Carson To NY: Wake Up
January 30, 2005
By Julia Vitullo-Martin
JOHNNY Carson's brutal de camping from New York to Los Angeles in 1972 mortified the city — but it was also a wake-up call that the city, unfortunately, ignored.
New York then saw itself as a colossus striding the world — the center of all things cultural, including TV. But the sad truth was that it had become a pathetic, uncompetitive shadow of its former self.
Gotham was hemorrhaging jobs and businesses, its tax burden was the country's worst, and it was in the midst of what historian Erik Monkkonen has called "a rogue crime wave."
And on national TV, Carson lampooned New York's noise, dirt, ugliness, violence and rudeness nightly and relentlessly.
The jokes weren't that funny, like his refusal to dismiss news reports of crack-addicted squirrels in Central Park: "The other day," he said, "a squirrel was spotted on Fifth Avenue ripping the tape deck out of a Buick." Or his comment that "any time four New Yorkers get into a cab together without arguing, you can be sure that a bank robbery has taken place."
But the Midwestern heartland that had spawned him — and that was also his true audience — ate it up, making his show the most successful in the history of television, accounting at its peak for 17 percent of NBC's profits.
For many New Yorkers, Carson's abandonment was humiliating in a nearly personal way — hadn't New York made Johnny Carson, after all?
After failing miserably in California, he had come to New York in 1956 as your basic country bumpkin besotted by the city's glamour, according to biographer Laurence Leamer. But by the late 1960s Carson was disenchanted. New York was slumping badly and many stars had already left, as Merv Griffin points out in his own biography. Ever fewer TV shows were shot here. And Carson's ratings always rose when he took the show on the road to California.
Johnny chose a good year to leave. In 1972, the city was a mess. Manhattan alone had 661 murders — or almost 200 more in the borough where Carson lived than all five boroughs had last year.
Meanwhile, Mayor John Lindsay made his disastrous presidential bid — indicating to many New Yorkers that the mayoralty was unworthy of his full-time attention. Lindsay's bungled labor contracts meant that no city service was well delivered — not sanitation, not fire (the catastrophic fires that would destroy entire neighborhoods were just beginning), not education, where the ugliest of racial wars had shut down whole schools in Brooklyn and certainly not the NYPD, which was only recently coming off the Serpico scandal.
And the monopoly semi-private services — phone and electricity — may have been even worse than the public services. Every night Carson went after Con Ed's unremitting drilling that started at dawn or earlier: "And nobody knows what for. But I do. They're using New York for a training ground. A guy comes to work and Con Ed says, 'You don't know how to dig? Well, go over to our practice area [beneath Carson's window] . . . What they're really doing is taking Manhattan away little by little. I think they're moving it to New Jersey."
New York was a place where public outrages were routine and accepted. Carson once explained that he left because New York had changed — had become increasingly "rude, hostile, and unfriendly. People on the streets are unsure and insecure. They're uptight about everything. If a stranger says hello, your first reaction is that he's attacking."
These stories seem archaic now. But it's worth remembering those awful days, and reflecting on how the city went so wrong. It took decades, but New York finally got Carson's point. Today, we're the safest of the great world cities — even safer, in the FBI Index of Crimes, than Carson's home town of Omaha.
I for one say, thank you Johnny!
Julia Vitullo-Martin is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
©2004 New York Post
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