THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON -- Air Date 07/28/1982 -- Pictured: Host Johnny Carson -- Photo by: Gene Arias/NBCU Photo Bank
Gene Arias/NBCU Photo Bank


The Sad Politicization Of Late Night Television

Let’s set the way-back machine to 1962-1992. It may be difficult for most Americans born after this window to comprehend, but there was a time when we tuned in to late night television talk shows to come together, not have our politics either affirmed or mocked. If you don’t believe this, I invite you to go on YouTube and pull up any episode of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

You will find the format pretty much the same as today’s late night programs. A typical Carson show started off with side-kick Ed McMahon reading off the list of guests over the big band swing theme song played by Doc Severinsen’s great orchestra. Then he’d announce: “Heeeeeeere’s Johnny!” Carson would appear on stage to affectionate applause. After which he proceeded into one of his iconic monologues where he playfully lampooned the news stories of the day. Even when the jokes bombed it was funny, because Carson, sensing the crickets after a particularly bad punchline, would break into a self-deprecating soft-shoe to the tune of “Tea For Two.”

As with the shows hosted by Steven Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, and Jimmy Fallon, plenty of big-name stars followed the monologue for interesting and often zany interviews (especially if Don Rickles, Jonathan Winters, or Robin Williams were on the docket). And also some unknowns whose stories Carson nevertheless found interesting enough to invite on his show. (Merrit Heaton, a 97-year-old from Illinois who was recognized as the oldest working farmer was my favorite.) Carson also made many a comedian’s career.

And throughout its 6,714 episodes in 29 seasons, the nation laughed and cried with him. At the end of his May 22, 1992 farewell — which was seen by over 50 million viewers — Johnny said he was honored to be invited into our living rooms every weeknight where together, as a country, we enjoyed a genuine national harmony. Carson, himself a Nebraska native, understood his countrymen. And he saw his job as presenting a program that all Americans could find enjoyable. He knew that for many viewers The Tonight Show was an escape from the troubles of the day.

What we were not subjected to was rabid politics. And certainly not the acerbic brand courtesy of Colbert and Kimmel especially. In fact, even though I have watched hundreds of episodes over the years, I honestly cannot tell you from his show what were Carson’s politics. Nor did I care. It wasn’t his job to hit me over the head with self-righteous tears ala Kimmel or insults to half the country by branding those who simply voted for the man he didn’t support for president as the moral equivalent of the child-raping, murderous, religiously fanatical Taliban, as did Colbert just last week. That would have been inconceivable to Carson, who always knew in what lane he traveled.

I like to think my shifting political positions come not from zeal for any political party — I loathe them both — but rather data and results. Call it the flexibility of a commodities trader. As such, I would no more like to tune in to an ostensible comedy show in which the host is a rabid Republican any more than what they currently happen to be: obnoxiously partisan Democrats. If one wishes to air an overtly political talk show or podcast built upon a foundation of humor, as does Greg Gutfeld (right) or Jon Stewart (left), that is fine. The viewers know ahead of time that one doesn’t tune in to these programs to escape politics but rather to engage in it.

But that was never Carson’s style. He would poke fun at politicians, but it was a light tap if anything. Indeed the most cutting political joke I ever heard him tell was about a then-professional skier and ChapStick spokeswoman, which went something like: “In honor of Sen. Ted Kennedy’s run for president, Suzy Chaffee is changing her name to Suzy Chappaquiddick.” Seems rather tame today, no?

Even had a more political format been Carson’s model, one cannot help but think his show would have been different from the late night offerings of today. How so? He’d actually be funny. That essential ingredient has sadly been sacrificed upon the altar of self-righteous indignation. Or maybe they just need better writers. Probably both.

Several times during the Trump years I did try to watch Colbert or Kimmel. I was certainly no MAGA-hatted Trumpkin, opting rather for the Ben Shapiro “Good Trump/Bad Trump” approach. Still I found the level of sheer vitriol and ugliness masquerading as humor off-putting to say the least. And they just kept coming. One Trump assault after another.

What has happened to the once wholesome late night TV experience? Perhaps in the age of ever metastasizing cable networks and online media, late night talk shows have fallen into the same polarizing trap as have so many news outlets these days. Colbert, Kimmel, and to a lesser extent Fallon, do not see themselves as offering a product through which Americans of all stripes can come together around the TV after a long day and feel some emotional communion. The calculation is instead to target a particular slice of the viewership pie and carve out a steady audience…in the case of late night talk, this is the left-wing, and especially Trump-deranged, segment of the culture. And if it takes alienating and even casting aspersions on tens of millions of Americans to solidify their core viewership, so be it.

Colbert especially sees himself as a political comedian, and a man of the left. (It takes hard-core political conviction to dance a jig with the likes of Chuck Schumer). Given the politics of Hollywood and entertainment in general, he will find plenty of willing guests to help the cause of not just entertaining his viewers but changing or, more likely, reinforcing their political views. In fact, an informal study shows that three times as many guests on his show whose political affiliations are known are Democrats versus Republicans. 44 percent of his guests have hailed from New York City, which is not exactly a conservative bastion. The self-reinforcing leftist feedback loop is in full swing after 10:30 EST. And I fear it is here to stay.

So, as with the traditional Democrat Party of my youth, as well as many other aspects of a society in which I once felt much more part of the mainstream than I do now, I no longer watch late night TV. Not because I have left the format, but like the party for whom the shows have just become yet another propaganda wing (pretending to be comic relief) the format that tens of millions from across the spectrum once tuned into night after night left me. I so very much long for the days of turning on the TV, and hearing the blaring of the Carson theme song, knowing that for the next ninety minutes I was going to be entertained rather than lectured by some of the most humorless set of so-called comedians I have ever seen.

Believe it or not, when we turned on Johnny, no matter our differing worldviews, we could all still gather around the watercooler and chuckle about, or reflect over, what we’d seen on the Carson show the night before. After all, if you didn’t laugh when that marmoset courtesy of zoologist Joan Embry climbed onto Johnny’s head and promptly relieved itself, or didn’t tear up when Jimmy Stewart read his poetic homage to his deceased dog Beau, you weren’t human. Politics be damned. Maybe there’s a need still. If so, I sure hope someone steps up to the plate to fill it. Americans need to just laugh again.

Brad Schaeffer is a commodities trader, author, and musician.  He has written for The Wall Street Journal, New York Daily News, National Review, ZeroHedge, The Federalist, Celeb Magazine, and other news outlets and is the author of two books.  His newest novel, The Extraordinary, about a teenager with autism telling the story of his war veteran father’s struggle with PTSD, will be released on August 31, and is available for pre-order.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

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