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Where Have You Gone Johnny Carson?

Where Have You Gone Johnny Carson?

By Kirker Butler
Guest Columnist
Los Angeles, CA, USA

I have been a comedy nerd for as long as I can remember. As a kid I would sneak into the living room after my parents went to bed to watch David Letterman when he was still on NBC, hoping to see him throw a watermelon off a five-story tower or drive a steamroller over a curio cabinet. Over the course of an average weekend I would consume Mel Brooks movies, Eddie Murphy cassettes, and TV shows that ran the gamut from Monty Python to Hee-Haw (I'm a comedy nerd, not a comedy snob). For better or worse, comedy made me the person I am today, and it's as a true fan of comedy that I'm more than a little sad when I look around and see that America has lost its sense of humor. 

Johnny Carson and Jimmy Stewart
Johnny Carson and Jimmy Stewart
Courtesy of Joan Kramer and David Heeley
Private Collection from In The Company Of Legends

How did we evolve from the land where a biting political cartoon from Benjamin Franklin could galvanize the nascent colonies to a common cause (granted that cause was to kill a bunch of Indians, but still) to a land of pant-shitting cry babies who insist on the public shaming of anyone who dare make a joke that differs from their own questionable sense of humor? Comedy by its very nature is subjective, but when did "that's not funny" become less a statement of opinion and more an indictment of character? Why have we stopped laughing with each other and started sniping at each other? When did America become such a humorless stick in the mud? I believe it was May 22nd, 1992: the night Johnny Carson retired.

I was only twenty-one years old when Johnny retired, and to be honest I was more concerned about things like touching boobs than I was about the loss of a beloved American icon, even if he was the standard bearer of late night comedy. However, in the summer of 1992 I was working at a summer stock theater in Michigan, and left a pretty incredible party (with tremendous boob-touching potential, I might add) to pay my respects and watch Johnny's final show. And while I didn't realize it at the time, I was witnessing the last of America's unifying experiences, and subsequently the death of our collective sense of humor.

For thirty years, Johnny was the last person most Americans saw before falling asleep. Every day millions of Americans from every walk of life would go out into the world and experience a million different things. Then at night they would check back in with Johnny. No matter what happened during the day, either individually or as a country, Johnny could make us laugh about it together. Since the inception of this country, Americans have been deeply divided over one issue or another: slavery, prohibition, religion, camping; but everyone in America could agree on Johnny. He was our constant. He was our rock. And then one night he was gone. Just like that. Fading off into the night like one of Ed McMahon's gin burps. It was the end of an era, but it also felt a little like a death in the family, like we were mourning the loss of the beloved uncle who told us our first dirty joke. We said our good-byes, and waited for what came next. And then the wars began.   

The Late Night wars are a well covered topic, so I will try to sum them up quickly: Jay Leno got Johnny's job instead of heir apparent David Letterman, and many people took this personally (myself included). Sides were taken. Snap judgments were made about someone's character based solely on who they liked more, Jay or Dave. Leno people thought Letterman people were smug and abrasive, while Letterman people thought Leno people were just plain stupid. Because seriously, how can anyone prefer Jay over Dave? It just doesn't make any sense. I'm sure Jay is a perfectly nice guy, and that's great; but he was such a terrible interviewer, and his monologue was painful. I've seen Leno do standup live and he's electric on stage. Seriously, Jay Leno is arguably one of the best stand-up comics of his or any generation, which made it even harder to watch him host the Tonight Show. He was so unexciting and middle-of-the-road that watching his show actually made me angry. (From time to time I see Jay driving around Burbank in one of his classic cars, and he even drives in the middle of the road.) But I digress.

Kirker Butler
Kirker Butler (credit: Lee Cherry)

Without that daily shared event Americans stopped thinking about how much we were alike, and started focusing on how we were different. America began to fracture. Cable and satellite providers gained a greater market share and every major network created their own late night show: Arsenio Hall, Joan Rivers, Pat Sajack, Jon Stewart, Chevy Chase, Carson Daly, Bill Maher, Tom Snyder, Craig Kilborn, Craig Ferguson, Chelsea Handler, Conan, Colbert, Kimmel, Fallon, Meyers. There were now countless choices for late night viewing; however, more choices do not necessarily lead to happier people. The menu at the Cheesecake Factory has the size and breadth of a Pynchon novel, but I've never seen anyone reading it with a smile on their face. America fractured even more. We were falling to pieces. What we needed was something to make us whole again. And then it happened, the unifying miracle known as the Internet.

The Internet is the worst thing ever created by human beings. I know you're probably reading this on the Internet, and you're thinking, "Why would he say that? The Internet is awesome! There's porn and music and news and information and porn on the Internet! It's the most important part of my life!" Fair enough. Let me clarify: the Internet is the single most destructive, divisive, and soul deadening endeavor ever undertaken by humanoids of any archaeological period since the dawn of time. Yes, I am aware that humans have invented the atomic bomb, and genocide, and Outback Steakhouse; but the Internet is worse, by a million miles.

In its somewhat noble intent to bring the world closer together, nothing has been more effective in tearing us apart. The Internet makes every man and woman an island of their own beliefs. It is a rabbit-hole of fear and insecurity with no bottom and no clear way out that encourages our worst impulses and feeds our crippling loneliness. It is a social poison that we carry with us in our pockets, and if God-forbid there is a single moment of quiet in our lives, we put our heads down and dive into it like an infinity pool of self-loathing. 

But the worst part is that now at the end of the day there isn't anyone to bring us back to reality. No handsome, Midwestern voice of reason slapping the phones from our hands, making us laugh, and letting us know that yes, everything is ridiculous; but despite our many differences, as long as we stick together it's all going to be okay. So, what do we do? How do we get our sense of humor back? To be honest, I really have no idea. What I do know is that there will never be another Johnny Carson, but I hope there will some day be someone who will come along who we can all rally behind, someone who will make us laugh together again as a country. That would be nice. If you hear of someone like that let me know. I'll be watching old Johnny Carson clips on the Internet.



Kirker Butler


Kirker Butler is an Emmy-nominated writer and producer. His television credits include Family Guy, The Cleveland Show, The Neighbors and Galavant. He is the author of Blue Agave and Worm and Pretty Ugly.

All opinions expressed by Kirker Butler are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.

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