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Late-Night Perfection

Remembering Johnny Carson


Although my friend and I were far from cool, we recognized cool when we saw it. And Johnny Carson was cool. We had no idea that he would be a part of our lives for another 33 years.

You have to remember — and if you're too young to remember the late 1950s, you'll just have to trust me — that TV was … what's the right word? … stolid in those days, stuffy and rigid. It was "Omnibus" and "Playhouse 90" and Huntley-Brinkley and Loretta Young and Perry Como. Ike was president, for heaven's sake, and Carson was breaking the rules ever weekday afternoon with his long deadpan reactions to the slightest of innuendoes and with the arch of an eyebrow that underscored that, yeah, he knew there was a sly and maybe barely off-color subtext, and, yeah, he knew that we knew that he got it and we knew that he knew that we got it, too.

A couple of years later, the summer of 1962 turned out to be one of anticipation for us Carson fans. In March, Jack Paar quit "The Tonight Show," and NBC offered the slot — which in those days ran from 11:15 p.m. to 1 a.m. — to Carson. But Carson was still under contract to ABC, and he wouldn't be able to start working for NBC until late in September.

"The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" debuted on Oct. 1, 1962, and ran for 30 gloriously entertaining and satisfying years, sometimes producing as much as 20 percent of the network's total revenue. It seemed to us then that Carson discovered exactly what he was born to do that very first night when Groucho Marx introduced him and he walked on stage to sustained applause. (The first thing he said, reacting to the applause, was, "Boy, you would think it was Vice President Nixon." I haven't a clue as to why we thought that was funny, but we did.)

Carson debuted at a time when the very fact of television was still exciting. NBC was pioneering the switch from back-and-white to color. "The Tonight Show" was live, teetering on the line between disaster and brilliance as it was broadcast. The rules, and all of society, were loosening up. Carson was the person we wanted to be — charming, a snappy dresser, hip, cool and hysterically funny, not so much because of what he said, but because of how he cocked his head, touched the corner of his eye and deadpanned right into the camera. He was funny even when his jokes bombed. Maybe even funnier because of the bombs.

Then we grew up, and TV grew up, too. Explicit humor replaced innuendo, and the blunt end of humor's ax replaced the slender silver tip of the rapier held in a velvet glove.

Through it all, we stuck with Carson's easy style — maybe not as often as before, but not out of a lack of respect. With the advent of cable, we had more choices. And Carson had more competition. Still, even to the end, nobody could touch him. He was late-night perfection.

Thirty years after he took over for Jack Paar, on May 21, 1992, Bette Midler sang "One for My Baby, and One More for the Road" to a "Tonight Show" audience fighting back tears. The next night, 55 million people watched as Carson said goodbye for the last time, saying "It's been a helluva lot of fun."

Carson once said in a rare interview that nothing kills comedy faster than trying to dissect it. He also liked to quote George Burns, who defined humor as "whatever makes people laugh."

However you define it, Carson perfected it, yet still we thought of him as one of us. And his mark on the medium — and us —is indelible. S

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