Friday, February 04, 2005

How do you honor the original?

(Today's post is made possible by Computer #7 -- Liberty Bell 7? -- at the Virgil I. Grissom branch of the Newport News Public Library.)

Monday night I stayed up to watch David Letterman's tribute to his mentor and greatest hero, Johnny Carson. Dave talked to Peter Lassally, who executive-produced The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson for most of its run. The musical guests were Carson's musicians Doc Severinsen, Tommy Newsom, and Ed Shaughnessy.

It's no secret that Letterman idolized Carson and did his best to emulate Johnny. He said as much that night, observing that while Johnny didn't invent the late-night talk show, he sure perfected it. Now every show of this kind uses a desk and a couch, with maybe a cityscape behind the host, and opens with a monologue and a couple of comedy bits. Letterman's own "CBS Orchestra" (which on NBC was The World's Most Dangerous Band) is a reference to Carson's "NBC Orchestra."

So basically the show was a tribute to this giant of television, characterized by Letterman as "like a public utility" in the sense that no matter what else was going on in the world, we all wanted Johnny Carson to "tuck us in" at the end of the day. The whole thing was very moving without being maudlin.

And yet here was an hour's worth of air time devoted to nostalgia and memorial. My embryonic critic within, which is now used to asking "how does this advance the medium," was on alert. If Johnny Carson perfected the late-night talk show, and (as Letterman said in a statement right after Carson's death) everyone who followed him is just a "pretender," how should he be honored?

Letterman did it by remembering a friend and resurrecting, if only for one show, the trappings of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. The CBS Orchestra played "Johnny's Theme" and all the monologue jokes had been written by Carson (who had been sending Letterman jokes for a little while). Dave showed clips of Johnny from both Letterman shows, and an extended clip from a 1986 Tonight Show where Johnny stole Dave's truck.

I stopped watching Jay Leno's Tonight Show soon after he took over. When Jay appeared on Late Night With David Letterman, he was hilarious; but forced into the more restrictive Tonight Show, he lost something. He definitely stopped being funny, at least to me. He seemed more workmanlike, milking jokes that got laughs until he squeezed the humor out of them. Over the years, nothing NBC did to advertise the show made me think he was doing anything more than pleasing the lowest common denominator -- for example, the Dancing Itos. Jay Leno never wanted either to ride Johnny Carson's coattails or be stuck in his shadow, but to me, despite his eventual success, he never seemed like more than a caretaker. After Johnny made The Tonight Show his own, he left it to someone who was unwilling or unable to go beyond its basic format.

Letterman, of course, had already made his reputation at 12:30 a.m., and only toned things down a little when he moved to 11:35 p.m. on CBS. Consider that 1986 clip of Johnny stealing Dave's truck. It was, in fact, a prank worthy of Letterman's elevator races or Velcro suit -- the Tonight Show cameras filming this dingy old pickup and towing it away, only to unveil it onstage and embarrass Letterman further. However, where Letterman laughed and sputtered throughout, Johnny was perfectly calm and collected; and when the two walked over to the truck at the end of the bit, you could see that while Johnny was immaculate in his blazer and khakis, Dave's outfit was undercut by his Adidas sneakers and white socks. At 12:30 on NBC, Dave was still the understudy, so when he put away the Adidas for the earlier timeslot, it wasn't so much a concession to taste as it was a recognition that he had to grow up a little. I'll be interested to see how Conan O'Brien changes when he takes over The Tonight Show in a couple of years.

(Speaking of Conan, he probably handled being Letterman's successor better than anyone. His first show began with an inspired sequence of friends and passersby both wishing Conan well and muttering that he'd never be as funny as Dave.)

So how did the critic within evaluate Letterman's Monday-night show? I thought it was entirely appropriate, given Letterman's love of his mentor and long association with him. I will always consider David Letterman to be Johnny Carson's true successor, because while he respected Carson tremendously, he built on what Carson had established. I am finding out that I walk a fine line with nostalgia, between wanting to preserve what is important and learning when to jettison what no longer works. Letterman used the Tonight Show format for his own experiments in television, and when he was passed over as Tonight Show host, simply adapted his own show accordingly.

What's this have to do with my beloved superhero comics, whose current creators have to deal with decades-old legacies? Beats me....

1 comment:

rico said...

A bit off topic (ok, way off topic, but I digress) but I just wanted to say(or reiterate, if I've already done this before -- again, more digressing)...

I Love Your Site!

You are one of the few blogs I'm always logging into to see if there has been an update -- right up there with "Tom The Dog's You Know What I Like" and "Various And Sundry" -- keep it up!! :-)