January 23, 2005


Johnny Carson Dies at 79: "Tonight Show" TV host served America a smooth nightcap of celebrity banter, droll comedy and heartland charm for 30 years. (Brian Lowry, January 23, 2005, LA Times)

Johnny Carson, who in three decades as host of "The Tonight Show" became one of America's most influential political satirists and the entertainment industry's most powerful figures, died today. He was 79. [...]

The late-night host had become an extraordinarily private figure in recent years given the national stage he commanded for three decades. He seldom appeared in public-and, other than a few cameos on David Letterman's late-night show and a tribute to Bob Hope-completely eschewed television after leaving "The Tonight Show" on May 22, 1992, with a retrospective that drew an audience rivaling the Super Bowl.

"I bid you a very heartfelt good night," were his parting words.

Ed McMahon, the sidekick who always introduced Carson with "Heeeeere's Johnny!" today said the former talk show host was "like a brother to me."

"Our 34 years of working together, plus the 12 years since then, created a friendship which was professional, family-like and one of respect and great admiration," McMahon said in a statement. "When we ended our run on 'The Tonight Show" and my professional life continued, whenever a big career decision needed to be made, I always got the OK from 'the boss.'"

After years of silence, Carson spoke to Esquire magazine for a 2002 profile, reconfirming his belief that he had done the right thing in essentially disappearing from public view.

"I left at the right time," he said. "You've got to know when to get the hell off the stage, and the timing was right for me. The reason I really don't go back or do interviews is because I just let the work speak for itself."

From a cultural standpoint, Carson's nightly monologue developed a reputation as a bellwether in terms of the national mood. When Carson began making Watergate jokes, The New York Times wrote in 1975, "we knew it was permissible to ridicule the president, that Mr. Nixon was done for."

"The influence he had on the country was unique. He was the conscience of America," said Peter Lassally, Carson's producer for more than two decades, who noted that Carson was also extraordinarily even-handed, so much so that no one ever knew his personal political leanings.

Carson also had a major effect on television standards, lacing his monologue with sexual innuendo that once would have been unthinkable on television.

"Next to Milton Berle and Lucille Ball, he's had the single greatest influence on the content of television," said Jeffrey Cole, director of the UCLA Center for Communication Policy. "He really created the monologue and turned it into a cultural barometer of political and social events. Many people got their take on what was acceptable from the monologue."

Carson himself said in a 1986 interview, "I knew from the monologue the very night that Spiro Agnew was suddenly in deep trouble. From a one-line observation I can get a response, a reaction . . . that may be the best indicator of how [someone] is perceived in this country."

If Carson's jokes reverberated in Washington, who appeared on "The Tonight Show" was seen for many years in Hollywood as a career-making platform, especially for stand-up comedians. Jerry Seinfeld called receiving the "OK" sign from Carson after his first appearance "the Holy Grail of comedy."

Being asked to sit down after a performance was a sign of validation and prestige. As comic Garry Shandling said a few years ago, "I didn't get to sit down on the couch the first time. It is sort of a benchmark to sit on the couch. When you go to Johnny's house, you stand the first few times you are there."

Introduced by Groucho Marx on his first show, Oct. 1, 1962, Carson went on to host more than 7,500 hours of television and weathered numerous late-night challenges, including competing shows featuring Joey Bishop, Merv Griffin, Dick Cavett, Alan Thicke, Joan Rivers and Pat Sajak that all came and went during his tenure.

At the end, feeling NBC was maneuvering behind him to line up a replacement, Carson stunned the television world when he announced his plans to retire at an advertising presentation in 1991, setting off a flurry of debate and backstage jockeying to determine whether Letterman or Jay Leno should become his successor. Leno won the job, prompting Letterman to leave NBC for a competing show on CBS.

After leaving the network, Carson studiously avoided the spotlight, representing one of the industry's few stars who have been able to walk away. Friends said Carson remembered seeing one-time idols like Hope and Jack Benny near the end of their careers and wanted to avoid that scenario.

In 1979, at the age of 53, Carson said he couldn't see himself sitting at the desk in his 60s. Seven years later, he was still grappling with when to leave.

"I remember when [CBS President] Jim Aubrey canned Jack Benny, and that won't happen to me," Carson said. "I'll know when the time has come. The people tell you. . . .

"You don't just walk in and do what I do. You have to put it on the griddle, and it's from night to night. It's about momentum. That's why when I quit I won't come back to the same format. It's not like [golfer] Jack Nicklaus coming back to win the Masters."

Lassally called Carson's ability to shun celebrity at 66, when he could have easily continued to perform, and stay away despite entreaties to return "an elegant end to his career."

If only any of those he supposedly influenced had learned from him how little we need to know about them.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 23, 2005 4:57 PM

My one notorious and completely unprofitable claim to fame in this life is that I never saw his show. Absolutely no one believes me.

Posted by: Peter B at January 23, 2005 6:38 PM

I feel your pain. People don't believe I've never seen "Little Rascals".

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at January 23, 2005 9:56 PM

Carson followed Jack Paar's lead when he left the Tonight Show and left the limelight behind, something rare among celebrites in any field nowadays (and a good thing, too, if the Esquire interview from two years ago with Johnny venting about "Kenny Boy" Lay and Bush's other Enron pals is any indication). You've got to doubt Jay Leno's going to follow in the Paar-Carson tradition when he gives way to Conana O'Brien in 2009.

Posted by: Jlohn at January 23, 2005 10:57 PM

It was a right of passage to stay awake until 11:30 and watch Carson without your parents catching you. Asking for a 13 inch b&w tv for christmas in the early 70's, I was shocked to receive it. It served one purpose; I got to watch Johnny and the Mighty Carson Art Players every night (with one of those little earplugs in my ear to avoid detection). God's speed Johnny.

Posted by: Pat H at January 23, 2005 11:47 PM