Johnny Carson, 1925-2005

By Gates, David | Newsweek, February 7, 2005 | Go to article overview

Johnny Carson, 1925-2005


Gates, David, Newsweek


Byline: David Gates

Do you remember the sheepish look he used to get when he'd told a joke that didn't fly? The way he couldn't keep a straight face when he put on the stupid turban to do the stupid Carnac the Magnificent routine? The affectionate-ironic intonation he gave to the name Burbank? Or, at the end of his opening monologue, the way he'd swing--with deliberate gracelessness--that imaginary golf club? He'd hate to have his comedy deconstructed, but it suggested so much more than just the tone of upper-middle-class leisure his show was meant to create. That he was just a duffer like you. That he'd just as soon be off playing golf as doing an inconsequential TV show. That he was in there swinging, anyhow. That the game was just beginning. That eventually we'd all go off to the clubhouse.

While Johnny Carson was host of NBC's "The Tonight Show," from 1962 until his retirement in 1992, we took all this for granted, as he meant us to. His gift was to make it all look easy, to get us to forget that this was the painstaking creation of a persona. He'd perfected his timing, his silent takes and his self-deprecation by studying such master comedians as Oliver Hardy and Jack Benny. (He used to impersonate Benny when he was in high school, and Carson's wife Joanna once said the only time she'd ever seen him cry was at Benny's funeral.) The "Johnny Carson" he invented was a guy who didn't take things too seriously, least of all himself, and who could be endlessly amused but never ruffled. All this made him the ideal companion through a lot of long nights. His era coincided with the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr. …

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