Johnny Carson

Undisputed monarch of late-night US television
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The Independent Online

The routine was known to millions of Americans, as much a part of their day as waking up or setting off to work. "And now," his sidekick intoned in a reverent crescendo, "Heeeeeere's Johnny." A bouncy piece of theme music followed, written by the singer Paul Anka - and then, a few moments after 11.30pm East Coast time, five nights a week, the man himself stepped out from behind a curtain to continue his reign as undisputed monarch of late-night television.

John William Carson, television entertainer: born Corning, Iowa 23 October 1925; host, The Tonight Show 1962-92; married 1948 Jody Wolcott (two sons, and one son deceased; marriage dissolved 1963), 1963 Joanne Copeland (marriage dissolved), 1972 Joanna Holland (marriage dissolved 1983), 1987 Alexis Maas; died Malibu, California 23 January 2005.

The routine was known to millions of Americans, as much a part of their day as waking up or setting off to work. "And now," his sidekick intoned in a reverent crescendo, "Heeeeeere's Johnny." A bouncy piece of theme music followed, written by the singer Paul Anka - and then, a few moments after 11.30pm East Coast time, five nights a week, the man himself stepped out from behind a curtain to continue his reign as undisputed monarch of late-night television.

Johnny Carson was more than a TV personality. For decades he was one of the most famous, and certainly among the most beloved, men in America. No one had a greater impact on US popular culture in the second half of the 20th century. When he persuaded NBC to move The Tonight Show from New York to Los Angeles in 1972, the centre of gravity of the entire television entertainment industry shifted with him. During 30 years at the helm of the show, he saw off six Presidents. When he gave his last performance on 22 May 1992, no less than 55 million Americans watched, almost a quarter of the total population.

Late-night television did in fact exist before Carson, but he made the medium uniquely his own. During his career many challenged him, but none of them came close. By the time he retired, the genre he had perfected had spread around the world. "He was the best," David Letterman, his protégé and now owner of the "Carson slot" on CBS, remembered. "There hasn't been a night when I wouldn't ask how Johnny would have done something."

As a television entertainer, Carson had it all. He possessed an extraordinary rapport with the camera. He was a supremely gifted comedian, who with a single look askance could create a bellow of laughter. His range was enormous, stretching from mimicry to political lampoonery, from wicked one-liners to the zaniest slapstick. His ability to retrieve a dud joke and turn it into pure gold was without equal. With his warm baritone voice, he could even sing a bit.

To pick out the best moments of over 4,500 shows is an impossible task. The tackiest, arguably, came on 17 December 1969, when The Tonight Show hosted the marriage of the falsetto singer Tiny Tim to a fan aged 17 called Vicki Budinger, in front of a viewing audience of 58 million.

During a 1963 show, Carson demonstrated his lightning wit, during a skit in which Ed Ames, who played an Indian on the television series Daniel Boone, was teaching Carson how to throw a tomahawk, using a cardboard cutout of a sheriff as a target. Ames duly hurled his tomahawk, which embedded itself in the sheriff's groin. The audience was already beside itself with laughter. The mirth redoubled when Carson drily ad-libbed to his guest, "I didn't know you were Jewish."

Over the years, his guests ranged from film stars and politicians to sports stars, wild animals and exotic pets. Carson's seal of approval could make careers. His show was a launching pad for many future comedians, among them Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Joan Rivers, not to mention his successor Jay Leno, and David Letterman, Leno's great late-night rival on CBS.

With Carson, Americans knew exactly what they would get - a mixture of screwball comedy, mildly risqué humour, and the skewering observation, all delivered without malice. "You get the feeling that Dan Quayle's golf bag doesn't have a full set of irons," he once said of the first President George Bush's famously dim and links-loving Vice-President.

Above all perhaps, the key to Carson's enduring popularity was that, for all his celebrity, deep down he was similar to the audience who watched him so faithfully. He was a down-to-earth Midwesterner, the son of a local utility-company manager who made his way to New York - and then Hollywood - via the unpromising pastures of radio in Nebraska. They loved him too because he remained, visibly, his own man, never seduced by his own fame, and anything but the creature of his network, with whom he clashed frequently, sometimes on air. He had several showdowns with NBC over money, all of which he won. Asked by an audience member why NBC's logo was a gaudy peacock's tail, Carson responded, "I don't know, I guess they couldn't find a multicoloured weasel."

To his audience, Carson was infectiously engaging, but above all comforting, a rock of certainty in a fluid, unpredictable world. He specialised, the critic Kenneth Tynan once commented, in "the art of the expected". As the Washington Post's television critic Tom Shales recalled, "Johnny Carson always managed to find something to amuse us, usually something deflating the pompous and the self-important - two faults of which he was never guilty himself."

Meet Carson off set moreover, and he was the last person you would imagine to be a talk-show host. He was never very comfortable with people, and hated parties. Though he on occasion hosted Oscars ceremonies, he never mastered the art of schmoozing. Almost never did he spend time with guests once his show was ended. But, on air, everything was different.

The private man was a quiet and almost reclusive figure, who preferred the company of a few close friends. After his retirement, he all but disappeared from public life. Let them remember you at your best, was his philosophy, and only once did he break his self- imposed rule, with a brief appearance on his friend David Letterman's show. For the rest Carson built a wall around himself. Trying to interview him, Tynan wrote, was like "addressing an elaborately wired security system".

The reserve was perhaps explained by the chasm between the public performer and the private man. On the screen, he was the epitome of affability and sure-footedness, always relaxed, always in control. Off-screen he was anything but. He was married four times, and three times divorced. The third marriage, to the former model Joanna Holland, resulted in a settlement of $20m. His fourth wife, Alexis Maas, whom he met on a Malibu beach and married in 1987, was 30 years his junior. In 1991, Carson lost his 39-year-old son Ricky in a car accident.

Ultimately, Carson gave his all to his show. "You know what this is like?" he asked his audience during one 1982 show, perhaps as he deftly extricated himself from one of those bombed jokes:

It's like the challenge of death every night. It's like I'm standing on the ledge of a 20-storey building, and the crowd below is yelling, "Jump!"

When asked to choose his epitaph, he gave the answer of a true talk-show host: "I'll be right back."

Rupert Cornwell



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