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Carson was everyman, with charisma

Day he left ‘Tonight’ was the day that television died. By Michael Ventre
/ Source: contributor

“The day the music died” was February 3, 1959, when Buddy Holly’s plane crashed outside of Clear Lake, Iowa.

The day television died was May 22, 1992, when Johnny Carson hustled out of a Burbank studio, leaving tear-soaked cheeks, 30 years of memories and a void that could never be filled.

Like music, television carried on, but it was never quite the same again. Carson was princely. He was to television what Sinatra was to music, what Brando was to acting, what JFK was to the presidency. He was Carnac the Magnificent’s alter-ego, as trusted and reliable as the turbaned Carnac was inept. (Answer: “Ben Gay.”  Question: “Why didn’t Ben Franklin have any children?”

But Carson’s strength was his accessibility. You could take him to bed. Every night. Millions did.

Entered viewers’ homes like a old friendFrom 1962, when he relieved Jack Paar of hosting duties for NBC’s “The Tonight Show,” Johnny came through the curtain, stood center stage in a natty suit, leaned back on his heels, cast sly asides at the live audience and at Middle America through the cameras,  and did a 10 minute monologue that killed, even when it bombed. He made you laugh at jokes that were funny, and others that weren’t. He had you in his pocket even before you laid eyes on him

Born in Iowa but raised in Norfolk, Neb., he discovered early on what the heartland found entertaining. He did magic tricks. He worked as a ventriloquist. He kept enlisted men in stitches as a Naval officer. He wrote comedy and announced commercials for radio stations. He hosted game shows. He penned jokes for Red Skelton.

He paid his dues.

When he took over for Paar, he was ripe and ready, and quickly became a late-night ritual. Millions of kids grew up over the years hearing the voices of Carson, Ed McMahon, Doc Severinsen and myriad celebrity guests emanating from the tube in their parents’ bedroom. Cackles of laughter ensued. Often, it sounded like mom and dad were having a party in there. They were.

The Jimmy Stewart of late nightCarson succeeded with a mixture of everyman charm and movie-star charisma. He took the tools of vaudeville, gave them a modern sheen, and displayed them before television cameras. Over the years, he developed regular bits like “Stump the Band,” “Floyd R. Turbo,” “The Mighty Carson Art Players,” “Art Fern’s Tea Time Movie” and, of course, “Carnac,” which was funniest when the folks in the audience groaned over a dud of a line. Carnac would glare at them and offer an ominous reproach: “May a love-starved fruit fly molest your sister’s nectarines.”

You can tell a lot about a man by the company he keeps, and Johnny assembled a dream team and kept it intact for most of his run. Often it seemed McMahon’s primary role was to guffaw, but he also served as a trusted friend as well as an able accomplice in Johnny’s shenanigans. McMahon did not create the sidekick, but when it came to late-night television, he had no peer.

Bandleader Severinsen, and stand-in Tommy Newsom,  handled banter like Jim Fowler and Joan Embery handled critters. Producer Fred de Cordova ran a smooth ship, and helped to keep “The Tonight Show” atop the late-night ratings despite assaults by challengers like Dick Cavett, Merv Griffin, Joey Bishop, David Frost and Joan Rivers.

All the while, there were the guests. Regulars like Don Rickles, Rodney Dangerfield, Bob Newhart, David Brenner, Buddy Hackett, Albert Brooks and John Davidson provided familiarity, like relatives visiting. Others like Jerry Seinfeld and David Letterman represented the young turks who longed for recognition, hoping after their routines that they would be invited over to the inner sanctum that was Johnny’s couch.

Unlucky in love — or too lucky?Of course, Johnny had better luck picking guests than wives. He was married four times, and the first three came away with significant chunks of his salary. But it also provided material: “The difference between divorce and a legal separation is that a legal separation gives a husband time to hide his money.”

When he stepped down in 1992, it’s because he saw comic legends like Bob Hope and Jack Benny struggle in later years, and he feared becoming his industry’s version of Willie Mays, stumbling around in the outfield long after his gifts had evaporated.  Around the time of the 10th anniversary of his retirement, he told Esquire magazine: “I think I left at the right time. 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.”

Aside from a few cameos, including a voiceover on “The Simpsons” and an appearance on Letterman’s show, a man who once enjoyed massive popularity went directly into seclusion and stayed there. He shunned large gatherings and requests for his time: “I will not even talk to myself without an appointment.”

The day that television died was May 22, 1992. The day it was buried was today.

At the risk of sounding indelicate, I think he should close with a joke. If Mel Blanc can have “That’s All, Folks!” on his tombstone, then Johnny can have “Heeeerreee’s Johnny!” on his.

I don’t think Johnny Carson would mind if I pointed out how wrong it is that the nation can no longer enjoy his talents, or even his presence, by using a joke. It was one of his:

“If life was fair, Elvis would still be alive and all the impersonators would be dead.”

Michael Ventre is a frequent contributor to He lives in Los Angeles.