Johnny Carson: we knew you too well


It must be my world class head cold but I am feeling a little cranky about the celebrity culture at the moment. We are hyperbolically saying good bye to Johnny Carson.

Stanley of the Times appears both to criticize and participate in the trend:

Mr. Carson, whose death on Jan. 23 was treated in newscasts with the same consequence as a major space launch or a presidential address, was a little like John F. Kennedy or Toscanini: a matchless exemplar who spawned legions of irritating imitations.

“Matchless exemplar?” I remember thinking that Johnny Carson wasn’t very bright or very well informed. He used to say “I did not know that” as if there was something winning or clever about not have a clue.

If there was one person who made it “ok” to conduct oneself in mid-century American conversation with not a whit of wit or knowledge, it was Johnny Carson. If there is one person responsible for the fact that no one on late night television can conduct an interview to save their lives, it’s Johnny Carson.

And that’s a lot to answer for. Carson was an important creator of contemporary culture, let us give him that. But he was not without flaws and these live on.


Stanley, Alessandra. 2005. Carson’s Long Late-Night Shadow. New York Times. February 2, 2005, p. E1, E10.

4 thoughts on “Johnny Carson: we knew you too well

  1. Steve Portigal

    I was never really a Carson watcher; but certainly one couldn’t help but be aware of his place in populaar culture.

    What I keep thinking throughout all the tributes was that he was significant and “great” because he was around for so long…his presence, and his role, more than the way he personally and uniquely contributed, was the legacy. That seems to be underneath much of the coverage, but of course, no one in the media would state that explicitly.

  2. Wodek Szemberg

    Grant, I’m surprised at your annoyance with Carson’s “I didn’t know about that” . The more popular “The Tonight Show” became the more important it was to make sure that the avarage viewer did not feel out of the loop. Everytime Carson didn’t know about something, he made it clear to his viewers that it is ok not to know this or that. Your neighbour, David Letterman, has managed to become the crown prince of the late night talk show because he keeps behaving like a boob from Indiana visting the big city. Note Letterman’s white socks and the unbuttoned double-breasted suits. I suspect these are the small ways in which Letterman pays tribute to the idea that ‘real Americans” cannot be too sophisticated.
    On the other hand, may I remind you that Carson had a long-standing and genuine interest in astronomy.
    So I don’t think he was a complete goof.

  3. Streeter Click

    Am responding to long-standing comments, as I’m researching Carson, who was bright, intelligent and articulate. Perhaps earlier commentors are seasoned interviewed, I can’t say, but Carson set a high standard, which others, notably Leno, can’t hope to reach. Carson made it okay to “not know everything.” If this is a definition of a dim-wit, most of us stand behind Carson. Anyhow, there’s a new piece on Carson at


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