David Edelstein gets a lot right (though not quite everything) in his appreciation of Johnny Carson at Slate.
His is the first tribute I've seen that ties Carson's overwhelming success directly to his training as a magician, and I think convincingly so. Edelstein also correctly eviscerates a misguided USA Today editorial (that, by way of "tribute," made Carson out to be tame and milquetoast) for missing the mark completely on the key to Johnny's appeal--the knife's edge that was hidden just below the geniality.
Edelstein comes up short in a few spots too, such as when he aims the predictable liberal criticism at Carson for not "risking" enough in venturing political opinions a la Dick Cavett or John Stewart (a criticism liberals level at just about every mainstream star) .
While the media is currently in the throes of a schoolgirl crush on Stewart (says Edelstein: "The only current host with the speed and agility of Carson in his prime is Jon Stewart, who goes politically where Carson feared to tread"), Edelstein seems oblivious to the possibility that Carson's outward political neutrality is perhaps why he maintained widespread popularity for 30 years. In contrast, Stewart (talented though he is, notwithstanding Edelstein's absurd assertion that he's closer to Carson in speed and agility than, say, Letterman) hosts a nightly niche cable show and Cavett has hosted one short-lived failure of a talk show after another. It's like criticizing Frank Sinatra for not singing enough Radiohead songs.
Nonetheless, Edelstein captures something of the subtle dangerousness that made Johnny one of the world's most fascinating people, and it's one of the most perceptive Carson retrospectives I've seen yet. Definitely worth a few minutes' reading.