From the desk of Daniel P. Finney, paragraph stacker, Des Moines, Iowa.
The internet streaming service Pluto offers a channel that plays reruns of “The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson,” minus the musical acts.
Watching Carson’s monologue would be an interesting way to study history. We tend to think things are the worst they’ve ever been.
If you judge by Carson’s jokes, we always have.
During a show from 1989, Carson told a joke about a TV movie about the last days of Richard Nixon as president.
“It reminded us of the terrifying days when Spiro Agnew was just a heartbeat away from the presidency,” Carson said. “Now, that doesn’t seem so bad.”
The audience laughed.
The president at the time Carson made the joke was George H.W. Bush, who was hailed as a hero of the World War II generation when he died in 2018.
Dan Quayle was vice president and the punchline of the joke.
People joked that Quayle was too young to be vice president. Editorials often depicted Quayle as a little boy. He once misspelled “potato” in front of a room full of schoolchildren.
Quayle was 42 years old when Carson made that joke in 1989.
I’m three years older than Quayle was then. I feel too old to be vice president. I’m not nearly a good enough speller.
People often talk about their past as simpler times. That’s not true.
Pluto plays Carson shows from the 1970s through the 1990s. A show from the 1970s makes jokes about inflation under Nixon.
Another episode talks about high gas prices during the energy crisis under Carter.
Carson dressed as George Washington in one gag and said fellow farmer Carter piled his manure higher.
Shows in the late 1980s poked fun at the rising Japanese investors buying up American icons such as Rockefeller Center in New York.
I doubt if you polled anyone in the audience of those Carson shows, they would have described their life as simple. Humans are complicated. Life around them is, too.
I think life was quieter then. Everybody yells these days. And technology has given a lot of people powerful tools to be louder than when they had to manually type their manifestos in cabins.
I wonder how many crazy people with truly terrible ideas just gave up because going to the post office was a hassle. They just had a beer and watched a ballgame.
2020 was a hard year both personally and for the whole world. I don’t feel like recounting all the ways why. That’s excessive and we are fully stocked on excessive.
Instead, I recall a story from my friend David Oman, former chief of staff to both Iowa Govs. Bob Ray and Terry Branstad.
The story started on the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001. David picked up his son, Graham, from school.
Graham asked what was wrong. His mother usually picked him up from school. David tried to tell Graham, then-6, about the buildings attacked in New York and Washington, D.C.
“It’s a bad day,” David remembered saying.
Graham said, “I think it’s a good day.”
This shocked David. He asked his boy why he thought that.
“Well,” the child said, “today is the newest day. And somewhere somebody invented something.”
Only children can pull a thread of hope out of such grim moment. Maybe that’s the simplicity people remember. The simplicity of hope.
I hope you’re still surprised.
I hope you’re still awed.
I hope you smile often and laugh easily.
I hope you read.
I hope you imagine.
I hope you create.
I hope you have a moment in the flurry of wrapping paper, cacophony of joyful noises and bellyful of food that your mind slows down so that your thoughts fit between the ticks of a clock and you realize just how nice all of this really is.
I hope you all have a happy Christmas and a merry New Year.
With love and hope,