For fans of "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson," just the mention of his name can be enough to evoke the nightly scene: McMahon and bandleader Doc Severinsen, occasionally Tommy Newsome, calling viewers in for another opening monologue followed by visits from the top entertainers of the moment -- all held together by the wit and grace of a heartland American who eventually came to take his place alongside such legendary humorists and comedians as Will Rogers and Bob Hope.
Born in Iowa and raised in Nebraska, Carson downplayed his celebrity status, but he was much more than a celebrity. He exerted enormous influence on American culture -- from the way we consume media to the content of the media we consume.
Even his decision to move "The Tonight Show" from New York to Burbank, Calif., in 1972 helped the move the TV entertainment business center of gravity from the East Coast to the West.
Drawing nightly audiences routinely measured in eight-figure numbers, Carson was more than "required reading" for water-cooler conversationalists -- he was a cultural touchstone, a common reference point for vast numbers of people in the United States during most of his 30 years as the "Tonight" show host. His late-night ratings dominance was particularly strong during the '60s and '70s -- in the days before cable and home video, when programming choices were relatively few.
Even after cable began to cut into network viewership in the '80s, Carson was still doing his best work. He won a Peabody Award in 1986, to go with the four Emmys he and "The Tonight Show" won between 1965 and 1992, when Carson retired and turned the show over to Jay Leno.
Leno called Carson's death Sunday at 79 "a tremendous loss for everyone Johnny made laugh" during his career.
"No single individual has had as great an impact on television as Johnny," said Leno. "He was the gold standard."
Leno succeeded Carson as "Tonight" show host following a furious lobbying campaign by any number of entertainers with aspirations to follow a line of late-night royalty that had included not just Carson, but also Jack Paar and Steve Allen.
NBC rewarded Leno's performance with a new contract last March that --according to a report in the New York Post at the time -- will pay Leno $27 million a year through 2009, at which time Conan O'Brien will take over as host. At those prices, it seems strange to recall the banner headlines that accompanied NBC's decision to pay Carson $5 million a year after he threatened to walk away from the show in 1980.
The competition between Leno and David Letterman to succeed Carson was turned into a best-selling book by New York Times TV writer Bill Carter, and the book was adapted for the Emmy-nominated HBO movie "The Late Shift."
Reacting to news of Carson's death, Letterman said all late-night talk show hosts who came after Carson were "pretenders."
"He gave me a shot on his show and in doing so, he gave me a career," said Letterman.
The entertainment business -- stand-up comedy in particular -- is heavily populated with people who have their own versions of the same experience. If an appearance on "The Tonight Show" was often enough to launch a career, an invitation to come over and sit in the chair next to Carson's desk was the Holy Grail for standup comics.
And why not? The chair -- and the sofa next to it, where guests relocated when it was time to turn the chair of honor over to the next guest of the night -- was a special place, reserved for performers of extraordinary talent.
One clip that was shown repeatedly on television Sunday during coverage of Carson's death illustrated the rare air of a spot on the Carson set. Carson was behind the desk, Bob Hope was in the chair, and Letterman shared the sofa with Clint Eastwood and McMahon.
"The Tonight Show" was, routinely, a power center of the entertainment world.
And yet, it was Carson's easy manner as much as anything else that made him an audience favorite. Robert Wright, vice chairman of General Electric and chairman and chief executive officer of NBC Universal, said Carson's gift was an ability to make viewers feel they had a close relationship with him.
"With his lightning quick wit, effortless delivery, and immense charm, he was without peer in late-night television," said Wright. "His death marks the passing of a show-business legend and a man of warmth and sincerity."
After his retirement in 1992, Carson was as good as his word -- he intended to stay retired. He wrote occasional essays for publication and -- it was recently reported -- contributed jokes from time to time to Letterman's nightly monologue. Otherwise, he strictly maintained a personal zone of privacy.
Chevy Chase hinted that Carson had been unhappy with the magnitude of his celebrity -- and the public and media prying that attended it.
"He at least had 10 years to live a life not being hounded," Chase told the TV tabloid show "Extra."
It has often been observed that another of Carson's great gifts was the ability to listen, to be a receptive audience for his guests. His humor could occasionally be risqué, and may have bordered on the coarse at times -- but along with the belly laughs, Carson also found a way to make dry wit pay off, something that seems to have gone largely out of fashion in contemporary commercial entertainment.
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