THE ROUTINE was known to millions of Americans, as much a part of their day as waking up or setting off to work. "And now," his sidekick intoned in a reverent crescendo, "Heeeeeere's Johnny." A bouncy piece of theme music followed, written by the singer Paul Anka - and then, a few moments after 11.30pm East Coast time, five nights a week, the man himself stepped out from behind a curtain to continue his reign as undisputed monarch of late-night television.
Johnny Carson was more than a TV personality. For decades he was one of the most famous, and certainly among the most beloved, men in America. No one had a greater impact on US popular culture in the second half of the 20th century. When he persuaded NBC to move The Tonight Show from New York to Los Angeles in 1972, the centre of gravity of the entire television entertainment industry shifted with him. During 30 years at the helm of the show, he saw off six Presidents. When he gave his last performance on 22 May 1992, no less than 55 million Americans watched, almost a quarter of the total population.
Late-night television did in fact exist before Carson, but he made the medium uniquely his own. During his career many challenged him, but none of them came close. By the time he retired, the genre he had perfected had spread around the world. "He was the best," David Letterman, his protege and now owner of the "Carson slot" on CBS, remembered. "There hasn't been a night when I wouldn't ask how Johnny would have done something."
As a television entertainer, Carson had it all. He possessed an extraordinary rapport with the camera. He was a supremely gifted comedian, who with a single look askance could create a bellow of laughter. His range was enormous, stretching from mimicry to political lampoonery, from wicked one-liners to the zaniest slapstick. His ability to retrieve a dud joke and turn it into pure gold was without equal. With his warm baritone voice, he could even sing a bit.
To pick out the best moments of over 4,500 shows is an impossible task. The tackiest, arguably, came on 17 December 1969, when The Tonight Show hosted the marriage of the falsetto singer Tiny Tim to a fan aged 17 called Vicki Budinger, in front of a viewing audience of 58 million.
During a 1963 show, Carson demonstrated his lightning wit, during a skit in which Ed Ames, who played an Indian on the television series Daniel Boone, was teaching Carson how to throw a tomahawk, using a cardboard cutout of a sheriff as a target. Ames duly hurled his tomahawk, which embedded itself in the sheriff's groin. The audience was already beside itself with laughter. The mirth redoubled when Carson drily ad-libbed to his guest, "I didn't know you were Jewish."
Over the years, his guests ranged from film stars and politicians to sports stars, wild animals and exotic pets. Carson's seal of approval could make careers. His show was a launching pad for many future comedians, among them Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Joan Rivers, not to mention his successor Jay Leno, and David Letterman, Leno's great late-night rival on CBS.
With Carson, Americans knew exactly what they would get - a mixture of screwball comedy, mildly risque humour, and the skewering observation, all delivered without malice. "You get the feeling that Dan Quayle's golf bag doesn't have a full set of irons," he once said of the first President George Bush's famously dim and links- loving Vice-President. …