Johnny Carson

Everything that you have heard about Johnny Carson will seem like cliché at this point, but it should be known that all of the overplayed stories are only overplayed because they’re true. Johnny, quite frankly, was The Man. If you talk to a talk show host five years in either direction of his farewell in 1992 (Dennis Miller, Chevy Chase, Pat Sajak, Arsenio Hall, the list goes on and on), they’ll all tell you; it’s fucking tough to run a talk show. Dammit, they all thought, why is it that no one gets me?

It was because Johnny already had us. The Man, quite frankly, transcended space and time. How do you explain that to the 1991 version of Dennis Miller? He was arrogant then, and he’s even more arrogant now. Which is exactly why he didn’t have a prayer against Johnny, because Johnny, no matter how much smarter he was than any of his guests, would never have fun at someone else’s expense, save perhaps Ed McMahon after he’s had a few too many.

And it’s not that he tried to make himself the source of humiliation, in a Ben Stiller humiliate-me-for-90-minutes-while-I-silently-make-$10-million kind of way, so much as he refused to embarrass anyone else. If someone absolutely had to be the brunt of a joke, then he threw himself under the bus. But he avoided embarrassment for all concerned if he could help it, and that is precisely why we liked him. He was the consummate host, playing to everyone’s strengths while diminishing everyone’s weaknesses to the best of his ability. Who wouldn’t want that kind of guy as a best friend?

here’s a short list of reasons why Johnny Carson will be sorely missed:

-His utterly perfect timing, the epitome of which is the famous Ed Ames tomahawk incident.

-His ability to know when to keep his fool mouth shut. When Robin Williams and Jonathan Winters were on the Tonight Show in Carson’s final year, he said little more than “Please welcome…,” “We’ll be right back,” and “Welcome back.” Instead, he sat back and watched, laughing, like the rest of us, at two masters at play. And then, when he had to sign off, he summed it up perfectly: “I think the smartest thing I did tonight was stay the hell out of the way!” Had he tried to keep up with them, he would have looked like Drew Carey did next to Colin Mochrie and Ryan Stiles on “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”

-His contributions to the world of standup comedy. Leno, Letterman, Roseanne, Seinfeld, Ellen and Drew, to name but a few, owe him big time. By comparison, how many comedians has late-night TV launched since he stepped down? Zero, by my count. Dave Chappelle didn’t need the Tonight Show to make his mark. Neither did Chris Rock or the Blue Collar guys. Speaking of whom, Ron “Tater Salad” White might be the funniest standup working today, and when he had the opportunity to do the Blue Collar TV show, he turned it down. Any more questions on TV’s diminished influence on a comedian’s career?

-Because he left us wanting more. Unlike most people who retire, or threaten to (David Bowie, Cher), Carson was good to his word. When he walked away, he walked away, staying out of the limelight almost completely. What a novel concept.

When the silence was broken, however, it was memorable; his stint on the Simpsons was a show of reverence: They finished the episode with him dancing a jig while playing the accordion, with Jasper balanced on a table upon his head. They also took a few shots at Jay Leno’s version of the “Tonight Show” in the process, most notably the group of dancers singing, “Old gray mare, she ain’t what she used to be, ain’t what she used to be, ain’t what she used to be.” As Fat Tony once said, it’s funny because it’s true.

But it was his walk-on appearance on the “Late Show with David Letterman” that was truly magical. (The following story is entirely from memory, so my apologies if it’s not 100% accurate. I tried to look this up on the Web to corroborate, but could not find anything in great detail.) Letterman was doing his show in LA that week, and each night Letterman would say that the night’s top-ten list would be brought out by Madonna, or Tom Cruise, etc., only to have Larry “Bud” Melman (neé Calvert DeForest) bring out the list and say something silly. That Friday, Letterman says, “And now with tonight’s top-ten list, Johnny Carson, ladies and gentlemen.” The audience is rightfully skeptical, because he had been teasing them all week. But after a beat (again, that impeccable timing), out walked a very relaxed Carson with the top-ten list. The audience went bonkers, roaring at what Gregg Easterbrook would call experimental-scramjet decibels. Carson stood quietly, with a humbled expression on his face, handed the list to Letterman, and slowly walked offstage. Two things happened at that moment. Johnny was thoughtful enough to grace us with his presence one last time. But more importantly, a torch had been passed. Somewhere, Leno was playing with voodoo dolls.

One show, 30 years. Write it down, because it will never happen again. Ooh, Johnny Johnny Johnny. There is a time for tears, indeed.

Related Content

Tonight: 4 Decades of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson
Check out the DVD review from Ross Ruediger.

Sifting through the elaborate contents of this box set revealed something important about Johnny Carson: he never changed. Onscreen, Carson was the same guy in the ‘60s that he was when he retired in the ‘90s. You need look no further than this set to see what David Letterman (who makes several appearances on here) was like back in the ‘80s – quirky and amiable – versus the grumpy old man he is today. Some have claimed that Carson wasn’t a particularly nice man when he wasn’t in front of a camera, but you’d never guess that watching him on TV, which is why it’s probably a difficult notion for many people to swallow. Carson was a reliably relaxed presence that people could unwind with at the end of a long, tiring day. He came out on that stage, sat behind that desk, and made his job look so damn easy – and America loved him for it.

Best TV Finales
Naturally, the ending of “The Tonight Show” made our list:

“Air date: May 21, 1992 – The final proper episode of “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” was his second-to-last (the actual final episode was mostly a clip show), and it had just two guests: Robin Williams and Bette Midler. Williams’ nonstop manic pace had Carson in near-hysterics for the entire hour, and it remains one of the best appearances by a celebrity in talk show history. Midler’s performance of “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)” came dangerously close to appearing over-sentimental, but the real tears of Carson and Midler as the song came to a close made the eyes of even the most jaded, cynical bastard out there get a little misty. If this episode wasn’t enough to make you realize that you were going to miss Carson…well, the subsequent 14 years of Leno have probably done the trick. (Editor’s note: it’s worth mentioning that the last few minutes of Carson’s actual episode, when he was speaking directly to the viewers at home, managed to top the Midler moment by providing a classy and heartfelt farewell from a true TV legend.)”

Best TV Finales