Johnny Who?

AP Images/NBC/Lloyd Bishop

The story goes that Johnny Carson, who hosted NBC’s The Tonight Show for count-’em 30 years—from 1962 to 1992—loved vacationing abroad because no one outside the United States knew who the hell he was. That certainly wasn’t the case here at home. In his heyday, basically the entire time he had the job, Carson wasn’t famous the way, for instance, Jane Fonda is famous. He was famous like Bayer aspirin or, to the more troubled members of his audience, Jim Beam. Outdoing even that plummily narcissistic Polonius, CBS news anchorman Walter Cronkite, he was 20th-century American life’s most reassuring constant.

Once he was done, he vanished from public view as if he’d been television’s Lawrence of Arabia, just with fewer hang-ups about revolutionizing a vast wasteland. Impervious to the latest fashion because he was so alert to it, Carson could always be counted on to deliver the goods. In his case, those were chiefly a reassurance that nothing could be too wrong with this loused-up world if Johnny could be puckish about it and an unerring reminder that you don’t need to be hip to have style. The first was a fib, and the second was true, and no one in TV history has ever merged them the way he did.

Because the art of talk-show hosting is as evanescent as ballet—DVDs of Carson’s reign won’t cut it; you have to have seen it on that night—his name is more or less meaningless to anyone under 40. He’d have been OK with that, too. Part of his appeal was how he managed to convey that he was a flinty realist about such things while letting us know that the world hadn’t quite gone all to hell yet.

Today, his legend only looms large to a select group. Any halfway compassionate human being should feel sorry for them, because they’re Carson’s fellow talk-show hosts. Poor Dave, poor Jay, poor Conan O’Brien!

They grew up with Johnny and know they’re the Corleone sons after the Godfather’s shuffle off this mortal coil. Sonny (Jay Leno) is bluff and hearty, with a lurking penchant for thuggery; just ask O’Brien, who replaced him as The Tonight Show’s host for seven months in 2009 before Jay decided he wanted his old job back. Even if he knows he’s the shrewdest of the three, Michael (David Letterman) will always be crotchety about whatever mysterious thing he forswore—earthly happiness, apparently—in order to make good. Fredo (O’Brien) is still fumbling for his gun.

They can all be some of Pop, but none of them can be all of Pop. Too bad that was what Pop raised them to aspire to.

 

When Leno hands off The Tonight Show to current Late Night host Jimmy Fallon in February, Fallon will be unique: the first big-league talk-show host who’s too young to be haunted by Carson’s example. Just 17 when the great man called it quits, he grew up watching Saturday Night Live, which was the making of him when he joined its cast. Seeing what a non-custodian of tradition will do with the job could be interesting, because The Tonight Show’s odd status as some sort of sacred vessel is almost entirely due to the fact that Johnny Carson once hosted it.

As full of himself as Leno can be, which is plenty, he’s always been conscious of being somebody’s replacement. (The news-anchor parallel is Dan Rather’s taking over for Cronkite on the CBS Evening News, and Rather’s jumpy look whenever something reminded him that he wasn’t Cronkite—like realizing he was on TV, for instance—will always be a strangely endearing memory to people who can remember both men’s handling of the job.) Leno was smart enough to know he couldn’t mimic Carson’s style, not least because his own style—such as it was and is—was well formed and familiar by then. Even so, it’s a cinch that Fallon won’t be haunted by Leno’s example, because Leno wasn’t hired to redefine the nature of the gig. He was hired to keep the damned thing going as Johnny’s ghost smirked and sighed.

What made Leno a good choice to replace Carson was that he’s the sort of dolt who thrives on official sanction and felt validated when the crown passed to him. (He may have loved the title of Tonight Show host more than he ever did the job.) The major surprise of Leno dicking Conan O’Brien over when he decided to recapture his former kingdom was that most observers would have guessed Jay had too much keep-on-truckling in him to assert himself in that way.

Yet O’Brien was subtly but fatally wrong for the job. His insecurity about his own image is intrinsic to how he presents it, and one way Johnny defined the Tonight Show gig was by knowing when reserve and a certain selfless calm were the right move. Since the show’s role in American life isn’t to be simply “lulling” but to be cutting-edge lulling, one key to being right for the host’s job is that you’d better project self-sufficiency.

 

Fallon certainly has that, despite being eager to please in a way foreign to Johnny Carson. At best, Carson was merely interested in pleasing. Both how to amuse people and why he was bothering to never stopped intriguing him. But Fallon doesn’t look as if people who don’t think he’s the best news since buttered toast will mess up his day. If he’s also got a streak of frat-boy callousness, virtually every white male under 40 on TV fits that description to some extent. Fallon’s distinctive twist is to peddle himself as a nice guy who’s only pretending to be a douche. Like most of his TV peers, he’s got a face almost alarmingly unmarred by harsh experience or discernible emotional depth; that smooth head of hair and those perfect choppers make him look like Pixar’s design for the Talk Show Doll in Toy Story 4.

