Johnny Carson dominated late-night television for an astonishing 30 years, from 1962 to 1992. In that span, LBJ, the '60s, Watergate, the Reagan years, and the pre-presidential Clinton were fodder for his good-natured satire. On Jan. 23, Mr. Carson died of emphysema at the age of 79. But late-night television still follows the format he perfected. And as late-night TV has become one of the nation's few unifying cultural experiences-and the prime source of political information for nearly a fourth of young adults-Mr. Carson's cultural influence lives on.
John William Carson was born on Oct. 23, 1925, in Corning, Iowa, and his family moved to Norfolk, Neb., when he was 8. When he was 12 years old, he sent off for a mail-order magic kit and started performing at the local Rotary Club and at church socials, calling himself "the Great Carsoni." Young Johnny would also spend hours listening to Jack Benny on the radio, whose droll humor, sense of timing, and comical reactions would become the model for his own comic style.
After a stint in the Navy during World War II and college at the University of Nebraska, Mr. Carson went into radio, working at local stations in Lincoln and Omaha. In 1951 he got a job at a fledgling TV station in Los Angeles. He hosted a little-watched daytime show called "Carson's Cellar," in which he once joked that Red Skelton-then a big star-was in the studio but that there wasn't time for him to perform. Mr. Skelton was watching, thought the bit was funny, and hired Mr. Carson to be a writer on "The Red Skelton Show." One day in 1954, Mr. Skelton got hurt doing one of his notorious stunts and could not go on the air. Mr. Carson filled in, his big break on national TV that led to a move to New York and his hosting a series of programs, including the quiz show "Who Do You Trust?" with its announcer Ed McMahon. Then, in 1962, came his gig with "The Tonight Show."
With his droll wit, dapper dress, and down-to-earth Midwestern personality, Mr. Carson clicked with the American people. "No one could second-guess [the jokes]," commented comedienne Joan Rivers, "because if he got it, everyone in Iowa would get it." The ratings soared. Millions of Americans, across all demographics, made "The Tonight Show" part of their nightly ritual before going to bed. Despite cultural changes, national divisions, and changes in fashion, "The Tonight Show" held its audience of young and old, liberal and conservative, for three decades, until Mr. Carson-his ratings still huge-stepped down in 1992.
His show became the biggest moneymaker in the history of television, at one point generating 17 percent of NBC's total profit. When he decided to move his show from New York City to Burbank, Calif., the whole TV industry shifted to the West Coast. When he decided to tape his show rather than present it live, other shows followed suit, and the age of live TV was over.
Mr. Carson's humor was zany but, for the most part, tasteful. He approached the boundaries rarely, and usually with self-deprecating comments like this one about his own show: "We're more effective than birth-control pills." Most moments of crudeness were accidents. One night, his frequent guests from the San Diego Zoo brought a marmoset that climbed on his head, whereupon it urinated. Although this was hilarious in itself, it was made more so by the expression on Mr. Carson's face. Then there was the time Ed Ames, who played the faithful TV Indian companion of Daniel Boone, did a demonstration of tomahawk throwing that struck the target, a drawing of a cowboy, in an embarrassing place, sparking one of the longest laughs in television history. But in general, Mr. Carson did not approve of dirty jokes on his show. He refused to have on British comedians, considering their humor "lavatorial."
He did, however, shape the art form of stand-up comedy. By giving up-and-comers national exposure, Mr. Carson launched the careers of Bill Cosby, Jerry Seinfeld, Steve Martin, Robin Williams, and his late-night successors Jay Leno and David Letterman. A spot on "The Tonight Show" was a coup for every novice, but Mr. Carson also always made room on his couch for older performers, such as Jimmy Stewart. His genius as an interviewer, according to Bob Newhart, was "always making the guest look good."
