A few nights ago I was mesmerized by a PBS American Masters episode, Johnny Carson: King of Late Night. As most readers know, Johnny Carson hosted the late night talk and variety show The Tonight Show from 1962-1992, in the process becoming the most popular entertainer in U.S. television history. His nightly audiences averaged 15 million viewers ~ double the current audience of David Letterman and Jay Leno .... combined. Both men got their big break on Carson's show, and most people (including Johnny Carson himself) saw Letterman as Carson's heir as The Tonight Show host. For reasons that remain obscure and a bit shady, NBC instead chose Leno to fill Carson's shoes .... an impossible task.
There is no shortage of remembrance material out there, including a range of commemorative DVDs featuring interviews, musical and comedy performances, and Carson's own sketches, all culled directly from The Tonight Show archives. The American Masters homage is different. It explores the "dichotomy and enigma, unearthing clues about Carson's childhood, early days in the business, and personal and professional life". You can view the hour-long documentary on Johnny Carson here.
During his career, Carson received six Emmy Awards and a 1985 Peabody Award. In 1987 he was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame. In 1992 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 1993 received a Kennedy Center Honor. So many people across generations ended their day with him, that millions felt shock and grief when Carson passed away on January 23, 2005. Tributes poured in, and luminaries throughout the entertainment industry paid homage.
Both David Letterman on The Late Show and Jay Leno on The Tonight Show devoted an entire show to remembering Johnny. I found Letterman's reminiscence to be particularly sincere and moving. Below you will find links to his entire tribute to Carson, presented in brief segments ~
- Part 1, the opening monologue, consisting entirely of jokes Carson sent to Letterman.
- Part 2, Letterman's impressions of Carson's greatness.
- Part 3, clips of Carson's appearances on Letterman's show.
- Part 4, reminiscences by Tonight Show producer Peter Lassally.
- Part 5, Lassally continued.
- Part 6, Lassally continued.
- Part 7, Doc Severinsen, Tommy Newsome and Ed Shaughnessy play one of Johnny Carson's favorite songs, 'Here's That Rainy Day'. (Carson's other favorite was 'I'll Be Seeing You')
- Bonus, Johnny Carson's last TV appearance.
- Bonus, Bette Midler performing 'One For My Baby (and One More for the Road)' on the penultimate episode of The Tonight Show with Carson as host.
The impact of Johnny Carson on American popular culture cannot be overstated. With his guests he was always attentive, and appeared to genuinely enjoy people both well-known and unknown. His casual interview style did little to conceal a very sharp mind and sense of humor. His jokes at public figures showed no favoritism ~ everyone was fair game. Like most people in public life, Carson had a significant ego, but also a deep desire for personal privacy born of humility and decency.
Johnny Carson's signature segue to a commercial break was "We'll be right back". He let it be known later in his life that he wanted his epitaph to read "I'll be right back". I'm waiting, wistfully.