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.

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Life

Inside Elle Marie Hair Studio in Smokey Point. (Provided by Acacia Delzer)
The best hair salon in Snohomish County

You voted, we tallied. Here are the results.

For more than a thousand years, Czech leaders – from kings and emperors to Nazis, communists, and presidents – have ruled from Prague Castle, regally perched on a hill above the Vltava River. Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli
Rick Steves’ Europe: History lives in Prague and its hilltop castle

It’s one of Europe’s best-preserved cities, having been spared from last century’s bombs.

Alarm clock in the middle of the night insomnia or dreaming
Trouble sleeping? Try these tips for getting a good night’s rest

Many adults turn to sleep aids, including alcohol, to help them rest, without realizing that their hectic lifestyles may be contributing to their sleeplessness.

The Stumbling Fiddler Band is scheduled to perform March 3 in Everett. (Photo provided by Port Gardner Bay Music Society)
Music, theater and more: What’s happening in Snohomish County

Get ready for St. Patrick’s Day with music by the Stumbling Fiddler Band in Everett.

I was charged an extra $250 for a mistaken car rental upgrade

When Leah Page picks up her rental car from Thrifty, it charges her a $250 upgrade fee. Can it do this without her permission, and how can she get a refund?

Naomi Jacobson as Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer in "Becoming Dr. Ruth" at Village Theatre in Everett. (Auston James)
Music, theater and more: What’s happening in Snohomish County

“Becoming Dr. Ruth,” which tells the sex therapist’s amazing back story, is now showing at Village Theatre in Everett.

Over 200 years, the magic lantern transformed into an educational peacock

Regarded as magic in the 1650s, this device was refined into the more scientific sounding sciopticon by the mid-1800s.

Market for sale plants. Many plants in pots
Snohomish Garden Club plans annual plant sale

The event is scheduled for April 27 at Swan’s Trail Farms. Proceeds will go to scholarships.

Start planting now so you can stop to smell your own roses all summer long

Late winter to early spring is perfect for planting roses. And with so many varieties to consider, there’s no time to waste.

The 2024 Mazda3 hatchback. (Mazda)
2024 Mazda3 adds a Carbon Turbo trim and more safety features

The charismatic compact is available as a four-door sedan or five-door hatchback.

Cousins Penny Leslie and Sidney Baker work together on a mural inside a jail cell at the Mukilteo Police Department on Sunday, Feb. 18, 2024, in Mukilteo, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
No more staring at blank canvas in Mukilteo police holding cells

Bright murals now adorn the walls. The artwork is intended to calm and relax detainees.

A heart shaped hand tossed pepperoni pizza, left, and eight-corner Detroit style veggie pizza, right, from Jet’s Pizza on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024, at the Everett Herald newsroom in Everett. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Detroit-original Jet’s Pizza lands in WA with thick-crust pies and more

The national chain’s Lynnwood joint is the first in the state. The pizza is tasty — hot or cold. And it makes good date food.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.