Tuesday, January 25, 2005

The King Of Comedy

When I was a kid, you couldn't get less cool than Sunday Night Church. Sunday Night Church interrupted The Wonderful World of Disney, Sonny & Cher, The Six Million Dollar Man, and other TV shows that would have inducted me directly into zeitgeist collegiate. I was, however, the son of a preacher man, a station so far removed from the zeitgeist, I was beyond hope.

Sunday Night Church is a fate I wouldn't wish on most people. And yet ... Sunday Night Church has provided me with some incredible memories. For instance: in a small town that didn't yet have Cable, I once heard a visiting preacher, a ponderous iceberg of a man reflecting on the nature of life in contrast to its faith opposite, slowly proclaim, "I had to give up watching Carson, because I knew: this was a man who had no struggles."

I'd never seen Carson, but the message struck home. Us mere mortals ingesting the media have to periodically give our head a shake and tell ourselves: life ain't like that. Years later, when I'd moved to the city and seen my share of Johnny Carson and his protégés, I still held to the intrinsic truth of the preacher's message, even as I appreciated the incredible balancing act Carson performed. No doubt "Johnny" had his struggles (how many marriages did this guy attempt?), but the fact of the matter is, night after night, his televised shtick convinced us that life, if only for one hour, could be an effortless treat.

Years later, Carson inevitably deteriorated to weekly fodder for Saturday Night Live - a show whose origins came about when he forced the network to can “The Best Of The Tonight Show”. When he finally retired, the airwaves were filled with tributes of every stripe, but one anecdote stands out in memory - from Ed McMahon, of all people. He recounted how, early in the show's development, they were told the network was ready to close the shop. By Ed's recounting, Carson delivered the news to him over a smoke backstage, prior to a night's performance. McMahon asked, "What do we do?" to which Carson said, "Give 'em a good night's show." The story seems suspiciously apocryphal, but even so it contains a significant grain of truth. If Carson's life was ever complicated, it wasn't just none of the audience's business - it was Carson's business to make it none of the audience's business.

There is something peculiar, and disturbing, about this vision: a former magician gains fame assuring his enormous public it's all a painless punch-line, while silently enduring every iota of life's indignities, including finally death. My inner Sunday Night Church Attendee wants to ask: was this guy really The King Of Comedy, or was he The King Lear Of Comedy? Like any impious question, it turns the mirror back on me. And only occasionally do I see a man giving his head a shake, to address the life at hand.


DarkoV said...

No phlegm. No frosting. Another tidbit ("I had to give up watching Carson, because I knew: this was a man who had no struggles.") implanted into the part of the brain where ideas are like gymnasts on tramplines. I concur with your observation of the balancing act; he was a man of grace. Jack Parr, his predecessor wwas of the same cloth. As you know, Carson came from the middle of the country, when that was considered a good thing by those of us living on the coasts. Now it's labelled RED and the BLUES would rather be dead than...
A shame, how that perception has changed. My favorite shows were the ones where a fellow mid-American showed up, Calvin Trillin. It was an exercise in politesse (but not just toward women).

Tack City said...

THis has nothing to do with Carson (a true icon of american art and letters):
Mark Lanegan was, once upon a time, the singer/songwriter for the Screaming Trees. He had a few pretty decent solo albums, much more sedate and pensive. The second of them was titled "The Whickey Prayer." Or something to that effect. There was a picture of an ashtray onit, that much I recall for sure. I didn't actually think your blog title was referencing that, but it always reminds me of it.

Tack City said...

Oh, and Tack City = marty (fromt the Parish), by the way.