As the King’s English has gradually become a language of clichés and slang, the misuse of descriptive words is commonplace. Few things are truly great and fewer people are legends, but Johnny Carson was both. In actuality he was beyond great or legendary… he was a comedic genius and lord of the evening talk show format whom generations of viewers welcomed into their homes for roughly three decades.
Carson’s success came by way of numerous unique personal attributes. He was focused yet modest, strong willed yet flexible, intensely private yet accessible. He possessed a sly wit and self effacing sense of humor, as well as the courage to fail in front of his audience then laugh it off. His deadpan delivery was laced with honesty and a genuine passion for the topics he was discussing or lampooning, and he treated guests with respect and encouragement. Most importantly though, he was the consummate regular guy, and his “Aw shucks” sensibilities belied his stature as one of the most powerful men in entertainment circles. Carson forged a relationship of trust with his audience, entering into living rooms not as a famous personality but as an extended family member.
In the fickle world of television, Carson reigned supreme for over a quarter century, shrugging off contenders and pretenders to his late night throne with ease. Countless programs came and went during Carson’s tenure, with but a handful of survivors. Even those who staked their claim paled in comparison; Leno lacked Carson’s endearing charm and Letterman was too smarmy, relegating them to distant second although both were considered Carson’s heirs apparent (with Leno given the final nod for The Tonight Show).
The beauty of Johnny Carson came through with each night’s work, whether the evening’s broadcast was hitting or missing. Some of Carson’s funniest experiences occurred when he was striking out, making himself the good natured butt of the joke and allowing viewers to laugh at him and with him. The program itself was also an example of creative brilliance as it consistently offered something for everyone, from music and movie stars to comedy skits and wild animals. Despite the countless guest appearances he hosted, Carson was at his best interacting with regular people who had interesting or peculiar tales to tell. He had a knack for getting the most out of their stories, without coming off as condescending or disinterested. Fortunately, many of these classic moments are captured on The Tonight Show video anthology marketed several years ago.
The importance of Johnny Carson goes far beyond his years behind The Tonight Show’s desk however. His career transcended mere success, earning him the rare distinction of cultural icon. For baby boomers who came of age watching Carson, to the budding comics and actors who gained their initial national exposure on his stage, Johnny Carson will always remain an indelible part of their existences. Who can forget the impeccably tailored dinner jackets and golf swing, or his faithful lieutenant, Ed Mc Mahon and band leader Doc Severinsen? Carson was the embodiment of professionalism and class in life and entertainment, and someone who touched individuals in a manner that few, if any, are capable of. There will never be another television personality the likes of Johnny Carson.
Now with his passing, it is appropriate to offer one final thank you and salute:
The King is dead… Long live the King…