Johnny, we hardly knew ye...
I'll always remember that
week in May 1992 when Johnny Carson bid a final farewell to the Tonight Show audience, ending an incredible
30-year run as the host of the late-night talk show ... and an era. I knew things would never again be the same,
and indeed they haven't been. Johnny was an original, the standard bearer against whose accomplishments everyone
who followed him would always be measured. It was like Beatlemania - a once-in-a-lifetime experience the likes of which
had never been seen before, or ever would again.
Back in 1962, before I was even in kindergarten,
Johnny took on the hosting duties of the Tonight Show, which at the time originated from New York. Over
the next three decades, Johnny's name would become so synonymous with the Tonight Show that many people forgot, or
were unaware, that Johnny was not its first host but its third. Steve Allen was the original host, from 1953 to 1957. Jack Paar picked
up the reins in 1957 and the show evolved into its familiar talk/interview format.
When Johnny took on the Tonight Show,
I was nearly old enough to be interested in the magic of entertainment being brought into my living room by way of a
square box with knobs and a set of "rabbit ears" that often had to be turned and manipulated just so in order to receive the
best possible signal. The screen showed the images in black and white, and the reception wasn't always clear, but this
didn't matter all that much, because once the Tonight Show theme music started and Ed McMahon's booming voice proclaimed,
"Heeeeeere's Johnny!", we forgot about the occasional wavy lines or snow or fuzzy audio. From the moment Johnny made
his entrance and began his famous monologue, we were mesmerized. We stayed mesmerized for an incredible 30 years, during
which time the world was changing, a war was raging, hippies were making the scene, marriage was out and love children were
in, and through it all the Tonight Show, starring Johnny Carson, remained one of the few constants in our lives.
Many were the times I'd find myself up late, particularly
during the summer months, watching the Tonight Show along with my parents. It was comforting in its predicatability
and at the same time fun and exciting in its unpredictability. Many elements of the show were ongoing and
familiar, like Ed McMahon's famous intro, Johnny's famous acknowledgment of Ed and bandleader Doc Severinsen with a brief
bow, hands together as in prayer (returned in kind by both gentlemen), the famous monologue, the famous golf swing at the
end of the monologue, the famous banter between Johnny and Ed, the famous segments ("Stump the Band," "The Mighty Carson
Art Players"), the famous characters (Carnac the Magnificent, Art Fern, Aunt Blabby) ... but mixed in with the familiar, always, was
the element of novelty and surprise. Who can forget Ed Ames' famous tomahawk toss (in 1965), which elicited one of the
longest sustained laughs in TV history? Who can forget Tiny Tim's on-air wedding to Miss Vicki (1969), which was
"attended" by some 45 million people? Who can forget the numerous creatures, from the ordinary to the exotic, brought
in by regular visitors such as Joan Embery from the San Diego Zoo or Jim Fowler from Wild Kingdom - animals who hadn't read
the script, didn't know their cues, and often did inappropriate things on Johnny's desk (or on his head?).
During his 30-year reign as the king of late-night TV, Johnny
Carson gave the careers of more comedians a start and more singers a boost than I could possibly name here ... but
at any rate, that's not what this page is about. Other web sites have compiled the lists of the various Tonight
Show guests over the years. I just wanted to put together a tribute to a man who was like a family member to millions
of Americans, a man with whom many couples literally went to bed every night, a man with whom we've laughed and cried and
shared so many opinions on politics and entertainment and the human aspect - a man with whom we didn't always agree but whom
we invariably quoted, and often. A man whose name just now brought me an incredible 1.2 million hits on an Internet search
engine. In his day, Johnny Carson didn't have a "dot com," but he didn't need one ... he himself was all that was needed.
And for an impressively long but still all-too-brief period in television history, in that hour right before we turned in
exhausted from the day that had just passed, Johnny was all we needed.
Good night, Johnny.