Monday, January 24, 2005

Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye

Although it is nearly 13 years since Johnny Carson last hosted The Tonight Show, news of his death at age 79 comes as a shock. His importance to American entertainment cannot be understated. His importance to NBC television can be easily understood. The network has been treating his death -- well, mostly his life -- in a fashion that only parallels the way they treated that of David Sarnoff. Together, these two men defined television as we know it.

Like Ed Sullivan before him, Johnny -- his intimacy with the American audience demands no less than that we call him by his first name -- introduced countless entertainers to us. According to published reports, some 22,000 guests appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson between October 1962 and May 1992. In many cases, The Tonight Show offered the first national exposure to stand-up comics and other future stars. A laugh from Johnny and an invitation to come sit next to him to chat were the fuses that launched hundreds of careers.

There is little I can say in appreciation of Johnny Carson that has not already been said within the past 48 hours. Tom Shales offers his thanks in today's Washington Post. But words alone are insufficient. The best way to renew our memories of Johnny's life and career is simply to look at it as it was recorded through 30 years of nightly hijinks, such as through this DVD set.

For anyone, like me, who grew up in the 1960s and '70s, Johnny Carson was late-night television. There were no substitutes, no competitors. And there are really no successors, either.

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