As a kid I enjoyed staying up late and watching TV until the National Anthem played. That, and those vertical color bars indicated programming was over for the night. Of course there was always one TV channel that broadcast way, way, WAY until the night or early morning and featured old black and white movies. But the three main stations, the affiliates I would later come to learn, usually ended their broadcast around 1:00am. I remember this was true of our NBC affiliate when Johnny Carson would sign off from his show.
There was something comforting about the Johnny Carson show, actually, there was something comforting about Johnny Carson. Even to a kid he seemed like an everyday guy. I really enjoyed watching his show because he was funny, sometimes irreverent (remember the Slauson Cutoff joke?) and asked questions of his guests that I genuinely wanted to know the answers to. And when he had Hollywood celebrity guests, whether promoting a movie or just stopping by to say hi, it seemed they had the most genuine fun and if we weren't lucky enough to be there to join in, we were lucky enough to be a fly on the wall. Back then I honestly believed all celebrities knew each other, and maybe they did or maybe it was testament to how good Carson was with his guests. In short, Johnny Carson was a funny, informative and ultimately reassuring way to end a day. Even for a geeky kid.
When Johnny Carson announced his retirement and eventually left television it seemed an era had passed. And while Carson was afforded a lot of heartfelt goodbyes, none seemed more sincere than those voiced by David Letterman. Of course Letterman had his own show and it was smart, scary at times, intelligent, wacky (remember the Top Ten List of Least-Used Hyphenated Words? Owl-Flavored was #5), and seemed to rely more on bits and gags than perhaps Carson's show, but it was the heart of the show that seemed so much like Johnny's that one could see why Letterman was genuinely sad that Carson had retied. And David Letterman seemed to have an appreciation of entertainment and those who were a part of it much the way Johnny Carson seemed to have had. From using hand drawn cue cards to welcoming old time Hollywood luminaries whether they had a product to pitch or not. The Letterman show seemed an extension of Carson's in-so-much as he maintained that nod to Classic Hollywood and Entertainment.
And David Letterman was a pretty great interviewer whether they were kids, local luminaries or presidents, he asked questions we all wanted the answers to. I remember, not too long ago, he interviewed Chaz Bono the son of Sonny and Cher who was born a daughter. Letterman began by apologizing if any of his questions seemed insensitive or offensive. But during the course of that interview he covered a great many topics that were of genuine interest to many, certainly to me, and as someone who prides himself in his diversity, I was happy to have learned a great many things about the Transgender community of which I had no idea previous.
This one interview reminded me of when Johnny Carson interviewed George O'Dowd. Carson didn't seem comfortable not because Boy George was so different, but seemingly because Carson was asking questions he genuinely wanted answers to but wanted to find them out in a way that was not threatening or offensive. After all the years and comparisons, it truly was that Bono interview with Letterman that reminded me so much of why Carson and Letterman were my favorite talk show hosts.
So when David Letterman announced his departure from his show I was sad at the news. Of course late night talk shows will continue. But like Carson's leaving was an end of an era, so too I feel is Letterman's. But one thing I do know, as much as David Letterman wanted to be the guy who replaced Johnny Carson when he retired and as much was written about his disappointment at not getting the Tonight Show one thing I believe is truer than anything else. Johnny Carson's success was not the Tonight Show, it was Johnny Carson. And while David Letterman may have never realized it, the successor to Johnny Carson wasn't the person who sat at the Tonight Show desk. It was the person who best exemplified Johnny Carson's love of his job and reverence for it.
While Letterman may not have gotten the Tonight Show gig that he so wanted, hindsight tells us it wasn't the show that made the man, but the man who made the show. And for that reason, after all this time, it is undeniable that David Letterman really was the successor to Johnny Carson after all.