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An appreciation: Late night's king of cool

Carson's quick wit kept Americans watching for 3 decades

By Todd Leopold
CNN


ON CNN TV
"Larry King Live" exclusive

Ed McMahon discusses Johnny Carson at 9 p.m. ET Monday.
more videoVIDEO
For 30 years, Johnny Carson gave Americans a reason to stay up late.

Joan Rivers and Jackie Mason share their memories.

Johnny Carson: The life and legacy of an American icon.
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• Official Web siteexternal link
JOHN WILLIAM CARSON
Comedian, magician, radio announcer, comedy writer and host of NBC's "The Tonight Show" for 30 years -- 4,531 episodes
Born:
October 23, 1925, in Corning, Iowa
Parents:
Homer "Kit" Lloyd Carson, a power company manager, and Ruth Hook Carson
Education:
Bachelor's degree, University of Nebraska, 1949
Military:
Ensign, U.S. Navy, 1943-1946
Married:
Alexis Mass, 1987-present
Joanna Holland, 1972-1983, divorce
Joanne Copeland, 1963-1972, divorce
Joan "Jody" Wolcott Carson Buckley, 1949-1963, divorce
Children:
Christopher, born in 1950;
Richard, born in 1952 and died in 1991 car accident ; and Cory, born in 1953
Source: CNN research
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Johnny Carson
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(CNN) -- He was the king of late night, and there will be no other.

That's nothing against Joey Bishop, Dick Cavett, Alan Thicke, Joan Rivers, Pat Sajak, Jay Leno or David Letterman -- or Steve Allen and Jack Paar, for that matter. It's just that there will never be another Johnny, or another era in time like the 30 years he spent as host of "The Tonight Show" on NBC.

Consider: When Carson began as "Tonight Show" host in 1962, it was a three-network universe (and most cities were lucky if they had access to all three). When he stepped down in 1992, we were well on the way to the 500-plus channels we know today. There was no "Daily Show," "SportsCenter" or "Law & Order " reruns; Carson's competitors were late movies and test patterns.

Or consider: A late-night talk show -- particularly in Carson's early days -- was actually about "talk." Raconteurs such as Alexander King were popular guests, and writers weren't always shunted to the last two minutes of the show. Today it's all about the guest's new movie/song/television show, and if the guest actually says something interesting, it's an accident.

Carson could do the promotional thing as well as anybody, and he had a fondness for corny -- if often funny -- bits such as "Stump the Band" or the sketches of the Mighty Carson Art Players.

But he was also the epitome of cool, capable of wicked ad-libs, thoughtful conversation (magician and skeptic James Randi was a frequent guest as was astronomer Carl Sagan) and out-and-out silliness such as Tiny Tim's wedding (a 1969 highlight) or Albert Brooks' guest appearances.

Cool vs. hot

With Johnny, everything was always under control -- which made events all the funnier when they got out of control.

"The contrast between Jack Paar and Johnny Carson was marked," wrote Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh in their indispensable compendium of television, "The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present." "As emotional and likely to blow up as Paar was, that is how calm and unflappable Carson was."

So when a marmoset urinated on Carson's head, that was funny. When he discovered Don Rickles had broken his prized cigarette box -- and then went after Rickles, who was starring in "C.P.O Sharkey," during a taping -- that was funny.

And when a monologue joke went bad -- as they occasionally, inevitably did -- that was especially funny.

Johnny would pause and hold the beat for maximum effect. And then he would say something like, "Hey folks, this is what you paid for," and the audience -- which, of course, had paid no admission fee -- would break up.

Carson's deadpan outlook and quick wit endeared him to generations of Americans. Turning on "The Tonight Show" at 11:30 p.m. (10:30 p.m. CT on most NBC stations) was as comfortable and habitual as putting on a pair of pajamas.

Influential but private

Johnny wasn't the first "Tonight" host; that was Steve Allen, who started the show in 1954. He didn't invent the monologue (Paar had one), the format (Allen and Ernie Kovacs would break for sketches and guests) or even some of the bits most closely identified with him. (Allen did a character much like Carnac the Magnificent.)

But Carson rounded off the edges and made the late-night talk show part of the everyday scene. His monologues, though never nasty, were indications of the political mood of the country. And -- though it happened less frequently as the years went by -- his show could usually be counted on for water-cooler talk the next day.

When he moved the show from New York to Los Angeles in 1972, it solidified L.A. as the center of the TV universe. And when the move to the Pacific time zone dictated taping the show, it effectively ended live late-night talk shows.

For such an influential man, Carson remained intensely private his whole life. "The Tonight Show" may have been centered around him -- and, given his occasional contract battles with NBC, he knew his power -- but it was never about him. He was merely the genteel guide to some good talk and entertainment.

And yet he couldn't be touched. Other networks tried. The roster of failed talk-show hosts is testament to Carson's power.

He was sui generis. It was no wonder that nobody parodied Carson better than Carson himself.

When Garry Shandling did a "25th anniversary" special in the mid-1980s, copying everything from Carson's cigarette smoking to his behind-the-desk banter, half the fun was knowing that he was parodying Johnny. (Carson, always up for a joke, made an appearance at the end of the program.)

And David Letterman -- who always paid tribute to the man who'd given him his big break (and whose production company handled his show) -- didn't even try to out-Carson Carson; Letterman's "Late Night" was really the anti-talk show.

Carson finally appeared on Letterman's show well into its run. Upon arriving on stage, he unfolded a cardboard desk, saying he felt naked without it. The audience erupted. Carson, a master of timing, always knew how to get the biggest laugh.

He went out the way he came in -- understated, calm and cool. It was always thus, from "Who Do You Trust?" to his first "Tonight Show" in 1962 to the final broadcast on May 22, 1992, to Sunday, when he bid this world goodbye.

Good night, Johnny.


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