Simply put, Johnny was the King. Nobody, and I mean nobody, has ever owned the medium of television the way Johnny Carson did. He made what he did look so easy and so smooth that it was almost as if television had been invented with him in mind.
When I was a kid, I wouldn't just watch Johnny, I'd study him. If one were going to teach a class on comic timing (which would be a stupid thing to do -- as Carson himself often said, analyzing comedy kills comedy), it would begin and end with Johnny Carson. Nobody ever put it all together--face, mannerisms, voice, wit--better than he did.
Most of the clips they show over the next few days will show Johnny doing crazy sketches and stunts, but we won't see nearly enough of the two places where his genius truly shined: the nightly monologue and conversing at the desk. Only David Letterman could rival Carson in seeing an opening in an interview and nailing home the perfect line. And Carson could do it without drawing blood and making the audience uneasy. Letterman himself is the first to say that anything he did right, he mainly learned by watching Carson.
It's no small order to hold the attention of a fickle nation every night for thirty years. Carson pulled it off. This was a guy you wanted to spend time with (or in my case, this was a guy you wanted to be). Because one always sensed that he was holding something back (that famous and impenetrable midwestern reserve produced by his Nebraska upbringing), he never overstayed his welcome, and as one television critic once put it, "he wears well." If he hadn't been pushed into retirement in 1992, I suspect we'd still be watching him.
Of course, on a personal level, it's been well known for nearly as long as Carson has been famous that he perhaps wasn't the greatest human being in the world. Four marriages, three periodically alienated sons, a score of former friends (such as Joan Rivers and Rich Little) who were completely and permanently frozen out for reasons only fully known to Carson himself, and a highly publicized DUI all come together to paint a personal picture of a guy maybe you wouldn't want to know too well after all.
But he wasn't hired to be America's husband. He was hired to entertain us, and nobody ever did a job with more consistent excellence for a longer period of time than Johnny Carson did his. His influence on me personally was inestimable. When I heard the news last night that he had died, it knocked the wind out of me. He and Letterman are two of the primary reasons I went into broadcasting in the first place.
On his final show, Johnny said "I hope when I find something I want to do and think you would like, I can come back and you will be as gracious in inviting me into your homes as you have been." I had always vainly hoped that Johnny would find that project and give us one final look. We now know that he won't. But there are thousands of hours of The Tonight Show on videotape, and hopefully someone will someday bring them to cable TV, so that a new generation can see what it was like when the king reigned over television.