Jay Leno turned back the clock on “The Tonight Show” with a touching hourlong tribute to Johnny Carson that mixed warm remembrances from the former host’s friends with the more outrageous moments during Carson’s three-decade reign as the king of late-night comedy.
Carson, who handed the show’s reins over to Leno when he retired nearly 13 years ago, died Sunday of complications from emphysema. He was 79.
“As you all know, this has been a tough 24 hours for those of us that are fans of Johnny Carson,” a subdued Leno said as he opened the show.
“Johnny was the best, plain and simple,” Leno said as his studio audience sat in rapt silence. “And the best way to sum it up is, I guess, you know you had to be there. If you were fortunate enough to be watching during Johnny’s 30-year run, consider yourself lucky, because you’re not going to see the likes of him ever again.”
One of the many secrets to Carson’s success, Leno said, was “he was hip, but he was smart enough not to be so hip that next year he was out of style.”
Although it was a somber opening, the laughs soon followed when Leno welcomed to the show three of Carson’s closest friends, former “Tonight Show” announcer Ed McMahon and comedians Don Rickles and Bob Newhart.
Sprinkled liberally throughout the show were some of Carson’s finest moments. Audiences saw him wrestle with McMahon, watch as ukulele-strumming falsetto singer Tiny Tim married Miss Vicki and pretend to eat what a pooch turned its nose up at during a live commercial for Alpo dog food. Once again he was Art Fern, the sleazy TV pitchman, and “Carnac the Magnificent,” the turban-clad mentalist.
For years, he was also late-night television’s arbiter of comedy, as clips showed him introducing a stable of future stars, including a dark-haired Leno, a young Roseanne, a bushy-haired Steven Wright, and Drew Carey, who Carson stunned by calling him over to his desk to offer his congratulations after Carey’s first standup appearance.
“That was the greatest day of my whole life,” Carey told Leno on Monday.
Another clip showed him giving the coveted OK sign to a young Jerry Seinfeld.
“You got that, that was the greatest sign in the world,” Leno recalled.
Despite his outgoing personality in front of the cameras (Leno showed a clip of Carson interrupting a taping of Rickles’ old sitcom to accuse the comic of breaking his cigarette box), McMahon noted Carson was incredibly shy off camera.
“He was great with 10 million people, lousy with 10,” McMahon said.
Some in the audience, including June Bartlett of Victoria, Texas, left the show’s taping in tears.
“He had the ability to turn you into a designated laugher,” said Bartlett, who recalled attending a Carson show 20 years ago.
Missing from Monday’s show was Carson’s longtime bandleader Doc Severinsen, but he made an appearance on CNN’s “Larry King Live,” where he told King he was still grieving.
“I’m still having a problem with it you, know. I mean ... I think I'm OK, now, OK, I’ve got everything under control, and then bam, it hits again.”