Johnny Carson’s Surprising Influence on Evangelical America

Johnny Carson, the one-time undisputed king of late-night television during a reign that spanned four decades beginning in the 1960s until his retirement in 1992, has been dead for seventeen years – yet his impact is still being felt across various spheres of culture.

Even evangelical America – and Focus on the Family.

Born in the Midwest, the quick-witted but droll comedian became known as America’s “best guest” in homes thanks to his affability and congeniality. His humor could sting – but it didn’t singe. Carson hosted and roasted celebrities, created memorable characters (Carnac the Magnificent, Aunt Blabby and Art Fern, to name just a few) for numerous skits – and cultivated and curated such a following that he was considered one of the nation’s most trusted men and most effective communicators.

It was this ability to connect with people that drew the attention of the now infamous Jim Bakker of the then fledgling Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN). At the time, Jim and wife, Tammy, had joined Pat Robertson’s ministry to host a children’s puppet show. As a student of Carson’s Tonight Show, Bakker repeatedly urged Robertson that CBN needed to create a Christian version of NBC’s famous program.

A 1966 telethon at CBN set out to prayerfully recruit 70 donors who would be willing to contribute $10 per month. Robertson would go on to call these donors members of the “700 Club” – a name that would stick, and eventually morph into a daily hour-long show loosely modeled after Carson’s hit show. At first, Robertson and Bakker shared hosting duties. Bakker’s departure from CBN in 1972 and subsequent moral failings would forever distance and alienate him from the CBN family.

On the other side of the country, Dr. James Dobson was shepherding the meteoric growth of his new ministry, Focus on the Family. A clinically trained child psychologist, bestselling author and popular radio host and public speaker, Dr. Dobson remained always on the lookout for ways to improve his own craft and increase the effectiveness and reach of the ministry. He studied the Word on a daily basis, and was also open to other influences, too.

Enter Johnny Carson.

Recognizing the late-night host’s natural communication style, especially when it came to humor, Dr. Dobson would watch Carson’s monologue, studying it for ways to improve his own pacing and delivery. Their material and goals may have differed drastically, but both men had something to say and wanted to find the best way to reach as many people as possible.

Dr. James Dobson and Focus on the Family grew exponentially thanks to the Lord’s favor, culture’s needs – and its founder’s ability to connect with listeners, readers and callers.

“Our business is to present that which is timeless (that which is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow) in the particular language of our own age,” wrote C.S. Lewis. “We must learn the language of our audience.”

Lewis was right, of course. There is a big difference between communicating and connecting. Make no mistake – there’s a lot of communicating going on these days. Thanks to social media and satellite and cable television, far more words and messages are distributed in a single hour than were once relayed in weeks or months. Yet, loneliness, anxiety and despair are at an all-time high.

Jay Leno, who succeeded Carson and is now retired, once observed late-night television evolved in his tenure because celebrities had fewer things to say. Instead of three or four guests on a program, today’s late-night shows usually have just one or two. Skits and other hijinks have taken the place of the conversation.

As Christians, we might take note. Are we going out of our way to connect with the people the Lord has placed in our paths? As husbands or wives, fathers or mothers, are we students of our loved ones – studying them to figure out the best way to make an emotional and spiritual connection?

Jesus remains the one perfect communicator, and the one figure in all of history all of us should strive to emulate. He was the master teacher. He told great stories. He also listened – with both His ears and His heart. It’s the wise person who takes in all the best of what he or she reads, hears and sees – and considers such influences to be gifts from God to be discerned, disseminated and put into action.

 

Photo from CNB.

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