Johnny Carson was quick-witted, he was cool, and he was a master foil for some of the biggest names in show business.
Yet he was most remembered by his peers for humbly stepping aside and letting others be funny on his “The Tonight Show,” a trait that helped launch scores of comedy careers, among them Joan Rivers, Bill Cosby, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Carson’s successor Jay Leno.
Comedian David Brenner, who tallied more than 150 appearances on “The Tonight Show” on NBC, recalled having just $3 to his name the night he debuted on Carson in 1971.
“The next day ... I had $10,000 worth of job offers,” Brenner told Reuters. “I can’t think of anything I’ve had in my career that didn’t springboard from Johnny Carson, not a single thing.”
Brenner also praised Carson as a performer of impeccable timing and a straight man of few words who knew how to let a fellow comedian shine.
“He always brought the best out of every guest. He put his ego in a drawer; he didn’t try to top their jokes, make them look foolish, top their stories,” Brenner said.
Carson’s death Sunday, at age 79 from emphysema triggered an outpouring of tributes from Hollywood to the White House.
Remembered by manyPresident Bush saluted Carson as a “steady and reassuring presence in homes across America for three decades.”
Movie action hero turned California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recounted that Carson had “welcomed me on his show when no one knew who I was and helped promote the image of bodybuilding.”
Bill Cosby, too, remembered Carson as a generous performer: ”Johnny was responsible for the beginning and the rise of success for more performers than anybody. I doubt if those numbers will ever be surpassed.”
Added Bob Newhart: “I guest hosted for Johnny many years ago ... and experienced first hand just how great he was, making it look so easy night after night. Once you sat in that chair, you knew there was nothing easy about it.”
Comedian Joan Rivers called Carson “truly the best straight man ever. He fed you lines ... like nobody else ever did before or since.”
“He gave me my career,” Rivers told Reuters. “You never forget when you’ve been working as a waitress and an office temporary and you’ve been working strip joints at night, and then Carson says to you, ’You’re going to be a star’ on the air, and it happens.”
“Nowadays, with all due respect, you can go on Leno a hundred times, and they still don’t know who you are.”
Good and bad memoriesBrenner and Rivers both parlayed regular appearances on ”The Tonight Show” into talk shows of their own, though Rivers’ relationship with Carson was strained after she gave up her gig as Carson’s permanent guest host to launch Fox television’s first late-night show opposite his in 1986.
Carson never spoke to her again.
“He was very hurt,” Rivers said, adding that when she tried to patch things up with her former mentor, he never responded.
“It’s a small little business, and fewer and fewer of us that share the same memories,” Rivers said. It’s terribly, terribly sad.”
Comedian-actor Robin Williams, one of Carson’s last two guests (the other was Bette Midler), said being on “Tonight” ”was like playing center court at Wimbledon. Total excitement and you had to be at the top of your game.”
Off screen, the Nebraska-raised Carson was remembered as humble and quiet, keeping company with a tight circle of friends and rarely making public appearances after retiring in 1992.
Even among close friends, few saw signs of the emphysema that ultimately took his life, said longtime pal and comic Don Rickles, who last saw Carson six months ago.
“He seemed fine at that time. I would never know he had that problem except word got out a little bit. He looked great. You would never know it,” Rickles said.
“I feel like Johnny’s up there now, delighted we’d be talking about him, but he wouldn’t admit it,” Rickles said. ”He’d tell us: ’Stop making a fuss."