Johnny Carson, whose 30-year run as host of NBC’s The Tonight Show made him not only the all-time king of late-night but perhaps the most beloved entertainer in the history of TV, died Sunday of emphysema at age 79. He died at his home in Malibu, surrounded by family, his nephew, Jeff Sotzing, said in a statement. Sotzing said there would be no memorial service, though Carson, a man virtually synonymous with television, wrote his epitaph years ago, quipping that his gravestone should read, ”I’ll be right back.”
Carson was a little-known former magician and game show host when he and sidekick Ed McMahon took over the Tonight desk in 1962 from Jack Paar. But over the next three decades, he would come to define mainstream entertainment. Every star of consequence in showbiz sat on his couch. His nightly monologue, with its satirical take on the day’s news, came to be seen as a barometer of conventional wisdom. He nurtured two generations of new comedians, giving early career boosts to everyone from Woody Allen and Richard Pryor to Roseanne and Jerry Seinfeld. Most of all, he was a comforting presence every night as America drifted off to sleep, as familiar, soothing, and dependable as a glass of warm milk. Successor Jay Leno called him ”the gold standard” in a statement on Sunday.
Carson turned late-night into a major profit center for the networks — at his peak, he was said to have been the source of 20 percent of NBC’s annual revenue — and he built the late-night universe as it exists today by grooming protégés Leno and David Letterman. He created and owned NBC’s Late Night, installing Letterman as host in 1982, and he made Leno the permanent guest host of Tonight during his vacations. In 1992, when Carson retired, NBC gave Leno his job. The snubbed Letterman defected to CBS, and NBC hired Conan O’Brien to replace him.
Carson’s departure marked the end of an era, not just for Tonight, but for pop culture as a whole. In a landscape with hundreds of cable channels, fragmenting taste meant there would never again be such a unifying and universally popular figure on TV or anywhere else in entertainment. (Today, only Oprah Winfrey comes close.) Still, Carson never lost his game. Even in retirement, he stayed sharp; it was revealed just last week that he was writing occasional monologue jokes for Letterman. ”All of us who came after are pretenders,” Letterman said in a statement Sunday. ”We will not see the likes of him again.”