Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” is returning to television. And older people are celebrating the idea that they can again visit Johnny before turning in for the night.
It is hard to convey to people under 40 how important Johnny Carson was to American mainstream during the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Watching Johnny before bedtime was as natural as brushing one’s teeth. It was something we wouldn’t consider not doing. Even on a work night, if we were tired, we’d at least stay awake for the monologue.
Johnny offered a relaxed, friendly presence. We liked him, we laughed at him, we trusted him, and we felt we knew him. We just couldn’t imagine our nights without him. When he got older and relied more frequently on guest hosts, our nights just weren’t the same.
Jerry Seinfeld once said that nobody succeeded Johnny Carson. Others who came after him to host the “Tonight Show,” including Jay Leno and Jimmy Fallon, brought different shows. They were not a continuation of Johnny’s “Tonight Show.” Because when he left, he took it with him. It was never the same again.
When Carson left “The Tonight Show” he never came back to do anything else. He realized he reached his high water mark. In 1994 he did appear on Letterman, delivering that night’s Top Ten list to the host. Even though he didn’t say a word, he received a 90 second standing ovation.
Antenna TV has secured the right to broadcast old “Tonight Show” episodes beginning January 1, 2016. Because NBC still owns the rights to the title, they will be calling the shows” Johnny Carson.” That’s ok, because that is what we used to call it. The shows Antenna TV has run from 1972 until Johnny’s retirement in 1992. That means nearly all of the shows from the 1970s and 1980s will be available again. I assume the episodes with guests who still have some relevance would likely be those rebroadcast. Carson once read a letter from me on the air, but unless Tom Jones, that night’s guest, enjoys some big comeback popularity soon, I don’t expect that to be one of the reruns.
It is exciting to imagine our evenings will once again be capped with Johnny Carson’s affable humor, the music of bandleader Doc Severinsen, the amiable presence of sidekick Ed McMahon. The myriad of comedians, musical performers, authors, and politicians from this era, the skits with Carson’s various characters; it is something we thought we’d never be able to experience again.
However, I don’t know that younger people will connect with this iconic series. It really is very much a product of his time. The jokes might seem corny, some will be considered sexist in this era (Johnny once said a girl he knew won Miss Abraham Lincoln because everyone had a shot at her in the balcony), and much of the humor was quite topical. But its nostalgia factor for those of us who are older, and who remember, it will be like a reunion with an old friend.