C is for Carson, Johnny (1925-2005): The King of Late Night Television

Carson was a cultural phenomenon.

~ David Letterman

American talk show hosts are enjoying a new popularity, with more talk shows and talent than ever. Yet the original concept of the talk show host as we know it was put into place by Johnny Carson who entered American living rooms for thirty years from his Burbank studio with the usual announcement ‘And here is Johnny!!!!!!!!!’

As the King of Late Night, maybe he was one of the most beloved talk show hosts of all time which had to do with his charm, his modesty, and the respect and genuine interest he showed for his guests, whether it was a celebrity or John Doe who came for his fifteen minutes of fame: he treated them all with courtesy and care. Like no other, he truly listened to his guests (more than 20,000 in total) and like no other, he knew how to direct the conversation into all sorts of unexpected directions without raising the impression that this might have been rehearsed or scripted.

One of my favorite Johnny Carson moments (shown above) was when he had a guest who collected potato chips that had unusual shapes, like the forms of animals or faces. As the humorless, prim and proper Myrtle Young presented a few of her chips, Carson’s sidekick handed a tray with even more chips, with the comment that Johnny also had to see these. The woman looked at the sidekick, distracted, upon which Carson got a chip from behind his desk, stuck it in his mouth and started chewing it loudly. Mrs. Young almost had a stroke, thinking Carson was casually eating away at her collection, but Carson put her at ease quickly by showing her the bowl from behind his desk.

What few people know was that Carson was a real innovator in the talk show industry. His format (interviews with guests, preceded by a monologue of jokes) was copied by all others and hardly changed by the next generation such as Jay Leno, David Letterman, Conan O’Brien etc. At the same time, Carson personified that postwar period of peace, prosperity and gentility. Watching his shows now gives you a sense of nostalgia for a world that was at once more innocent and more complacent. Needless to say, Carson never told any vulgar jokes or used the F-bomb, which you see so often on television these days. (OK, this comment ages me, so AARP, here I come!).

When Johnny Carson retired in 1992, his final show, with a moving tribute by Bette Midler (shown below), was a high point in California’s television history. He disappeared like he had emerged: in spite of the fact that many tried to sway him for a comeback or reappearance, he stayed in the background, and that too, was his integrity, sweetness and force, the same great qualities he had exhibited during his most popular shows.

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