If you’re too young to have experienced the rich cultural connection that was Johnny Carson, make the effort to get ahold of a few Tonight Show episodes.
Heck, even if you watched him for years before hitting the sack, go back and check out his talent again.
The man was one of the best salesmen who ever lived. He sold his show, night after night after night. And he did it by bonding with his audience.
No one has even come close to doing it better. I suspect most hosts have egos too large for honest humility anymore. Ego can win over an audience for a short time… but (as Joan Rivers, Chevy Chase, the guy from Wheel of Fortune and about a thousand other wannabes discovered) it wears thin in a steady relationship.
Johnny had a love affair with average Americans. He honestly enjoyed himself on the show, was genuinely funny… and could take a joke well when it was on him. He “went down easy”, and that allowed him to be a constant in people’s lives.
You just felt you could trust the guy. That you could have a beer with him and he’d be a good friend and not a prima donna. And if he had some advice for you, you’d listen. You may not always take the advice, but you’d listen.
All marketers should aspire to Johnny’s ability to bond. He spoke plainly, with humor and intelligence and a little honest street-savvy. What he offered shouldn’t be all that rare, but it is. He’s the friend, the uncle, the partner we all wish we had.
Find some old episodes, and watch them critically. Study how he bonds with the audience, with the guests, with his cohorts. And know that what he does is NOT easy. There are tactics he’s using. Being self-deprecating is just the most obvious. There is much more going on… and it’s all worth learning.
I miss him, but he was never my favorite late-night host. I miss the old David Letterman show much more, the really late one. His newer, earlier show on CBS just leaves me cold. I like the edgy, cult stuff. (I first saw Ernie Kovacs shows as a kid, and they warped me forever. Steve Allen, when he wasn’t censoring himself, could also court the dark side. The guys on the Daily Show are following that path, as old as television itself, of never being afraid of going over the heads of their audience. Like Soupy Sales did with kids…)
But I respect Johnny Carson’s ability as a salesman more than anyone else’s. Among my close friends, edgy works. But with the broader markets of the American hinderland, you need to understand the magic and power of Johnny’s ability to bond.
Over the next week or so, there will be numerous eulogies on Johnny, and everyone will talk endlessly about how much the man was liked. But none of these obituaries will scratch the surface of uncovering the man’s tactics. These secrets were, for the most part, invisible.
But if you watch closely, you can see his genius at work. Learn, and prosper.