He’s not much more than serviceable as an interviewer. But that matters a whole lot less than it did back when being a nimble one was more or less the point of the whole gig. Carson was a brilliant navigator of conversations, able to guess on a dime when it made sense to delve into some peekaboo fjord a guest had just revealed and when it was brighter to cruise on past to the next commercial. By contrast, the “talk” part of today’s talk shows is a hasty business of canned prattle, multiple tie-ins—when a host holds up a magazine featuring his guest on the cover, he’s also plugging the magazine, and so on—and sometimes fascinating jitters. I remember catching delectable-but-not-too-terribly-quick-on-the-uptake Scarlett Johansson on Late Night a while back, and the anxiety under her and Fallon’s good cheer was palpable. You had no doubt both these people were working, and pretty hard too.

Like most current talk hosts—magnets of jumpy industriousness, one and all—Fallon scarcely bothers to maintain the old illusion that everybody’s having a relaxed time shooting the breeze and an audience of millions just happens to be watching. The illusion’s decline is partly due to the fact that talk-show hosts aren’t mere enablers of celebrity blather anymore. They’re too conscious of being big names in their own right with a brand to push and protect, making for a certain confusion, sometimes genial and sometimes not, about who is playing along with—or sucking up to—whom. Letterman was probably the first host to make this shift in priorities self-evident; when guests go on his show, they’d better adjust to Dave’s sensibility if they know what’s good for them. That grumpy man isn’t one to budge much to accommodate theirs.

Another reason the “talk” part of talk shows has turned into gibberish is that everybody’s so available. What’s the excitement of seeing Ben Affleck drop by Fallon’s set if Ben’s going to be on three other shows that same week—looking, as usual, as if it might take being thrown in the path of a moving train to wake him up? Meanwhile, talk-show bookers are bent on serving up guests with guaranteed name recognition to an all but exclusively pop-oriented audience. If Thomas Pynchon decided to wrap up the ball game by offering himself to The Tonight Show as a guest, not one in 50,000 viewers would care. That’s why The Tonight Show would turn Pynchon down.

Fallon’s ace in the hole is that he’s an inspired sketch artist—why do you think SNL was so happy to have him?—and an unusually gifted musical parodist. That part of the job clearly energizes him in ways its increasingly vestigial main event doesn’t, and he does better with (and by) his guests when he can induce them to join the fun. Convincing Michelle Obama to shake some first-lady booty in a genuinely charming skit called “The Evolution of Mom Dancing”—not that she looked like she’d needed much convincing, which was part of the charm—is the standout example. As for Late Night’s send-ups of other TV shows, their elaborateness is a far cry from Carson’s proudly cheesy skits, and it’s not insignificant that they usually work by playing off Fallon’s career. His Breaking Bad parody had him turning louche joke peddler after learning he had only six months left on Late Night. His version of Game of Thrones renamed Rockefeller Center “Rockefell,” and so on.

He’s certain to be the first Tonight Show host whose YouTube highlights draw a bigger or anyhow hipper audience than the show itself. I get most of my Fallon via YouTube—who wants to sit through a whole episode of Late Night, for Pete’s sake?—and I’m sure I’m a long way from alone. That’s a post-Johnny and even post-Leno system for maintaining and/or upgrading one’s visibility, and Fallon probably lives to go viral; it’s presumably one reason he takes such care with his comedy bits. He’s also got close to 11 million followers on Twitter, and he (or his writers) put some care into his tweets as well. Tweets from celebrities are a minor new art form—you don’t want to be anodyne, but you can’t vent either—and Fallon’s genial Twitter feed creates a greater sense of pseudo-intimacy with him than watching his damned show.

In other words, he’s really smart about new media, even as he parks his rump in the most tradition--cobwebbed chair on TV. On Late Night, he’s been best at blending old and new in his musical taste. What’s probably his most brilliant musical pastiche, the Tim Tebow-izing of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”—“This is Jesus Christ to Tim Tebow/Please leave me alone,” and so on—depends on a rock chestnut that’s more than 40 years old. Fallon’s impersonations of Neil Young and Jim Morrison (another gem, with the Doors performing the Reading Rainbow theme song) spoof musicians who were legends—and in Morrison’s case, in the grave—before his own birth. Yet Ahmir Khalib Thompson, a k a Questlove, who heads up Late Night’s house band, the Roots—and looks like Cornel West minus the pretensions—is the funkiest and most unmistakably contemporary bandleader on any late-night gabfest.

Fallon is bringing Questlove and the Roots with him to The Tonight Show, a novelty sure to disconcert any remaining viewers with fond memories of Doc Severinsen’s dapper nihilism back in Johnny’s day. But Questlove may also be part of the 2014 definition of cutting-edge lulling. Setting aside that the tricky job Fallon is tackling is also unspeakably meaningless—really, who wouldn’t rather futz around online nowadays than zonk out to late-night TV?—I wish him well. In ways not under his control, Fallon’s Tonight Show debut will be a television landmark: the night Johnny Carson’s ghost is finally laid to rest. Adios, stranger.

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