Comedy legend ruled late-night TV for decades

Influence: The longtime host of `The Tonight Show' perfected the genre and launched entertainment careers.

January 24, 2005|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Johnny Carson, the boyishly handsome comedian whose mix of heartland innocence and after-hours mischief on NBC's The Tonight Show dominated late-night television for three decades, died yesterday of emphysema at his home in Malibu, Calif. The performer, who was 79, was surrounded by family members when he died, said nephew Jeff Sotzing.

Carson's reign over late-night television spanned 1962 to 1992, a period during which network TV became America's primary cultural influence; no one has had as long and strong a hold on the American public's affection. For millions of fans, weekdays ended with The Tonight Show; Carson's final appearance on May 22, 1992, drew an unprecedented 50 million viewers.

"All of us who came after are pretenders," David Letterman said yesterday. "We will not see the likes of him again. He gave me a shot on his show, and in so doing, gave me a career."

Carson used his weeknight show to showcase the talents of two generations of comedians -- including Joan Rivers, Bill Cosby, Robin Williams and Jerry Seinfeld. His own opening monologues -- a savvy take on the day's headlines shot through with sexual innuendo and naughtiness -- defined the comedic formula for television and determined what many viewers discussed the next day. Carson was the first to make late-night TV a player in setting the national agenda.

In substance and style -- political wisecracks, silly skits and long double takes at risque comments made by guests -- Carson is being imitated by Jay Leno on The Tonight Show, Letterman on CBS' Late Show With David Letterman and Comedy Central's The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.

"He didn't invent the late-night talk show -- Steve Allen and Jack Paar were there before him," said Larry Mintz, director of the Gliner Center for Humor Studies at the University of Maryland. "He developed and perfected the form to the point where it became an important part of daily life for millions of Americans and the model for everything in late night since."

Dozens of performers from Jackie Mason to Billy Crystal offered testimony yesterday to Carson's influence. "One of the greatest thrills of my career was not on stage but when Johnny called me after seeing me host the Oscars and telling me how much he loved what I did. That's how much I looked up to him. He was a true idol," Crystal said.

Comparing Carson to Bob Hope, Mason said: "The void will not be filled."

Unlike Hope and Milton Berle, who represented the earliest generation of television performers, Carson's style was not shaped by the loud, broad, slapstick style of vaudeville. Instead he played to TV's microphones and their ability to capture the nuances of conversation.

Born in 1925 in Corning, Iowa, and raised in Norfolk , Neb., Carson claimed that his show business career began when he was 14 -- performing magic tricks at high school shows as the Great Carsoni. (Carnac the Magnificent, the comic character he played years later on The Tonight Show, is a direct descendant.)

After serving in the Navy during World War II, he returned to Omaha, Neb., where he worked in local radio. He also wrote and sent unsolicited jokes to such radio and early TV performers as George Burns and Red Skelton.

His freelance efforts landed him a job at KNXT-TV in Los Angeles where he created Carson's Cellar, a sketch comedy show that in 1951 earned Carson a staff position on The Red Skelton Show, then a staple of the CBS lineup. Carson made his network stage debut in 1954 when Skelton was reportedly injured backstage -- and Carson replaced him.

Carson enjoyed being onstage and left Skelton to host the quiz show Earn Your Vacation. The show was canceled in 1954, but CBS executives gave Carson his own daytime variety series, The Johnny Carson Show. Within months, the network moved the series to prime time, where it ran until 1956.

Carson paid the rent by working in daytime TV from 1957 to 1962 as host of the quiz show Who Do You Trust? In 1958, he hired Ed McMahon as his sidekick, a position McMahon would hold until 1992, forming one of the most enduring relationships in television -- and launching one of its most familiar catch- phrases: "Heeeeeeeeeere's Johnny."

Carson's big break came in 1962 when Paar quit The Tonight Show, and the young comedian took over as host.

"Carson was not as good a conversationalist as Paar or as multitalented or probably even as smart as Steve Allen," said Mintz, who has written extensively about late-night performers. "But from a perfectly polished, highly topical monologue to doing reaction shots worthy of Jack Benny, nobody can compare in all-around talents."

Whereas Allen and Paar could get excessively emotional, Carson's style was cool. He used mischievous winks instead of loud exclamations. And his understatement made it easier for viewers to allow him into their bedrooms at night.

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