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Before I was born my parents went to see Johnny Carson perform in Las Vegas. Carson’s Vegas act, my parents would later inform me approvingly, was nothing like the material he performed for millions of Americans nightly over the source of thirty years on The Tonight Show. This wasn’t just Vegas – it was 1960s Vegas: a sophisticated playground for adults, not the inclusive, family-oriented bastion of “zany” comedy that prevails today.
Carson’s versatility was laudable, notwithstanding the widespread notion that the mere ability to perform R-rated material is disqualifying. My parents, typical of their generation, ate it up: they had no intention of making the four- or five-hour drive through the desert to spend an evening with Johnny Carson only to hear him deliver FCC-approved jokes about the Buffalo blizzard of ’77. (“How cold was it?!”)
Carson, who by then was a national figure and host of The Tonight Show and therefore had a lot to lose, instead regaled his audience with hilarious stories from his childhood, such as his barely-controllable anticipation for the arrival of National Geographic and the fodder it provided for his teenage sexual fantasies.
To be sure, there was a cancel culture in those days, though it had nothing to do with being guilty of WrongThink and everything to do with not delivering the goods. And what were the goods?
Like most of his cohort in Hollywood, Carson was a lifelong Democrat. That didn’t prevent him, though, from understanding that comedy that alienates half your audience will eventually cut your audience in half. Hence his nightly viewing audience of up to 9 million people. This is the lesson that today’s part-time comedians, full-time progressives have yet to learn.
For all the talk about the so-called long tail created by the internet, Carson’s leave-your-politics-at-the-door approach to comedy was one of the reasons why he became a ratings bonanza. While today’s late night talkshow hosts scramble over one another for a leftover snack, Carson took home a meal.
Think of what goes into producing funny five-minute monologue five nights a week for three decades. Tens of thousands of jokes. It’s hard to imagine him today succeeding on anything close to that scale without being disappeared for a politically incorrect gag or abandoned by sponsors for a decades-old liked tweet.
Carson’s era was one of free-wheeling fun. It was a time when a sketch actress could be rightly admired for the skill required to play a dingbat blonde rather than condemned for it. Up-and-coming comedians like George Carlin then cut their teeth not in the alternative universe of today’s college campuses but in the hard world of gin joints.
Like ours, Carson’s era was also one of us-verses-them tribalism. But it wasn’t Republicans versus Democrats or progressives versus Conservatives. It was The People versus the Political Class.
Johnny Carson understood this and comedy was better for it.Published in