Johnny Who?


Johnny Carson got serious postmortem treatment from PBS, respectful remembrance from BBC World, and even a moment in Arabic on LBC. But Terry Teachout writes that "I must have seen several hundred episodes of The Tonight Show in my lifetime, and I even went out of my way to watch the last one, yet I doubt I've thought of Carson more than once or twice in the thirteen years since he retired, just as I doubt that anyone now alive can quote from memory anything he said on any subject whatsoever."

Teachout thinks that after the obligatory obits, Carson's memory faces "a fast fade to black." Why? "American popular culture is cruel and brutal when it comes to the immediate past: it respects only extreme youth, and has no time for the day before yesterday."

That's an odd thing to write. First, it's obviously not true: Nostalgia fills an enormous commercial cultural niche, one that's grown ever larger as media have expanded. Second, it implies that American culture is too shallow to remember Carson, when Teachout has just finished writing that he himself has already forgotten him. Teachout's a notable defender of middlebrow, so maybe he can't help himself on this kind of lowbrow subject. Still, I suspect he's right about Carson's likely fade, not because pop culture is cruel, but because like Teachout, most people probably haven't had much reason to think of Carson in years, and won't have much reason to do so again.

Teachout closes by asking how Carson "felt about having lived long enough to disappear into the memory hole? At least he had the dignity to vanish completely, retreating into private life instead of trying to hang on to celebrity by his fingernails. Perhaps he knew how little it means to have once been famous."