Johnny Carson: An Appreciation

Google has 440,000 entries for the phrase “end of an era”; yet, few of its uses are likely to be more apt than in referring to the loss of Johnny Carson.

It is not just Carson’s uniqueness — which others are addressing better than I can — but that for much of his “Tonight Show” career, most of us had 3-4 TV channels at most. So we all had Johnny Carson in common. For thirty years.

Some reports about Carson say he was painfully shy. I’m pretty sure he was. Back in the mid-70s my parents took our family to tour NBC. Our tour was walking though an indoor parking lot when our tourguide was briefly called away. As we waited, a car pulled up. It was Carson, and he had to get out and get by us to get into the studio.

He looked at us. (We had looked at him first.) After the first few seconds it was kind of awkward — the way it can be if you look at a stranger in an elevator and he happens to look at you and then you both feel as though someone has to say something, but no one actually has anything to say. But this was Johnny Carson; the master of talk! Who could be more comfortable filling just a few seconds with friendly chatter?

Somebody else. The King of Late Night was too shy to speak.

Soon realizing this, my Dad — who as an engineer had professional training about as different from a professional talkmeister’s as it is possible to have — filled the awkwardness (I think he simply made a comment about the weather). Carson did reply; he was friendly, actually, but I had the definite impression that if one of our group had not spoken first, Carson would never have said a word.

Once in a long while, I think about that incident. Mostly, I think it was pretty cool that there was a social situation in which my Dad was a better conversationalist than Johnny Carson (I mean, really, it was Johnny Carson!). But I also think that if someone so painfully shy he could not even think to say something like “have a nice day” could become The Interview King, then we all should take a look at the personal weaknesses we have that we think we can’t overcome. Because, just maybe, we can.

Thanks, Johnny.

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