Mr. Carson's political humor was remarkably fair and balanced, lampooning liberals and conservatives alike. His Watergate jokes reportedly made Richard Nixon realize that he was going to have to resign, while his Dan Quayle jokes forever stuck to the former vice president. After Bill Clinton, then governor of Arkansas, introduced Michael Dukakis at the 1988 Democratic Convention, Mr. Carson lampooned his long, dull, rambling speech. But he then invited Mr. Clinton on his show, where the governor played the saxophone and perhaps repaired the damage to his image.
For all his easy familiarity in front of the camera, Mr. Carson was shy, even reclusive in his personal life. He hated parties, refused to talk with the media, and kept his beliefs and his politics to himself. He was married four times, going through bitter and costly divorces. One of his three sons died in an auto accident in 1991. To the end, he refused to reveal his serious side. When asked what he wanted inscribed on his tombstone, Mr. Carson replied, "I'll be right back"-as if death were a commercial break.
Today's late-night TV still pays homage to Johnny Carson. The format is essentially the same: an opening monologue; banter with an Ed McMahon-like straight man and a colorful Doc Severinsen-like band leader; a few skits and comic bits; interviews with guests who scoot down on the couch to make room for the next guest.
The major late-night players today are like individual fragments of Johnny Carson. His successor Jay Leno has his ordinary-guy accessibility. David Letterman has his surreal humor. Jon Stewart has the political satire (though the pseudo-news format of "The Daily Show" derives from another late-night pioneer, "Saturday Night Live").
Mr. Leno, under criticism for being soft on Republicans due to his friendship with California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, felt constrained, like Galileo before the Inquisition, to come out publicly and swear fidelity to the one true liberal faith. "I'm not conservative," he pleaded to Nikki Finke of the LA Weekly. "I've never voted that way in my life." He said he had no Republicans among his writers, some of whom worked as speechwriters for Democratic candidates. His advice to the Kerry campaign: "Make Bush look as stupid as possible."
Mr. Letterman is also openly liberal in his politics, but his barbs are defanged somewhat by his comic style, where everything is presented with ironic detachment. Mr. Letterman manufactures much of his humor, taking a live camera to order something in a delicatessen and inviting ordinary people to do "stupid human tricks." The hip cynicism-a pose appealing to young adults-has its own irony, weakening the cutting-edge cultural elite who can't take their own ideas all that seriously if they don't take seriously anyone else's.
Jon Stewart, of "The Daily Show," does. His format, a parody of network news, gives satirical commentary on current events and politics. Unlike the network anchors, Mr. Stewart is quite open about his bias. Instead of his usual schtick, Mr. Stewart gave a serious critique as a guest on CNN's conservative debate program "Crossfire" as "someone who watches your show and cannot take it." He said the shouting heads are "hurting America."
A measure of hope on the horizon for a return to the Carson-style grounding in broader American culture might be found in Conan O'Brien, who has been announced as Mr. Leno's heir to the throne of Carson as host of "The Tonight Show." Mr. O'Brien, whose show "Late Night" comes on after "The Tonight Show" on NBC, is also liberal politically. And though he makes a point of cultivating "irreverent" and sometimes crude humor, he is a practicing Roman Catholic who sometimes serves as his church's lector, reading the Scriptures in the service. And of all the current late-night hosts, he is the least afraid of violating the tenets of political correctness-unleashing a hand-puppet named Triumph the Insult Comic Dog on French-speaking Quebec.
But none of the current late-night hosts holds a candle to Johnny Carson, as they themselves admit. "All of us who came after are pretenders," said Mr. Letterman. "He was the best, a star and a gentleman." The other fly-by-nights, the crude Jimmy Kimmell and wannabes like Craig Ferguson and Craig Kilborn, just are not in his league. The political commentary has grown more partisan than Mr. Carson's, and the humor more "lavatorial."
And yet late-night TV remains one of the few national meeting grounds. For all of the audience segmentation and the multitude of television choices in this era of cable TV, the major broadcasters still command a huge and diverse audience late at night. Late-night TV is the prime source of political information for 8 percent of the public and a whopping 21 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds. But most of them have never watched Johnny Carson.