Much Has Changed Since Carson Was King

When producer Don Mischer approached the most legendary host in television history four years ago about participating in the 50th annual Emmy Awards telecast, Johnny Carson responded that he would “rather sit [at home] in Malibu and watch the hummingbirds mate.”

The hummingbirds are still flitting around, if the recent high jinks pertaining to late-night television are any indication, which is just another reminder of how remarkable it is that Carson has held fast to his lofty perch near the shoreline--happily removed from the incredibly public seat he occupied for three never-to-be-equaled decades.

To many, Carson’s final installment of “The Tonight Show,” when he fought back tears as he bid America “a very heartfelt goodnight,” might not seem as if it was all that long ago; however, changes to the television landscape since that night in May 1992 have been seismic--and that was before the marauding Mouseketeers running ABC tried to get their paws on David Letterman.

I should admit at this point having never met Carson, although I have developed a sort of “same time, next year” relationship with his assistant, Helen. On a near-annual basis since the so-called king of late night set aside his crown, I have made the obligatory call to Carson’s production company asking if he would agree to discuss his historic 30-year tenure as America’s foremost political humorist and entertainment career-maker. Short of that, I would settle for any thoughts he might have about the current state of television, or perhaps what he had for lunch.


Each time, I have been politely told no, that Mr. Carson isn’t doing any interviews. There’s no reason to take it personally, and Helen has become pretty adept in the art of gentle rejection. After all, Carson has shunned virtually all public appearances since his farewell episode.

As a result, don’t look for Carson when NBC commemorates its 75th anniversary with a splashy prime-time special in May (reportedly despite a direct pitch from NBC Chairman Bob Wright), just as the onetime host sat out the network’s “50 Years of NBC Late Night” special in September. And while the 10-year anniversary of that last “Hi-yo!” from sidekick Ed McMahon will inevitably give rise to various reminiscences about Carson in print and on television, NBC’s recognition of the late-night baton pass will perhaps not surprisingly focus on successor Jay Leno, who will celebrate his 10 years of loyal service with his own prime-time special.

“He just has no desire to [perform],” said Jeff Sotzing, Carson’s nephew and a former “Tonight” producer who oversees Carson Productions. “He’s happy with the decision that he made to retire when he did.”

Indeed, friends and associates say Carson--now 76, and by all accounts in good health after recovering from a 1999 heart attack and subsequent bypass surgery--made a decision not to linger beyond his prime, as some renowned comics who preceded him (including people Carson grew up admiring, like Jack Benny) were perceived to have done.


“Johnny once said to me, ‘Listen, Fred, I did it,’” Fred de Cordova--Carson’s executive producer for more than two decades, who died last year at age 90--told me in 1997. “I think he’s very happy the years were so good, and why take a chance on not being as good as he was?

“There’s no arrogance in this. It’s just him saying, ‘I had a hell of a run. Leave it alone.’”

Yet while Carson has let his voice stay silent and kept out of the spotlight, his image still casts an enormous shadow--perhaps even more so given the manner in which the television business has been reshaped since his well-timed exit.

For starters, with more channels slicing up the viewing audience into smaller pieces, few TV personalities today become so ingrained or widely embraced in the public consciousness as to create the tumult caused when the undisputed late-night champ opted to hang up his gloves--an announcement that Bob Hope at the time likened to “a head falling off Mt. Rushmore.”

Moreover, it has become increasingly difficult for talent in the entertainment industry to enjoy the kind of career longevity required to qualify as an institution, in part because of the unabashed emphasis on reaching younger demographics. The fallout of that economically driven mandate has made ageism so blatant and prevalent that the trade paper Daily Variety made reference this week to Letterman, 54, being “in the home stretch” of his career, whereas Carson, at the same age, had a dozen years of hosting “The Tonight Show” ahead of him.

Carson also successfully negotiated for ownership of his show in 1980, back before the networks were almost uniformly part of major studios that, in the wake of government deregulation, have made control of content on their airwaves a top priority. (Letterman, who possessed inordinate leverage when he jumped to CBS from NBC in 1993, enjoys a similar arrangement on his current program, while “Tonight” is produced through NBC Studios.)

Finally, Carson has the intangible power of being ever-present in the minds of Letterman, Leno and virtually every comic in their peer group, a generation raised on the notion that Carson’s approval could make or break them--giving rise to an almost comic jockeying to earn his anointment.

So even though Leno has made “The Tonight Show” his own over the last 10 years and consistently drubs Letterman in the ratings, he still lives with petty slights (being left off Entertainment Weekly’s list of “the 50 funniest people alive,” for example) as well as slings and arrows from those who want to cast him as an impostor, a pretender to the throne, with Letterman--who has at times sought Carson’s counsel and clearly earned his respect--representing the true heir apparent.


It’s all rather silly in the bigger scheme of things, of course, but when did royal succession--in Hollywood or anywhere else--ever amount to more? And while he may have nothing to publicly say about all this, Johnny Carson knows the hummingbirds haven’t slowed down a bit since the day he signed off, and one way or another, every one of them is still dancing to his version of “The Tonight Show” theme.


Brian Lowry’s column appears Wednesdays. He can be reached at