Anyone who came of age in the 1960s, 70s or 80s will remember Johnny Carson. To say he was the king of late-night television would be, if anything, an understatement. For 30 years he wove a fabric into the American experience that will never be repeated.
Today, late-night comedians such as David Letterman, Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien try to emulate him, but they will never be his equal. Carson was truly one of a kind.
I first got a glimpse of “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” in the late 1960s when I was about 12 years old. It was on TV way past my bedtime so it must have been a Friday night when my parents were out late. I watched it with my older brother and was fascinated by the comedy and interviews with famous celebrities. I couldn’t wait to see it again. Usually that would only occur if my parents were asleep or Bob Hope was on (my dad adored him).
By the time I was a senior in high school and closing in on graduation “The Tonight Show” became a regular experience (who goes to bed early their last semester of high school?). I got to know all of Carson’s infamous characters: Art Fern, Aunt Blabby, The Great El Moldo, Floyd R. Turbo, and, best of all, Carnac the Magnificent. Like my friends, we all watched Johnny Carson in college and beyond. His anniversary shows were classics.
The show was never dull. In fact, the funniest moments occurred when Carson bombed his monologue. If the jokes started getting a negative response from the audience the band would strike up some banal tune and Carson would start dancing. It always brought plenty of laughs. He was tremendous at ad-libbing comedy too.
There was a time when you thought Johnny Carson would never end. After all, he had been on “The Tonight Show” as long as any of us could remember (1962 to be exact). But as he aged and took more time off it became apparent that the end was coming. In 1992 he decided that he had enough. At 67 it was time to quit.