Commentary by Randall Rothenberg

JOHNNY CARSON AND THE DEATH OF MASS CULTURE

Mourned By a County That No Longer Speaks His Language

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I remember when Sophie Tucker died. It was almost 40 years ago. Front pages around the country waxed rapturously about her booming voice, her risque patter, the larger-than-life burlesque of her songs -- "Nobody Loves a Fat Girl,
Photo: AP
Johnny Carson spoke to an national audience and marketplace that had a common cultural language.
But Oh How a Fat Girl Can Love," "Some of These Days." I remember my parents reading Sophie Tucker's obituary in melancholy reverie. But most of all, I remember wondering, "What in the world were they thinking?"

I had the same frisson two weeks ago, when Johnny Carson died. As newspapers devoted whole forests to the emperor of late-night TV, as TV indulged in an orgy of self-congratulatory nostalgia, I wondered whether the 20-somethings with whom I work were wondering what in the world we were going on about.

American neo-post-collegian
Consider the contemporary American neo-post-collegian. CNN was established two years before she was born. She was IM'ing her friends and Googling research for term papers by her sophomore year. Her iPod holds 8,346 tunes, which are wholly distinct from the 8,346 tunes her best friend's iPod contains. Her boyfriend says his favorite show is Pimp My Ride on MTV ... No, that was last month, now it's MXC on Spike TV ... Well, that is until he started watching Big Break II on the Golf Channel ... Hmmm, it turns out he's been off that since he got Playboy: The Mansion ... Wait, that's an Xbox game, it's not on TV ...

Well, yes, in fact it is.

American middle-class mid-lifer
Now contrast that with the maturation of the average middle-class mid-lifer. She grew up in a new suburban development, in which all the houses were built to order, yet each was exactly the same except for the color of the entry-hall carpet. When she met her future spouse, they discovered they each had exactly the same record collection -- duplicates of everything from the Beatles' Something New through Traffic's John Barleycorn Is Dead. Most of their memories are similarly the same: When President Kennedy died ... Who shot J.R. ... The last goodnights of Chet and David ... the Concert for Bangladesh ...

And Johnny Carson. True, maybe she was a Cavett person and he was a Carson devotee, but they both knew the routines: the golf swing, the invitation to the couch, Ed's "You are right, sir!" Carson was lingua franca.

Outside of France (and other Francophone countries), there is no lingua franca anymore. Your child's future memories will most assuredly differ from his best friend's, just as his neighbor's religion, politics, and automobile-options package will diverge. The path to this fragmented future is already clear, in everything from the digital cable "dial" with 1,000 channel positions, to the Karl Rove-inspired Republican coalition as piece-parted as the new Iraqi parliament.

Lost innocence of the mass market
This was the part that was missing from Johnny Carson's obituaries. He represented the lost innocence of the massified world, the Sophie Tucker of every 50-year-old newspaper reporter and news producer who can't fathom why their young colleagues don't get how great vaudeville was. In a cosmic sense his may have been the last front-page obituary we will ever read, for, other than the winner of the newest American Idol, there's not much in the culture we will share any more.

I wanted to test this hypothesis on my younger colleagues the day after Johnny Carson died. So I went to the water cooler to find out what they were chattering about.

But of course, my company doesn't have a water cooler any more.

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Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is chief marketing officer at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.

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