Nostalgia for a time I never knew

Nostalgia is a strange feeling.  It’s something that you don’t experience until you’re a little older in life, or at least I didn’t.  But it’s something that is really interesting to look at and try and figure out why you have that feeling.  As weird as the feeling can be all of the time, it’s even weirder when you feel nostalgic for a time you’re not even old enough to remember.

I just finished watching a documentary about Johnny Carson, who I was never able to see on The Tonight Show (he retired in 1992, when I was 8 years old).  I really don’t watch that much TV, and most of the time when I do watch it I walk away either irritated or bored.  But I think I would have loved to watch Carson.  From all of the clips that they showed from his show on the documentary, he was very funny of course, but he also seemed like he had a very relaxed persona.

One of the points they made in the documentary was that Carson was willing to let the guest shine, to simply take a back seat and to do everything in his power to help the other person be successful.  Thinking about it after watching the documentary, that’s something that you very rarely see anymore.  The only television personality who comes close to having that type of personality is probably Jon Stewart of Comedy Central’s Daily Show.

If I had to sum up what Carson had – and what Stewart approaches – in a single word, it would simply be the word “Class.”  It’s something that doesn’t seem to exist anymore.  Everything has to be bigger than before, the jokes have to be faster, the explosions bigger, the personalities more in-your-face, and I think it’s a horrible thing.

All of these changes come from the fact that we live in a different media world than the one that Carson was in, even than the one that Stewart started in.  I’m a random guy living in Ohio posting this online and as soon as I hit publish everyone in the world will be able to read these words.  In many ways this is a good thing, communication is one of the greatest aspects of humanity, and we have never been more connected as a worldwide society than we are today.  But like everything in the world, it also has it’s negative aspects.  Because there is so much striving for our attention, the only way to get noticed is seemingly to be louder than than everyone else, and it will work for a little while, at least until someone else comes along with a louder message.  Any semblance of class gets lost as we struggle to find meaning in the noise.  Unfortunately though, it often seems like there is no meaning, just noise.

It also makes me think about how well certain things in the past might have been accepted had they premiered today.  As funny as he was, I don’t know if Carson’s personality could sell a TV show today, let alone make him an American icon.  I don’t know if a TV show like M*A*S*H would even be noticed today if it wasn’t more outlandish early on.

So where does the title of this post come from?  Well, if you didn’t do the math earlier where I said I was 8 years old when Carson retired, I’ll come out and say now that I’m 28 years old.  I started high school in 1999, the internet wasn’t huge then, but it was up and coming.  I don’t really remember a time when we weren’t mostly connected.  But everything that I read and watch about history makes me think I would have been more in place had I been born 20 years earlier.

I know that part of nostalgia is that over time the cream rises to the top and that we don’t think about things that were popular 20 years ago that haven’t stood the test of time.  But I also think that we’re bombarded with so much media on a daily basis that we aren’t leaving time to look back and sort through everything to see what was worth paying attention to.  I also know that I sound very curmudgeonly with this post, and that I’m really not old enough to be this cynical, but I do miss the allure of a time that I never knew.

(Quick side note, the documentary that I watched was titled “Johnny Carson: King of Late Night” and is available on Netflix.)

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1 Comment

  1. You make several interesting points here, Adam. I had the opportunity to watch Carson but seldom did, because late night shows did not much appeal to me then or now, but I think your comment about him having “class” hits the bullseye.

    Also a good point about Jon Stewart having that same quality. Not long ago I read “The Conversation Continues,” a collection of interviews from Bill Moyers’ 2008 PBS program. Someone asked Moyers why he chose Stewart to be his guest on the leadoff show, and Moyers said, “Because Mark Twain was not available.”

    Nice post, Adam, thanks.


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