Carson's legend: the genial host of a late-night town square

Johnny Carson won more than the popular vote during three decades as host of TV's "Tonight Show." In his retirement year of 1992 he received his country's highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom, from the first President Bush. After Carson's passing on Sunday the present President Bush said, "His wit and insight made Americans laugh and think, and had a profound influence on American life and entertainment."

In the rush of sly or hilarious Carson clips aired this week, we missed one that might have followed last Thursday's second inaugural with its call for spreading freedom. In 1991 various Soviet republics were moving toward freedom, and on his show of Sept. 11 that year, Carson wryly responded with "What Democracy Means to Me." Imagine "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" in the background.

"To me, democracy means placing trust in the little guy, giving the fruits of nationhood to those who built the nation." Who could disagree? Thus he lulls you a little. But then, perhaps in line with his dictum of "never be boring"...

"And, unlike communism, democracy does not mean having just one ineffective political party; it means having two ineffective political parties.... Democracy is welcoming people from other lands, and giving them something to hold onto - usually a mop or a leaf blower.... Democracy means never having the secret police show up at your door. Of course, it also means never having the cable guy show up at your door.... It means that with proper timing and scrupulous bookkeeping, anyone can die owing the government a huge amount of money."

You get the idea. It's the kind of nudge that might make Americans, or even American leaders, "laugh and think," in President Bush's words. Certainly Gov. Bill Clinton got the idea when Carson gave him a drolly long introduction after his notoriously long speech at the Democratic convention.

Carson was an equal opportunity needler, a professional version of the regular in the coffee shop who says whatever funny thing occurs to him. In contrast with some of today's comics, he turned American bedrooms into a kind of town square where folks were not just red or blue, in the current confrontational jargon, but red, white, and blue, and all the colors of humanity.

Carson receives credit for lampooning or harpooning the sins of Watergate. But he wasn't a "political" comedian. If he had been, he met his match during the Vietnam war. British naval commander Louis Mountbatten agreed to be a guest, but said he would not answer questions on Vietnam. Carson evidently tried to get around him.

"Sir, if you were President of the United States, what would you do about Vietnam?"

"I'd tell the British to keep their noses out of it," said Lord Mountbatten.

The current Carson remembrances have understandably celebrated the more overt, if often less pointed, side of his humor. The stockpile of facial reactions, from mocking to thunderstruck, that say as much as words. The expert physical clowning and befuddled play with animals. The dips into what a Nebraska boy like Carson might have called barnyard humor back home.

Keeping a certain middle American image may have let him get away with more than the present censorious Federal Communications Commission would find appropriate. On Sunday, comedian Jerry Lewis fondly said that Carson always had a bit of straw sticking out of his ear. Insult comedian Don Rickles - joining the many performers (Jerry Seinfeld, David Letterman, Jay Leno, for example) whose careers got a lift from Carson - was lamblike in his praise. He said Carson made him look good, always ready to let someone else get the laugh.

This though Carson was famous for the art of getting the last laugh, rescuing many a failed joke with a look or a line. One of his former writers denies that the jokes were deliberately bad in an effort to let Carson show his stuff.

Gestures were part of the package - the golf swing after the monologue, the pencil tapped on the desk. Carson was an amateur drummer and often had the feisty master drummer Buddy Rich as a guest, spoofily calling him Mr. Humble. Rich received an honorary degree at Berklee College of Music in Boston during those years. Backstage Rich said he gave Carson a set of his drums that Carson used to work off his aggressions. "Me," said Mr. Humble, "I get mad after I play."

Johnny Carson's aggressions? He was Mr. Geniality. For someone who drowsily enjoyed Carson's ease over the years, it has been a bit surprising to hear so much now about his reclusiveness and the marital troubles he lightly or edgily made part of his act.

That act included lines that became part of viewers' language: Sidekick Ed McMahon's "Heeeere's Johnny." Insert a name of choice. "How hot was it, Johnny?" Insert adjective of choice. Was it a grave situation? "Never say 'grave' to an old person," said Johnny in his Aunt Blabby costume, somehow making mortality an object of ridicule rather than gloom. Insert two-edged word of choice.

Often called the king of late-night TV, Carson won four Emmy awards in a row. He "defined the original talk show," said talk-show queen Oprah Winfrey Sunday.

Carson built on the work of TV predecessors Steve Allen and Jack Paar. But his show, like many of the viewers that NBC wished were younger, was a link to radio days also. Fred Allen's Mighty Allen Art Players echoed in the Mighty Carson Art Players. Johnny himself played characters from Carnac the Magnificent to Floyd R. Turbo, also known as Mr. Silent Majority. The byplay with band leaders Skitch Henderson and Doc Severinsen went back at least to Jack Benny and Phil Harris.

This comic lineage was in the American grain. It may help explain the comfort level of a mainstream audience in the company of Carson. Never mind the winking or deadpan double-entendre. The Medal of Freedom honored his "decency," among other things. And, sonny, he had it in comparison with what Aunt Blabby sees on the tube these days.

It doesn't take Carnac to perceive that the man who joked about what democracy means was reminding us what democracy should mean. It's not surprising that a man who knew off-screen difficulties keeps on contributing, through the John W. Carson Foundation, to volunteers and others helping their neighbors in the democratic spirit.

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