He’s gone, but Carson still defines late-night TV

  • By Victor Balta / Herald columnist
  • Wednesday, January 26, 2005 9:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

There’s a reason most of the photos and clips you’ve seen of Johnny Carson these past few days show him cracking up, or dabbing a laughter-induced tear from his eye.

It was never about him. It was always about getting a laugh and savoring the moment.

Even in retirement, he slipped into a hiding that prompted some to refer to him as the J.D. Salinger of television – although we now know that he’d occasionally slip David Letterman a monologue joke or two over the past several years.

With his passing on Sunday at age 79, the well-deserved shower of praise commenced.

It can finally be all about Johnny.

I was 14 when Carson bid the nation a very heartfelt goodnight and signed off as host of “The Tonight Show” on May 22, 1992.

But for me, like millions of others, Johnny Carson still defines late night.

Whether I was sneaking peeks way past my bedtime, or vigorously rubbing my eyes open on those precious Friday nights when there was no school the next day, Carson was who I wanted to see.

I didn’t get most of the jokes – certainly not the funniest ones – but I was undeniably the coolest 10- or 11-year-old in the world on those occasions when I did laugh at the right time.

His passing underscores the difference between today and the days when Carson dominated late night.

It’s trite, but Carson truly had something for everyone, while today’s hosts aim for specific niche audiences.

In the past few days, people of all ages have reflected on his life, their favorite moments, their favorite characters, and how he was simply one of a kind.

Today’s favorite comedians have talked at length about how great Carson’s influence was on their careers, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke about how Carson opened doors for black entertainers, particularly in the 1960s and ’70s when so many doors were closed.

But beyond the entertainers he helped out, he made the show accessible for viewers.

Whether he was interviewing a kid, a parrot, a potato chip collector, a politician or any of Hollywood’s biggest celebrities, he always knew when to turn it on, pull back just a little, or let go altogether and let the moment unfold on its own.

Sitting behind that desk, he commanded more like an air-traffic controller than a pilot. You knew he loved and was looking out for all of us.

When most stars would be tempted to propel themselves into the spotlight, Carson enjoyed it most when he could laugh along with the audience.

One of my favorite Carson moments that pulls it all together came in 1987 when he was interviewing youngster Rohan Varavadekar, a spelling bee champ.

The kid had read that Carson had done some magic when he was 13 and wanted to know if the host could show him some tricks.

Carson pulled a coin from his pocket and made it disappear, only to pull it out of little Rohan’s ear.

The boy kept fumbling the coin in his hand and finally asked, “How do you make it really disappear?”

Carson said, “You get married.”

We saw virtually nothing of Johnny since that final show almost 13 years ago. But even if we didn’t know it, there was still comfort in knowing that he, like us, was up at night watching the “pretenders,” as Letterman called himself and fellow late-night hosts.

Now, to borrow from one of Johnny’s favorite songs, “Funny how love becomes a cold, rainy day.

“Funny, that rainy day is here.”

Columnist Victor Balta: 425-339-3455 or vbalta@heraldnet.com.

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