A tip of the turban to an old master

Image from Wikipedia.

Jon Stewart returned to old friend Stephen Colbert’s “Late Show” Tuesday night wearing an extra-long red tie and a small animal on his head — a nod, he said, to the fashion sense of our 45th president.

But there was another nod I detected, one that likely went over the heads of most of Colbert’s audience.

You’ll notice that, at about the 6:10 mark, Stewart and Colbert crack jokes about the folder Colbert holds being “the last executive order.” The way he says it is a reference to the great Carnac the Magnificent, one of Johnny Carson’s characters from his 30-year run as “Tonight Show” host.

Which got me thinking: Does anybody under 40 even remember Johnny Carson?

It’s strange how people who were once titans in their field are so quickly reduced to historical footnotes. (It may be harsh of me to call Carson a “footnote” — the guy was one of the dominant figures in entertainment for decades — but, again, ask some 20-something comedy fan if they know who Carson is. You’ll probably get a blank stare like the one I got from my college class when I asked them if they’d heard of Mary Tyler Moore.)

Such is the way of pop culture, even more so than history in general. Most high school students (I would hope) recognize the names Genghis Khan and Napoleon and Winston Churchill and Mahatma Gandhi. But the hugely popular entertainment figures of the past quickly end up down the memory hole unless there’s something about their image (and image-keepers) to keep them alive, like Marilyn Monroe.

For example, in the Mel Brooks song “Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst,” there’s a reference to Fannie Hurst. Who was Fannie Hurst? Well, she was one of the most popular authors of the 1920s, her sometimes critically praised books selling in the millions. (A few, including “Imitation of Life,” were made into movies.) But not only is she not read nowadays, few people would even recognize the name. (I didn’t when I first heard the song; I thought he said “PATTY Hearst.”)

That’s also true of popular authors from decades later: I guarantee you only people of a certain age would know who Harold Robbins or Louis Auchincloss or Leon Uris was, yet they also once sold tens of millions of books.

And what of actors? Some may linger today more as personas than as performers, such as Cary Grant, John Wayne and Clark Gable — though all made fine films. How about Elizabeth Taylor? Lee Marvin? Bob Hope? (I won’t even talk about musicians, since pop music is often thought of as disposable, even when it’s not.)

I hope this doesn’t come off as a “You kids, get off my lawn” rant. I’m more bemused than anything, how many writers and performers who once were so dominant end up forgotten by all but hardcore fans and historians. I give our president credit for his staying power; he could have been a combination of Ivar Kreuger and Zsa Zsa Gabor. As president, he’ll now be more than a footnote.

In the meantime, “sis boom bah.”


One thought on “A tip of the turban to an old master

  1. Thank for this Todd! I enjoyed it. I love Carson, still … watching nightly at 10pE on Antenna TV. It’s like a time machine. When I watch those old Carson shows, I often realize that the ’80s were not as cool as some people thought they were … just as Johnny wasn’t really as funny as some of us thought he was at the time. He turned himself from a dorky midwestern boy into an American original — inventing his own style of talk show hosting. Something about the guy and his show made you feel like everything was going to be OK … reminding us that people are more similar to each other than different.


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