When I was a teenager, then a college student, and then an adult — in fact from the ages of about 16 through 34 — I went to bed with the same man every night. Johnny Carson. I’d usually make it through about half of the show, sometimes all of it. Johnny’s monologue always made me feel better, no matter how rough a day I’d had. It was knowing that he’d be there the next night too.
For however funny, topical, or sharp Jay or David may be; for however engaging or silly Jimmy F. might be; and for however downright over-the-top Conan might be, to me, Johnny was and always will remain the standard. The archetype of the late-night host. The legend that made late-night TV.
To wit: Johnny was always prepared. He always had the right questions and listened to the answers. He was incredibly quick, coming up with breathtakingly funny, on-the-spot one-liners. A master of the double take, of the brilliant comeback, of the facial expression that could turn an interviewee’s innocent remark into something not-so-innocent, Carson had the audience in the palm of his hand, from the first “Heeeeere’s Johnny” to the last “Good night, folks.”
What impressed me the most about Johnny Carson was how smart he was. How aware. How well-informed. He was so interesting as a host that he made his guests — the ones who were fascinating and even the ones who were potentially a snore — even more interesting. His timing was perfect; his persona, elegant; and his ability to make you feel that you were in on the whole thing along with him, a gift. He was one of the rare few who make what they do look so easy — because they are so superb at doing it.
Johnny’s last two shows — the second-to-last with guests Robin Williams and Bette Midler — were unforgettable. Williams and Midler were their usual extraordinarily talented selves, communicating an affection for Carson that was palpable. The very last show, when it was just Johnny talking to a select studio audience and saying goodbye and thank you, was bittersweet, touching, and lovely.
That sound heard at the end of the final show wasn’t only the television clicking off. It was the sound of our generation moving on to the next stage of our lives — one where Johnny would no longer be tucking us in at night.
© 2013 Claudia Grossman