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Carson, even in retirement, casts long shadow

Late-night host left 'Tonight' show 10 years ago Wednesday

Former "Tonight Show" host Johnny Carson remains the undisputed king of late night.  

(CNN) -- There's an old joke: Who has been present at the conception of more children than any other person?

The answer: Johnny Carson.

For 30 years, Americans curled up in bed with their favorite late-night talk show host never far away as he held court on the "Tonight" show, entertaining audiences with Carnac the Magnificent, "Stump the Band" and the Mighty Carson Art Players. He hosted the marriage of Tiny Tim and Miss Vicki, watched as Albert Brooks put foodstuffs down his pants and introduced more comedians -- many of whom later got their own shows -- than most comedy clubs.

And then, on May 22, 1992, after 4,531 episodes, he simply walked away.

Ten years later, though, he's as fondly remembered as ever. A recent CNN/Gallup Poll ranked him as the best late-night talk show host of all time, well ahead of No. 2, protégé David Letterman. Carson was even popular among 18-to-29-year-olds, many of whom were barely even old enough to actually see a Carson-hosted "Tonight" show.

Dick Cavett and Ed McMahon discuss Johnny Carson's legacy on 'Newsnight with Aaron Brown,'  10 p.m. ET Wednesday
CNN's Anne McDermott discovers that Johnny Carson, an inspiration to lots of comedians, likes his retirement just fine. (May 22)

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For Esquire magazine writer Bill Zehme, who wrote a recent cover story on Carson, that's no surprise.

"Here's a guy who comforted us for 30 years -- and boy, we're in a world now that needs all the comfort it can get," Zehme said.

A cool man for a cool medium

When Carson first became host of the "Tonight" show in 1962, he was already a TV star, best known for hosting the top-rated daytime game show "Who Do You Trust?" He'd guest-hosted several times for his "Tonight" predecessor, Jack Paar, and initially turned down NBC's offer to become permanent host.

But he finally accepted and became an icon.

Before Carson, the "Tonight" show had already had as many personalities as hosts. The show's first host, Steve Allen, was the multitalented improviser, going out on the street with Louis Nye and Tom Poston and playing his own compositions on the piano. When Allen left, a short-lived follow-up, "Tonight: America After Dark," rotated hosts in different cities, trying to capture the flavor of late-night America; it was a dismal flop.

And then came the mercurial Paar, an expert interviewer who nonetheless made the network uncomfortable with his show's all-too-lively atmosphere. Paar stormed off the show in 1960 when NBC cut a joke based around a bathroom pun (the "W.C."). He returned a month later with a funny gag ("Now, as I was saying") but his feuds with New York columnists and network honchos, and his tendency for raising political hackles, finally prompted him to leave.

"Here's a guy who comforted us for 30 years -- and boy, we're in a world now that needs all the comfort it can get."
— Esquire magazine writer Bill Zehme

Carson brought a calmness to the "Tonight" show and quickly became a favorite. His expert timing made his nightly monologue a next-day water-cooler must; his stunts, including the Tiny Tim wedding and a 1973 announcement of a toilet paper shortage (frightened shoppers started hoarding the stuff), became legendary.

Over the years, he became the highest-paid personality on television, all the while cutting back his hours and his workdays. NBC probably didn't mind; the "Tonight" show was, and remains, one of its most profitable programs.

Besides, he was a steamroller to the competition, triumphing over shows by Dick Cavett, Joey Bishop, Pat Sajak, Joan Rivers and David Brenner -- all of whom had been frequent Carson guests at one time or another.

'His life is still the same'

Carson's 1992 departure led to a bitter battle to become his replacement between David Letterman, whose "Late Night with David Letterman" followed the "Tonight" show on NBC's schedule (and was produced by Carson's company), and frequent guest host Jay Leno. Leno won and remains the host today; Letterman jumped to CBS to host a competitor, "The Late Show."

Carson remained above the fray, and wasn't kidding when he said he was retiring. For the last 10 years, he's taken it easy.

Carson hosted "The Tonight Show" from 1962 to 1992.  

"He's doing nothing different except not going to work," said friend and poker partner Carl Reiner. "His life is still the same."

Today's talk show hosts are envious of Carson's ability. Craig Kilborn, host of CBS' "The Late Late Show," got some of Carson's old tapes and found they stood the test of time.

"I would do that and watch him, and it's depressing 'cause he is that good," said Kilborn.

And comedians miss him. Los Angeles comic Argus Hamilton still has an old home video of his appearance on Carson's show because it represents his breakthrough.

"Cars were honking their horns and waving at me, saying 'Great show,' 'Great last night,' 'You were wonderful, Argus,' " he recalled.

Carson, then and now, is unimpressed.

"It's just a television show," he once said, "not the Dead Sea Scrolls."

Maybe not. But tell that to all children who came into this world because of Johnny Carson.

-- CNN's Anne McDermott contributed to this article.




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