Johnny Carson

I wound up being awake until 4 in the morning watching a documentary about Johnny Carson on PBS. I found it beyond captivating. I had forgotten it was 50 years ago this month, October 1, 1962, when Carson took over hosting duties of “The Tonight Show” from the controversial Jack Paar.

To my surprise, he wasn’t an immediate hit. It took a little time for the audience to take to his smooth, midwestern style. When they did, it was a love affair which lasted 30 years. I think it continues today. The last night hosts of the present are fine in their own right. I prefer Letterman myself, although I rarely watch him. However, they all seem to miss something Johnny had. Either they try too hard, are too snide or sarcastic, or just simply not funny. Carson was different. When Johnny had a guest on, they were the star during their time in the infamous chair opposite him. He stepped back and let them shine, instead of trying to keep up or compete with them. He didn’t interrupt. He had a security in what he did.

Everyone wanted to do “The Tonight Show”.. and they did. It was an open door.  There were political figures including Martin Luther King, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton. Athletes, up and coming comedians, TV celebs, musicians, movie stars, etc were welcome five nights a week. Over that 30 year period, you saw a variety of guests from Billy Graham, Judy Garland, Paul McCartney, Oprah, and a tiny Drew Barrymore. Guest hosts included Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby, Freddie Prinze, and Joan Rivers. You had made it when you did the Carson show. Being able to chat with him those few minutes was equal to royalty. It was an unforgettable experience celebs still gush about today.

As for the viewers, they responded to Johnny Carson in a way they have yet to respond to any other late night host. They know this. They remain in awe of him themselves. Each wants that connection he had, the affable style, but they know they will never attain it. Johnny was a part of the family, someone you shared your nights with. After unwinding from the day, just before bed, you had your visit with him. His monologue was more important than the daily newspaper. The public adored him.

Not being one to whitewash history, I admit (with regret) I did not pay very much attention to Johnny when he was in his prime. I knew who he was. He was a household name, a deeply respected, beloved icon. However, my mind was elsewhere. I actually paid more attention to Ed McMahon, thanks to “Star Search”, and his Bloopers and Outtakes show with Dick Clark. Not to mention Arsenio Hall in the late ’80s and early ’90s. I missed out on a classic time in television, one which will never come again. I made my discovery of him after his passing in 2005. It hit me what a natural he was, how good he was. I bought up books and tribute magazines. I found videos of entire episodes of “The Tonight Show”, including one from my 7th b-day. I watched the Dean Martin Roast to Johnny in 1973, and a compilation tape of the first 10 years. I wish I had noticed and appreciated his humor and persona sooner, but I’m glad to have discovered it period.

On a bright note, I didn’t completely dismiss Johnny Carson in my youth. After the 10 o’clock news, “The Tonight Show” would follow. Mom let us stay up until that time on school nights. For some reason, we always left the TV on thru the  Carson theme song. To this day, that song sounds like bedtime, that school is in the morning. It actually sounds like turning back the bed. I have a warm, heartwarming feeling when I hear it. Looks like Johnny was a part of my childhood days after all. I couldn’t be happier.


~ by kmnnz on October 31, 2012.

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