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Who Do You Trust, Circa 2014: Lessons From Johnny Carson

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Johnny Carson has been out of the limelight for some years now. Johnny's origin on TV, well before the Tonight Show, was as host of a program called Who Do You Trust? Trust is once again on everyone's lips. Politicians and Wall Street short-term-oriented greed-miesters made it so. Can Johnny's legacy once again influence water cooler talk (now known as social media) and politician's ratings?

America Naive

The Great Carsoni from Norfolk Nebraska not only managed to sustain the trust of audiences for more than 35 years, he also educated generations of American viewers in the artifices of television performers and performances. Night after night, year after year, audiences learned "How Do You Trust?" as much as "Who Do You Trust?" from the omnipresent yet mysterious Johnny Carson. It might be useful for President Obama to review old tapes of Carson, Carnac and Floyd Turbo appealing to the trust and confidence of the viewing public. In this era of overexposed politicians and an alienated citizenry, the standards of authenticity set by Carson and his alter egos might continue to influence viewer response.

When Carson took over the Tonight Show in 1962, television reflected a society and an entertainment industry still dominated by the institutions of Depression-era America. The traditions of vaudeville and burlesque survived in the comedy-variety shows of Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason and Red Skelton. Comedy routines were populated by social and ethnic stereotypes such as Freddie the Freeloader, Reginald Van Gleason and Senor Wences. Sitcoms revolved around Cuban bandleaders and New York City bus drivers. Television mirrored an America segregated into cultural and geographic constituencies and inhabited by familiar caricatures. TV shows demonstrated how little Americans knew about each other and how naive both entertainers and audiences were about the medium itself.

What's a Performance?

Carson the magician became fascinated with the artifices of TV and the Great Carsoni was exposing the mechanics of the medium and peeling off the layers of performance one at a time. With Carson, the viewer could never really tell the scripted from the spontaneous, the intended from the unintended. These blended seemlessly as he made audiences feel that they were full collaborators in his presentation of self. In contrast, George W. Bush often seemed to embody the gap between legitimate theater and show business.

As host of the Tonight Show, Carson helped undermine the social stereotypes and showbiz caricatures of an earlier age. As America came to know itself better through network news and entertainment, Carson conversed with celebrities, politicians, and a whole array of genuine American eccentrics as 'real people' and not just cardboard figures. Movie idols appeared tongue-tied, sex goddesses uttered complete sentences and even Richard Nixon made fun of himself. Through it all Carson held back, letting his guests sink or swim on their own and leaving editorial comment to a silent look of disbelief or a tapping pencil. Carson was the antithesis of the spin doctor. He taught the American public to recognize authentic performers and genuine frauds in all walks of life. One can almost imagine W. on the Tonight Show, and Johnny being quizzical with Bush's informality but with the demeanor of a natural fake.

Without an insatiable curiosity about the human condition (and, therefore, about oneself), performance becomes a canned cliché and a soulless spectacle, instead of something from within that emerges as one interacts and comes into conflict with the character and behavior of others. One can argue that George W. had no time -- nor taste -- for this kind of subjectivity. Obama is of another ilk.

Regardless, the hidden hand of the Great Carsoni might still have a say in anything we call a political sleight-of-hand, especially as we stumble towards the next presidential campaign.