Friends and proteges remember how Johnny Carson, the quietly revolutionary host of ''The Tonight Show,'' invented late-night TV's modern age

By Benjamin Svetkey
Updated January 28, 2005 at 05:00 AM EST
Credit: Johnny Carson: Seghers B/Globe Photos

”I bid you a very heartfelt good night.” These were the last words Johnny Carson spoke — at least to his millions of viewers — on the day he retired from The Tonight Show in May 1992. Sitting on a stool in front of those enormous multicolored curtains — drapery that had parted for so many stars during his 30 years on late-night television — he simply waved farewell and vanished from public life. Except for an occasional paparazzi shot, the sporadic snippet in the tabloids (like that recent item about how he was writing gags for David Letterman), and two major public appearances (in 1992 to accept the Medal of Freedom and in ’93 for a Kennedy Center Honor), he was pretty much never seen or heard from again.

Which made the announcement of his death on Jan. 23 at age 79 (he had long suffered from emphysema) somehow even more poignant and depressing. After all, hadn’t we already mourned his passing, already gotten used to TV without him? And now, with this sad, jolting news, we had to go through missing him all over again. It was, among other things, a bracing reminder that once, long ago — before late-night television had been balkanized into the fractured battle zone it is today — this sandy-haired former radio comic from Nebraska with a habit of tapping his pencil while chatting had been the most powerful, influential, and beloved performer ever to swivel in a chair on national TV.

”He was made for that chair,” insists Paul Anka, who composed The Tonight Show‘s jazzy theme music back when Carson first took over the NBC program in 1962. ”His comedy was so natural, so witty, nothing ever felt uncomfortable. You trusted him. That’s why he was one of a kind.” It’s a sentiment shared by his colleagues and friends. ”I thought he was adorable” was Mel Brooks’ impression of Carson (Brooks was on the host’s very first Tonight Show broadcast). ”He was funny. He was fast. Right from the beginning you could see that he listened. You could see the joy when you told him a joke or when you did something bizarre. You could see he loved comedy and loved comics.”