Johnny: With the incredible Carson sleep was never much of an
never came back
Rock did an admirable job hosting this year's Academy Awards but,
like all others before him, he fell short of the standard set by
The nation has mourned Johnny since his death in January
and, even though he wasn't a "movie star," time was taken
during the awards (his second TV home) to remember his contributions.
That short film-clip tribute offered a glimpse into
the irreplaceability of the TV personality we liked to think we
knew as just Johnny.
But in fact, other than mining his failed marriages
for laughs, Johnny rarely commented on his own life. He opted instead
to concentrate his razor-sharp wit on the times in which we lived.
So in reality, even though we didn't know Johnny very well, we knew
all we needed.
At some point during the '60s, I was a seven-year-old boy who often
found himself wide awake when other children my age had long been
I honestly tried to fall asleep at the 8 p.m. mandate my parents
imposed, but even if I succumbed to the demands of the sandman I
would often wake in time to see an amazing event that occurred nightly.
The event was "The Tonight Show," starring the incredible
Johnny Carson. Sleep was not an option.
When I began watching "The Tonight Show" it was broadcast
from New York, ran 90 minutes and Johnny worked Monday through Friday.
The '70s changed all that when the show moved to Los Angeles, was
cut to 60 minutes and Johnny began shortening his workweek.
But the changes didn't cause the show to falter, because Johnny
was still there.
Sometimes the monologue would just die and that's when our hero
would flex his comedy muscle. How he made us laugh when he ... when
the material ... would bomb is just one reason Johnny can never
be replaced. Like no one else, he knew how to excavate laughs from
Johnny knew that being a comedian and being a host did not always
coexist. Sometimes being funny had to take a back seat to being
gracious. He seldom tried to best another comedian unless
the comedian was on equal footing.
Today, Jay Leno seems to need constant reminding to hold back.
Since David Letterman had his bypass and a son, his interviews often
veer toward self. And the lovably goofy Conan OBrien never
modulates his high-octane interviewing style.
Maybe Johnny could afford to be the consummate host because for
a long time celebrities would appear on "The Tonight Show"
for reasons other than to push opening weekend tickets. Sure, they'd
plug appearances in places like Tahoe and Vegas, but they also wanted
to bask in the glow of Johnny.
Of all the guests on "The Tonight Show," nothing compared
to the verbal sparring matches between the late jazz drummer Buddy
Rich and Johnny. Sure, Rich was there to play drums. But we knew
that once Rich stopped playing, the real entertainment would begin.
Watching them berate one another with quick and genuine wit was
as intimate as watching two amorous teens undercutting each other
to vie for the same girl's affection.
"The Tonight Show" has never been cool or edgy. If you
wanted that type of show in the '60s and '70s you had to find "Playboy
After Dark," or its predecessor, "Playboys Penthouse"
shows/parties hosted by Hugh Hefner. Those shows were cool
and guests like Lenny Bruce made them edgy.
What "The Tonight Show" had was Johnny Carson and that
made up for whatever it lacked. With Johnny in charge, the show
didnt have to be anything other than funny. He commented on
politics, pop culture and personalities for 30 years without going
When he was ready to retire, we wanted more. And once he retired,
we anxiously waited for his return from self-imposed exile. But
he didn't come back to skewer a new generation of politicians or
lambaste the glut of "reality" television shows. Johnny
never came sailing back to save us from mediocrity.
He had the nerve to stay away.