Life After Johnny

There will never be another Johnny Carson. That irrefutable fact has made last week's TV memorials of this late-night king almost unbearably poignant.

It wasn't so much that we were shocked by his death—rumors of his failing health had been circulating for weeks—as we were rocked by a teary wave of nostalgia for the Carson era and all that this classiest of late-night talk-show hosts represented. As TV, radio and print sources heaped many deserving hosannas upon Carson's life and career, what became increasingly clear is that we had been missing this man's presence in our lives for a very long time.

We now live in a world of Dave or Jay—and maybe Jon. To be generous, let's even throw Conan into the mix. After all, he will eventually inherit the Tonight Show throne (unless Jay balks and is carried chin-first out of Burbank, kicking and screaming). Late-night TV has mutated into an awfully crowded arena—just one more ugly and bloodied battleground in the complicated and contentious TV universe we inhabit. There really isn't room in this sphere for a gentleman, which is one reason there will never be another Johnny Carson.

Watching the endless, and endlessly enjoyable, loop of clips from the Carson Tonight Show era—Carnac! Aunt Blabby! Ed Ames and that hatchet! The monkeys! Little Joey “I watched you while I was vomiting” Lawrence! That darling old potato-chip lady! Those frisky animals brought on stage by Joan Embry! His playful banter with loyal sidekick Ed McMahon!—we are thrust back to a simpler, more contented TV time. The choices may have been fewer, but the quality then was greater.

We miss Johnny, to be sure, but what we also miss is that feeling of shared experience, of the nightly ritual in which we imagined everyone we knew, young and old, was curling up before lights-out to hear what this affable, witty, laid-back yet upright guy had to say about the buffoons, hypocrites and scoundrels of the day. With the sort of exquisite timing that could turn a dud into a gem (and if it stayed a dud, it was often even funnier), Carson made his monologue an art form as much as a cultural barometer. He had bite, but it was cushioned with a graceful delivery that somehow never felt mean. Which is why, in this age of snarky irony and cruel cynicism, there will never be another Johnny Carson.

Our choices today include the shrill, giggly populism of Jay Leno (whose Tonight Show tribute to Carson last Monday was uncharacteristically dignified); the dour but unpredictable iconoclasm of David Letterman (to whom we recently learned Carson occasionally fed jokes over the last year); the droll insincerity of Jon Stewart's mock newscast and the hyper-surrealism of Conan O'Brien. (Oh, yeah. There is also the frat-boy torpor of Jimmy Kimmel, which only goes to show how deeply the real estate has been devalued.)

Perhaps the nicest guy in the field today is also the newest: Scot actor/comic Craig Ferguson, who has quietly taken up shop in CBS' post-Letterman slot as host of the Late Late Show, replacing the unbearably smug Craig Kilborn.

What distinguished Carson at the Tonight desk was the profound comfort level we felt in his presence. He kept his cool, even during the most turbulent decades of the last century, but was never too hip for the room.

Was he jaded? Hardly. Carson made room on his couch for the biggest legends of Hollywood, Broadway and Vegas, but we also witnessed his genuine delight in the birth of many a major career. This extensive list includes Roseanne Barr, Jerry Seinfeld, Drew Carey, Steve Martin and Ellen DeGeneres, whose loopy and lovably playful daytime hit is the closest thing we now have to a Carson-style, feel-good chatfest.

Carson made it all look easy—and his guests were allowed to shine. Appearing with him was not a competition but a privilege; sitting on the couch next to him was a coronation.

In today's disposable Last Comic Standing culture, the road to success is paved with edge and attitude. Johnny Carson, in contrast, embraced class and charm.

To look back on the Carson Tonight era is to savor some of the last vestiges of a faded show-biz tradition that reaches back to vaudeville and slapstick. His long Tonight Show run culminated in a classic next-to-last show featuring the manic Robin Williams and the electrifying Bette Midler. Her final serenade to the man behind the desk remains one of TV's all-time greatest tearjerkers.

Reason enough to weep: The Tonight of Carson's time has pretty much gone the way of the variety show. There truly will never be another Johnny Carson.

And that is a crying shame.