Some of my earliest television memories are staying up late and watching Johnny Carson without my parents’ knowledge. Sure, he was in his twilight years in terms of his late-night career, but he was still near the top of his game.
Was there a secret for his success? I suppose plenty. His timing was impeccable and he knew how to save a bad routine. He had a great eye for talent and he knew how to make the viewer feel welcome. Part of that last part, it could be argued, was the fact that he was about as ecumenical as a host could be.
For all you knew, Johnny Carson could have secretly been a member of the John Birch Society or the Weather Underground. He’d never let on.
“Along with virtually every other American, I never knew Johnny Carson’s politics,” Dennis Prager wrote in a 2017 column. “I would not have been surprised if he was a liberal or a conservative, a Democrat or a Republican. In his 30 years as host of ‘The Tonight Show’ on NBC, he never so much as hinted as to how he identified politically. He poked fun at whoever was in power.”
Even back in the day, Serious People™ didn’t like this. CBS’ Mike Wallace took Carson to task over it when “60 Minutes” did a profile on Carson back in the 1970s.
“Do you get sensitive about the fact that people say, ‘He’ll never take a serious controversy?'” Wallace asked.
“Well, I have an answer to that,” Carson said. “Now, tell me the last time that Jack Benny, Red Skelton, any comedian used his show to do serious issues.
“That’s not what I’m there for,” he continued, slightly piqued. “You see that?”
“But you’re not–” Wallace said.
“Why do they think since you have a ‘Tonight Show,’ you will deal with serious issues? That’s a danger. That’s a real danger. Once you start that, you start to get that self important feeling, that what you say has great import. And you know, strangely enough, you could use that show as a forum, you could sway people. And I don’t think you should as an entertainer.”
Kimmel, for once, is relatively quiet on the major issue of the day — namely, Blackfacegate down in Virginia.
One assumes that this has more to do with the fact that Kimmel himself once donned blackface to portray basketball legend Karl Malone in a sketch for “The Man Show” than any new spirit of restraint, but at least we’ve been spared hearing the tortuous way he would tie Ralph Northam and Mark Herring back to Donald Trump.
However, this Carson interview is a glimpse into how hyperpartisan the media has become. It was still liberal back in 1979, mind you — William F. Buckley was always able to get plenty of mileage out of the establishment media even well before that — but there was a sense of restraint. Today, you have Democrats announcing their presidential candidacies on Stephen Colbert’s show because it’s essentially a one-hour liberal safe-space.
I’m not particularly big on the late-night shows, inasmuch as I’m a conservative. However, if you’re an errant liberal reading this, I have a question:
When you watch Colbert, Kimmel or Fallon, are you edified? When they dedicate half their show to bashing President Trump and Republicans, do you feel better about the direction of the country or your own beliefs? Are you more informed than you were when the show started? Do you feel that any of these individuals are providing you with succor or merriment?
The purpose of the late-night show was once to poke fun at the powerful, no matter who they were.
Comedians were there to entertain us before we went to bed, no matter who we were. Now, they’re a paid political advertisement for the Democrats. Is this an improvement?
“One could list a hundred ways America was indeed great (without ever ignoring serious moral flaws),” Prager wrote in his column about Carson and the state of late-night TV.
“Now, one can list a hundred ways in which America has lost that greatness. The descent from Johnny Carson to Stephen Colbert is just one example.
“But it is a powerful one.”
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