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It hurts to say goodbye to Carson once again

His ‘Tonight Show’ was America's shared reality
/ Source: The Associated Press

And so, it has come to this ...

With those words, Johnny Carson made his graceful exit from “The Tonight Show” nearly 13 years ago. But few believed he would really be gone. And no one wanted to believe it.

Now, with his death at 79, Carson’s fans must at last face the truth, and relinquish our long-dimming hope that he might yet pay us another visit on our TV screens.

Ruling late-night TV for 30 years, Carson was our common touchstone, from the things he chose to joke about to the guests he received at his couch. Indeed, at some point during King Johnny’s reign, his show ceased to be simply a matter of entertainment. It became a shared reality.

Sure, we watched “The Tonight Show” for the comedy and chatter. But we got more than that once Ed McMahon declared “Heeere’s Johnny!” In Carson, we saw ourselves. As our cultural arbiter, reading our minds, he truly was The Great Carnac.

Then he retired, leaving in his wake a clatter of competing hosts, a splintered world of late-night challengers. In his absence played out nightly proof that no one could fill the void he left. Not David Letterman or Jon Stewart. Not Carson’s successor, Jay Leno, nor, waiting in the wings to replace Leno, Conan O’Brien.

No one voice could speak for all of us, after Carson. Or likely ever will.

Only last week, we learned that Carson had been sending the occasional joke to Letterman. An occasional gibe penned by the master and anonymously tucked into Dave’s “Late Show” monologue! Discovering that we had heard from Carson even in this elemental, disembodied way had to give us a thrill.

But the measure of Carson’s heft had been settled for all time in May 1994, when he made an unannounced appearance on “The Late Show.” A bombshell TV event, he was on stage a total of 76 ovation-filled seconds, 43 of them enthroned at Dave’s desk, which the host yielded to him. Carson beamed at the cheering audience, but said nothing (the official explanation: he had laryngitis). He didn’t need to. Then he vanished again, stage right.

He was scarcely glimpsed after that, other than by his tight circle of friends. He said he was going away, and he meant it.

Maybe we should never have doubted him. Carson was always a Garbo-esque celebrity who, even at his most prominent, seldom was seen anywhere but behind the fortification of his “Tonight Show” desk, or standing on the star on the studio floor that marked where he delivered his monologue.

It was on that spot in May 1992 that he spent the last moments of his final “Tonight” broadcast, seated on a stool as he spoke from the heart. “And so, it has come to this,” he began.

Then he expressed hope that “when I find something I want to do and think you would like, I can come back” to find fans “as gracious in inviting me into your homes as you have been.”

But maybe he was just trying to ease the pain of parting, for himself no less than us.

“I bid you a very heartfelt good night,” he said in the next breath, signing off. An era was over, even more than we could understand — until now.