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.