Famous Dead Person of the Week: Johnny Carson
Life: Oct. 23, 1925 – Jan. 23, 2005
Occupation: Late-night talk show host
Why He’s Famous: He’s Johnny Carson
Fun Fact: The job that became Carson’s on The Tonight Show was turned down by Bob Newhart, Jackie Gleason, Joey Bishop and Groucho Marx.
Johnny Carson retired on May 22, 1992. I was four years old; my brother would be born 23 days later. For most of my life, and all the late-night television viewing portion of it, Jay Leno (or briefly, Conan O’Brien) has been the man behind the desk for The Tonight Show.
That barely matters, though. The Tonight Show – really, any late-night talk endeavor – is and always will be about Johnny Carson. He’s the original, the guy that laid the groundwork for Leno, Conan, David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel. While each is successful in his own way, and some may technically be ‘better’ or ‘funnier’ or whatever the criteria for rating how good a host is, none is better than Carson. In this scenario, the prototype is better than the subsequent versions.
How do I know? Carson lives on thanks to YouTube, and his trailblazing set the standard for everything you see today. Your late-night formats of monologue, guests, music, comedians? Well, that was Carson. He started it and aside from some newer video clips replacing Carson’s traditional in-studio gags (such as Carnac the Magnificent), the format hasn’t changed. I’m guessing a bit of that has to do with how well Carson made the format work. He’s what a host should look and act like
He’s one of the few people you never had to watch in order to understand. Aside from YouTube and some very old retrospectives, my Carson knowledge comes from his late-night successors and the generation before mine. Almost unanimously, Carson is beloved. In The War for Late Night, which revolves around Leno’s ungraceful exit from The Tonight Show and how other networks were attempting to gather power in the midnight hour, one that knows little about Carson can see the veneration. All the principles involved in the book – Leno, Letterman and Conan – revered Carson to the point of near-worship. Kimmel, who was just starting to break onto the scene, represents the first of the new generation for whom Carson was not a huge influence.
We’ll never see another like him. Carson was the only game in town back in his day. If you wanted to watch TV late at night, he was it. He was a part of your life almost by default. I can recall profound sadness at Carson’s passing seven years ago. The more I read about it, the better I understand it.