Carson’s Country 

Our national class cut-up

I intended to talk about you-know-who's inauguration speech this week, but something more important happened in the meantime and I can't let it pass without comment. I'll shoot for the speech later, and if I don't get to it, no big deal. You've probably already forgotten what he said, anyway.

Years ago, I was griping to a friend about a common acquaintance. He and I and the one who wasn't there--the one I was bitching about--all belonged to a small, specific population within a larger profession. I'm working hard here not to provide any clues that might lead inquisitive minds to the person I was griping about, so suffice it to say there were few enough of us in Boise who plied that particular trade, it's safe to say every member of the club knew every other member, often better than we would have preferred. In fact, the man I was griping to and the man I was griping about had known one another for decades. Since they were students. Since before Johnny Carson became host of the Tonight Show.

I was really laying it on, I tell you. Joan Rivers would have been proud of me. It wasn't just my own dirt I was dishing out. I was passing on all the gossip I'd heard others say about this guy behind his back. My friend nodded along with every condescending slur, smiled along with every sling of mud, chuckled at each catty cut, and seemed to agree with everything I said. Ed McMahon couldn't have done it any better. When I had finally told all the mocking anecdotes and belly-aching objections I had on my nit-pick list, he said, "You're right, Bill. That's him to a tee. But there's one thing I have to say about ol' ------_______ . Not once in all the time I've known him have I ever heard him say something bad about anyone else."

I've given it a lot of thought since then and try as I might, I can't come up with any better compliment to pay a person ... that he never had a bad word to say about anyone else.

I wouldn't go so far as to imply my Mom would have left Dad if Johnny Carson had winked her way, but I can't be 100 percent sure. I mean ... she really liked him. When we were kids, my sibs and I would tease her for the way she fell asleep in her recliner about 7:30 every night, and then without fail came alive in time for Carson--"Johnny," as she called him. I suspect she would have slept all day, if that was what it took to be up and perky in time for the monologue.

Frankly, I didn't get it. I laughed when I watched Carson, I can't deny that. I'll never forget the night Charles Nelson Riley said something so funny, Johnny fell out of his chair and curled up on the carpet like a koala bear trying to catch his breath, he was laughing so hard. I would have worried he might choke, had I not been choking, myself. I can't remember what Nelson Riley said that caused it all, but nothing I've seen has ever made me laugh harder than watching Johnny crack up that night. It was like being caught in a bomb blast, blown away with high-grade joy.

There were so many new comics coming along. Edgier, darker, teeth-bared comics who didn't soft-shoe around the controversies and who put tearing at the throat above tickling the ribs. That's the kind of funny stuff I preferred. A squirrel pooping on Johnny's head while he sat there mugging distressed little-boy faces into the camera was enough to bring tears to your eyes. Who can argue? But I figured if humor wasn't offensive to someone, why bother?

Certainly, at some point, Johnny Carson must have gone on the attack. Hey, he was only the most popular, most watched, most identifiable face in the country ... not the Dalai Lama. You'd think in a 30-year run, just once he would have let someone have it but good. Ripped 'em a new one.

But if he ever did, it wasn't on teevee--never on his show, when 50 million of his closest confidants would be listening. Not to his competition, not the seven presidents who could only wish they had his ratings, not even his ex-wives--they were all as safe in his hands as one of Jim Fowler's critters.

Sure, Johnny poked fun at people. In those skits of his--so loosely stitched together you expected them to fall apart at any moment--he could be a hippie one night and a hillbilly the next. He fumbled about as Ronald Reagan or stumbled around like Gerald Ford. (We can only imagine what he would have done with Clinton or George W.). But there's an enormous difference between poking fun at people and making fun of them. If you don't understand that difference, consider the function of a butter knife, as opposed to a meat clever.

So what does Mom think is so damn funny about a guy who isn't making fun of anyone? I wondered. Must be a generation thing, I decided. Carson belonged to those folks who'd had their fill of nastiness in their time and they didn't want to hear any more of it. The Great Depression was demeaning enough, wasn't it? Losing loved ones in the war was the meanest cut of all. Add to that a lifetime of working like a machine to make things better for their families, and the last thing they wanted to listen to was some know-it-all, abusive snot, especially before they went to bed. They were looking for reasons to feel happy and good about the day they had just lived through, not reasons to dread waking up.

Maybe that's why Johnny, the boy from Nebraska turned bon vivant live from New York appealed to both Nebraskans and New Yorkers. Maybe that's why he was the last national figure everyone in America could agree on and find agreeable. Maybe that's why 50 million entirely different people could fall asleep with a smile on their minds instead of a grudge in their hearts. Maybe that's why we didn't have red states and blue states while he was on the air--because the most popular, most watched, most identifiable face in the country never had a bad word to say about anyone else.

It's too late for most of us. In the years since Johnny signed off, there have been so many bad words said about virtually everyone else that there's no going back. Once you take the low road, you're committed.

And American humor, what there is of it now, is all meat cleaver and no butter knife. Nothing seems funny, but everything seems ridiculous. For instance, that inauguration speech ... what a joke.

It's a shame. You would think in a country this big, we could find another single funny soul who could make all of us laugh at once. I guess I couldn't see what a blessing we had when we had it.

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