How many years does it take for the shadow of Johnny Carson to fade?
Turns out it’s 22. At least when it comes to the title of “The Tonight Show.”
When Jay Leno took over as host of NBC’s late-night franchise, more than just the name of the host changed in the title. It had been “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson”; it became “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.”
Leno made it clear at the time that it was his decision to make the change — and that it was done out of respect for Carson. It remained that way through both his stints as host; it was that way during the Conan O’Brien interregnum.
It’s been more than two decades since Carson retired. It’s been nine years since the king of late-night TV died.
But when a new host takes over in February, the title will be “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” who clearly has no idea why “starring” became “with” in the first place.
“When Jay took it over, no one talked about it, but all of a sudden it was ‘with.’ And it’s fine that it’s ‘with,’” said Fallon, who was, after all, just 17 years old when Leno succeeded Carson on the “Tonight Show” throne.
“I just thought [Carson] kind of came with the TV,” he said. “I would beg my parents to stay up and watch that because I knew it was on really late and I was getting away with something. And then I’d watch, and you’d get a laugh, and you go, you know, ‘Wow, that’s really cool.’“
Once upon a time, anyone taking over a late-night talk show would have bowed down before the shrine of Carson. Seth Myers, 40, who’s taking over “Late Night” from Fallon, said he “came to Johnny Carson fairly late. I feel like my parents drew my attention to him sort of in his farewell tour. And I’m more aware of him in recent years, watching interviews he does with people on YouTube.”
Don’t get me wrong. This is in no way criticism of Myers, Fallon or anybody at NBC for putting “starring” back in the title of “The Tonight Show.” Fallon even positioned the change as harkening back to the days not only of Carson but of Carson’s predecessors, Steve Allen and Jack Paar, when “starring” was part of the title.
“It’s an homage, a little tip of the cap a little bit to the origins of the show,” he said. “I thought it would be perfect.”
And, lest you think this is making too much of the change, Fallon himself thinks it will somehow make a difference.
“It’s show business,” he said. “It’s glamorous. It’s Hollywood. It’s kind of fun.”
And his producer Josh Lieb, added, “‘Starring’ is a vastly more exciting word than ‘with.’”
Really? A word will make the show vastly more exciting?
That seems highly unlikely.
None of this matters that much. Except that, perhaps, the legend of Johnny Carson has started to fade.
Scott D. Pierce covers television for The Salt Lake Tribune. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @ScottDPierce.