a revolving door of celebrities and luminaries-the job of entertaining an increasingly diverse, stressed and multi-tasking audience has become more than one host can handle.

The most glamorous years for the Tonight Show were under with the brilliant Jack Paar who hosted from 1957-1962. Perhaps best known for his famous walk-off exit after NBC censored a joke-when he declared that "I am leaving the Tonight Show. There must be a better way to making a living than this." only to come back after a month's hiatus and state "As I was saying before I was interrupted...there must be a better way of making a living than this. Well, I've looked...and there isn't." Paar sat with Broadway legends, historic figures, newsmakers, and politicians and pushed the comedy envelope along with his audience.

The guests were a bit less "high brow" and a lot more Hollywood under Johnny's reign but there was an "old comfortable chair" feel to his style and you knew what to expect each night at 11:30, and he never disappointed.

Sure guest hosts came and went over the years, often for long stretches, but even though Leno and Letterman had their turn at his chair it was Johnny that owned that chair.

It would take Americans being held hostage in Iran for Johnny's audience to turn the channel away to what would become Nightline and his handpicked successor to get his own job at CBS for the reality of a changing television landscape to reconstruct the Tonight Show model.

Jay Leno was not Johnny's first choice to follow as host but he has served the seat well while Letterman thrived on the east coast putting his own signature on late night.

The two would divide the time slot and each established their own viewing crowd-Leno an older traditional late night audience and Letterman the younger, professional crowd.

The audience has of course changed and so has the comedy they respond to as new hosts and numerous attemots to capturee the late crowd come and go---but there is always the shadow they all stand in of the man who showed them all how to do it and who they all emulate and respect. Despite their years in the time slot and their individual success they would all still admit without a doubt that they are wannabes.

The reality of this media overloaded world we live in is that there is simply too much competition, too much distraction, and too many other outlets that fracture our collective viewing. This nation no longer watches anything together and that includes major sporting and news events. We don't even watch traditional television broadcasting any longer. We stream video, we watch on cellphones, we TIVO, we watch on laptops and download from YouTube. Gone are the days when we sat and watched television as a nation. When we did,however, we all went to one place each night, a comfortable place where we all knew a guy that could make us laugh before we fell asleep Monday through Friday, the same cannot be said no matter who sits under the tile of host of the Tonight Show...Johnny we still miss you.