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January 23, 2005
Goodbye, Johnny

I found out earlier today that Johnny Carson passed away at 79 from emphysema. I haven't blogged about it as I couldn't immediately articulate my thoughts about Carson and his impact on our culture, or at least not in any way that hadn't already been written elsewhere.

Like Mitch Berg, I came late to the Carson fan club, and at first his utter domination of late-night television appeared to me to spring from a lack of competition than anything Carson did. Sure, he could make me laugh, but lots of people make me laugh. I kept expecting someone to knock Carson from his perch, and I watched luminaries like Pat Sajak, Joan Rivers, Alan Thicke, and the execrable Chevy Chase (after Carson's retirement) try and fail miserably. Only Arsenio Hall managed to carve a niche against Carson, but only among an urban demographic Carson didn't reach anyway.

During the 80s, I came to realize why Carson couldn't be duplicated and probably never challenged. He exuded a generous and genuine nature, both in his comedy and with his guests. He didn't fawn over them, but treated them with respect and friendship. Likewise, he treated his audience the same, always giving us the feeling that we were in on the joke. His understated, Jack Benny-esque comedy style always had a sly undertone, a winking appreciation for the intelligence of the audience. He never treated anyone like an idiot, and he never abused the trust that America put in him over a 30-year run.

Sure, he made mistakes. Who doesn't? He once had Paul McCartney on the show and in a rare display of unpreparedness, got several Beatle stories incorrect and pulled out a guitar that wasn't strung for McCartney's left-handed play. Mostly, though, Carson could turn his mistakes into comic gold, simply by being honest with his audience about them. With a single look or a mock golf swing, he could turn the biggest turkey into a huge laugh. He never lost confidence in himself or us.

It's not as if people didn't appreciate Carson when he ruled late night, but we got an idea how difficult the job was when he retired. I like both David Letterman and Jay Leno, so I have always been an agnostic about the big late-night wars of 1993-4. Both men make me laugh, but more to the point, neither really filled Carson's shoes. Jay tries too hard in his monologues, selling his jokes rather than letting them win on their own. Often, he winds up stepping on his own punch lines. Letterman's hip cynicism sometimes edges too far into cruelty, a place Carson never went. Neither man interviews guests with the talent Carson displayed, although Letterman probably has the edge here.

In his retirement, we often heard hints about new projects for Carson, but in the end he wisely thought better of it. He went out on top and earned his retirement and his privacy. Anything less than brilliant would have added tarnish to his sterling career, and despite his troubled personal life, he didn't need the money. He may not have been Garbo, but his disappearance was complete, and blessedly untroubled by the media.

Carson left us a long run of brilliance and grace, and we will be ever grateful for it. Thanks for everything, Johnny. You will be missed.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at January 23, 2005 6:08 PM

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