He smoked too much, drank too much, got married too often and was the master of the sexual double-entendre. Yet Johnny Carson always seemed as wholesome as Nebraska corn. He weathered three decades of cultural, political and technological change with remarkable grace and constancy. His hair thinned and grayed, his lapels got wider or smaller at fashion's dictate, and his ties went from wild to sedate. But the king of late-night television otherwise changed little with the years -- the same nonplused stare into the camera, the constant tapping of the cigarette (and later, the pencil) on his desk, the same self-deprecating delivery.
Carson ruled television comedy in a way that no one ever had before or, in an era of still-expanding viewer choices, probably ever will again. Over its 30 years, his "Tonight Show" made more money than any other single show in television history and was a kingmaker among comic entertainers. It not only reshaped late-night television, it shifted the nucleus of the industry west to "beautiful downtown Burbank" from New York City.
His was the perfect personality for the intimate medium of television. In the era before Prozac and Xanax, a nightly dose of Johnny Carson was a balm for wounded spirits and worried minds. Carson understood that at the end of the day, viewers wanted biting humor, gently delivered. He was predictable but never stale, trenchant but never mean. His comic genius and affability bonded him to viewers, irrespective of age. "The Tonight Show" was the reason kids cheated bedtime and adults squeezed TV sets into their bedrooms.
Good night, Johnny, and God bless.