Who knew when television first started that its most popular talent for nearly three decades would be a Nebraskan telling jokes and chatting with the famous and wannabe-famous before an audience about to go to sleep?
Yet it wasn't just the humor or the guests on Johnny Carson's version of "The Tonight Show" that made it a bedtime watering hole for millions. The jokes and skits were funny, for sure, and his lineup of guests was a parade of current American culture, from budding comics like Jerry Seinfeld to heroic astronauts.
Rather, it was his style. The camera loved Carson's boyish charm and wit. He was able to delight an audience with an impish side glance or a telling pause. With guests, he could be curious, caring, and comical all at the same time, treating everyone fairly but as fair game. He showcased young talent, like that other TV great, Ed Sullivan. But he also had the comic timing of Milton Berle and the intelligence of Dick Cavett.
Carson reflected his generation's knack for live performance, a slopover from the earlier vaudeville era. The show was at its best when it was live. Much of the spontaneity was lost when it started being taped early each weekday evening.
Carson's legacy is his engaging style with the audience, reflecting those days when every on-air mishap was merely grist for quick humor in a sort of "ain't life fun?" manner.