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Published on May 30th, 2009 | by Sharilyn Johnson


13 going on 30

As I sit here watching Jay Leno’s final episode of the Tonight Show (with glee, for the record), I’m struck by how dramatically different the television landscape is now compared to when he took the show over in 1992.

Back then, there were few choices for viewers to make. There were no PVRs. Even FOX was struggling to be perceived as something other than the 4th network.

I was 13 years old when Johnny Carson left the Tonight Show. Prime comedy geekery absorption age. From the time he announced his retirement to the time Letterman had gotten comfortable at CBS, there was no other entertainment news story. The Johnny/Jay/Dave/Conan shift – and the drama behind it – was the cover story on dozens of magazines, took up hours of airtime on Entertainment Tonight, spawned books and a made for tv movie, and so on.

jcarson15Johnny’s last show was an event. I remember driving to the cottage with my parents that warm Friday night, where the only tv was in the cottage next door, and could only pick up 4 local Canadian stations with rabbit ears. Through a not-quite-perfect signal, we all sat silently for the hour. The open porch windows produced a bit of a breeze, but not a single other sound emanated from the darkness because, presumably, everyone else for miles in every direction was doing the same as us.

When it ended, I shuffled across the grass back to our cottage. Secretly shed a couple tears (c’mon, so did you). And I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I would always remember where I was and how I felt the night Johnny left (looks to be true thusfar).

17 years later, the Jay Leno era of the Tonight Show comes to an end, an occasion I only remembered was taking place thanks to a link burried halfway down my Google News page.

Of course, comparing Johnny Carson’s impact to Leno’s contribution to late night is apples and oranges, but I can’t help but wonder: for all tv gives us currently, are we any better off today than we were then?

This era of timeshifting, Bittorrent, dvd sets and obscure reruns (I’ve been watching Bizarre on TVLand… don’t judge me) seems like a treasure trove on the surface, but is it at the expense of truly eventful television moments? Will the next generation ever get to experience a simultaneous cultural bond that gets measured against the M*A*S*H finale the day after?

Are these the questions of a grumpy old lady? Regardless, I’m happy to have known television when it bonded us in a way more substantial than Ryan Seacrest reading the results of our vote.

About the Author

is the author of the book Bears & Balls: The Colbert Report A-Z. Called "one of the city’s most discriminating comedy critics” by NOW Magazine, Sharilyn has been covering comedy for longer than she cares to admit. She served as the comedy reporter for Winnipeg's Uptown Magazine for five years, and was the host of the radio show Laugh Tracks for three seasons. Her work has also appeared in the Toronto Star, the Winnipeg Free Press, The Apiary, and on CBC Radio's national comedy programs LOL and Definitely Not the Opera.

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  • The Colbert Report A-Z

    Third Beat editor Sharilyn Johnson presents the ultimate fan guide to The Colbert Report, available from all major booksellers including amazon.com