In those tumultuous days when I was in college, back in the late '60s, Johnny Carson was the establishment. Network television was hopelessly establishment, and "The Tonight Show" was its apotheosis. We had our own music, our counterculture, and when some of its performers popped up on late-night TV, why, that was just one more instance of Herbert Marcuse's repressive tolerance. Showcase and defang, that's what Carson was up to.
Or so, at least, ran the theory. In practice, on any weeknight between 11:30 and 1 (it was still a 90-minute show then), you could find a motley assortment of us in the dorm lounge watching Carson and Co. chip away at our cultural certitudes. Viewing "The Tonight Show" was one way that a generation that defined itself in large part by its cultural rebellion came to realize that there were seriously great entertainers even among our parents' and grandparents' cultural icons.
A lot has been written since Carson's death on Sunday about the central role he played in showcasing new comic talent. But he showcased old talent, too, as did Dick Cavett, his rival late-night host during that period. On any given evening, courtesy of a George Burns or a William Demarest, a viewer could even cultivate an appreciation for vaudeville. Carson may have been the cultural establishment, but the establishment, not yet subject to the minutest calculations of the bottom line, had not at that point succumbed to the tyranny of the new.
Besides, Carson venerated the old comics. He studied them, absorbed them and integrated them into his own shtick. On his opening night as the host of "The Tonight Show," he didn't simply bounce out from behind the curtain; he had Groucho Marx introduce him. The comic from whom he learned the most, of course, was Jack Benny, the master of timing, of the elongated, skeptical silence, of reactions that were funnier than the jokes that preceded them. More than that, though, Benny's radio show, which Carson had listened to avidly while growing up, was at one and the same time a hugely popular conventional sitcom and a surreal dive into the loopiest of obsessions. Once the audience felt comfortable with the format, a comic could get away with some inspired nonsense.
And no comic ever established a more comfortable format -- or persona -- than Carson. He was the country boy who'd become the urban hipster -- two distinct perspectives, two separate bases for skeptical detachment, that he fused completely into one. It didn't make for edgy monologues, but it did mean that when Carson cast a cold eye on some screw-up political leader, he was giving voice to a national sentiment. Though he seldom exhibited the political bite of Will Rogers, he managed, as Rogers had before him, to become a national nonsense detector.
A lot of us, I suspect, find ourselves missing Carson more than we would have anticipated. That's a testament to more than just his brilliance and durability (and part of his brilliance was his durability). It's also a testament to the fact that he was a national voice -- a red-state kid and a blue-state grown-up, an integrator of old and new, a mainstream presenter of fringe talent (without being too much of a homogenizer) -- and that we don't have national voices anymore. In talking nightly to the entire nation from a position of earned authority, Carson was the entertainment equivalent of Walter Cronkite -- the two preeminent figures of television from the days when broadcasting was broad and the markets, and the nation, were less segmented.
At some level, television has always been stratified: Sid Caesar's show was the smart viewer's Milton Berle. But Carson and Cronkite both talked to the entire nation without talking down to it. Today, we not only have Jay Leno and David Letterman but also Charlie Rose, Bill O'Reilly, Chris Matthews, Sean Hannity, reality-celebrity-triviality talk shows, some talking up, some talking down, some shouting, some ranting. It's not the proliferation of voices that's the problem; it's the absence of a more unifying voice -- credible, tolerant, pluralistic, authoritative. But where's the audience -- where's the country -- to sustain such a voice? A collection of segmented markets is not the same thing as a nation.
In today's America, it's impossible even to imagine a figure possessing the cultural authority that Carson once wielded, or inspiring a Cronkite-like level of trust. Everyone came to Carson's couch, and was subject to his devastating deadpan when the occasion demanded it. But that was when we had more of a culture, and a politics, in common, and a generous, skeptical comic who looked askance for us all.