Before Carson Daly rose to iconhood (God help us all), all you had to say was "Carson", and folks knew you were talking about Johnny Carson and/or his talk show.

From Nebraska. Full-time Tonight Show host #3, after Steve Allen and Jack Paar - big shoes to fill in 1962. NBC hired him and his announcer/sidekick (from ABC's Who Do You Trust? game show -- see American Bandstand) Ed McMahon, making for a smooth transition.

While Allen was both renaissance man and proto-Letterman wit, and Paar was as highbrow as television got, Carson established himself via his comic timing and skillz. Even deliberately-mediocre jokes in his opening monologue would get riffed into hilarity; that monologue also sometimes served as a comic vox populi, a finger on the pulse of the nation. Your political stock rose or fell on whether the audience was laughing with you or at you.

Carson exceeded expectations, becoming even more of an institution than his predecessors; his opening monologue is still the standard for topical humor, and he was the unspoken arbiter for envelope-pushing on US television - not just for "blue" material, but for the on-air dress code: when he moved the show from Manhattan to Hollywood, casual(er) dress became an acceptable norm. His various nervous tics were fodder for impressionists.

Rather than show reruns, Carson would take vacations and have guest hosts run the show (his bandleader Doc Severinsen would handle McMahon's duties on those nights); this paved the way for the next generation of hosts, including Joan Rivers and Joey Bishop (who quickly got his own show; his sidekick - Regis Philbin). Carson dominated late night; attempts by (et al) Bishop, Merv Griffin, fellow Nebraskan Dick Cavett, and even a young Geraldo Rivera, to compete failed dismally.

NBC started showing reruns on weekends; by proving the commercial viability of that time slot, it paved the way for the great, irreverent newsmagazine Weekend, which, in turn, made Saturday Night Live a viable idea. Later, Carson would "semi-retire", cutting the show's length from 90 to 60 minutes, and taking longer vacations.

After years of press speculation, Carson retired in 1992; the resultant A-list-packed "farewell tour" will never be equaled as a late-night event, in this narrowcasting age of 500 channels and 500 talk shows.

Johnny "passed away peacefully early Sunday morning," on January 23, 2005.


See also: Carnac the Magnificent; Floyd R. Turbo, American; The Tea-Time Movie (hosted by Art Fern and the Tea-Time Lady -- the definitive TTL, of course, was Carol Wayne); how about Paul Anka, who wrote The Tonight Show's opening theme, which would quickly become as synonymous with Carson as "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" is with the seventh-inning stretch (and Harry Caray); and many other people/places/things I've left out for the moment, like the pantomime teeing-off (as if teaching you how to use your driver) that led into the first commercial break after the monologue, replaced, as tennis was in the ascendance in the early 70s, with a slow forehand....

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