Johnny Carson, king of late-night chat, dies at 79

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The Independent US

Johnny Carson, the virtual inventor and undisputed king of American late-night television, whose booming signature entry cry "Heeeere's Johnny" became a national institution, has died in Los Angeles, aged 79.

Johnny Carson, the virtual inventor and undisputed king of American late-night television, whose booming signature entry cry "Heeeere's Johnny" became a national institution, has died in Los Angeles, aged 79.

A slight, boyish-looking Midwesterner, Carson became the embodiment of a peculiarly American television genre, the late- night show. The formula never varied - a topical monologue laced with one-liners, followed by guests whom he had a knack of flattering into undergoing some indignity that only increased the popularity of the show.

The formula Carson patented on NBC's The Tonight Show remains intact to this day. After 30 years of undiminished popularity, Carson stepped down. The network passed the mantle to Jay Leno, an embarrassment to Carson who had all but promised the succession to his long time friend, David Letterman. Letterman, deeply upset, rang Carson for his advice. The response was brief - leave NBC. Today, Messrs Leno and Letterman compete head to head.

Virtually all of Carson's career was spent in television. He began at local stations in Nebraska where he grew up, and then moved on to game shows before becoming a writer for the comedian Red Skelton. On 2 October 1962, he became the co-host of NBC's The Tonight Show, initially sharing the job with Ed McMahon. His first guest was Groucho Marx.

Carson had great timing and was a master of the wry, deadpan expression. He was modest, too, and had the broadcaster's priceless knack of making viewers think he was addressing them in person.

When Americans tuned in to The Tonight Show, they knew exactly what they were getting. When "Johnny" bowed out on 22 May 1992, 55 million people, almost a quarter of the US population, were watching.

"And so it has come to this," he told his audience, "I am one of the lucky people of the world. I have found something I always wanted to do, and have enjoyed every minute of it."

He was married four times and divorced three; in 1991 Ricky, one of his three sons, died in a car accident aged 39. Quiet and unassuming by nature, by the end of his life he was almost a recluse.

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