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Just Johnny: With the incredible Carson sleep was never much of an option.
Guest Writer

Carson never came back
Where's Johnny?
by Stephen Holmes

hris 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 Johnny Carson.

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 asleep.

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 the ruins.

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 O’Brien 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, "Playboy’s 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 didn’t have to be anything other than funny. He commented on politics, pop culture and personalities for 30 years without going stale.

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.

Read more from Stephen in our archives.

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