Friendly Neutrality: The Carson Genius

WHEN his last program airs tomorrow night after a 30-year run, it's going to be hard to think of "The Tonight Show" apart from Johnny Carson. But actually it was something of a surprise when he officially took over as host from Jack Paar in 1962. Although Carson had been subbing long before that, there was lots of speculation about other likely candidates.

I remember concluding that Carson would be a good choice after I dropped by the set of "The Tonight Show" one evening during one of his substitute gigs. It was before air time, and he was rehearsing a typically inane sketch - made palatable by his expertly easy-going touch - about Sir Isaac Newton. To give Carson a chance to pantomime the idea of gravity popping into Newton's head, a bushel of apples was supposed to be poured onto the floor from above. Instead they were poured on top of Carson. But his c omic instincts turned the mishap into a big laugh among the crew and others on the set.

For that sprawling late-night format, it was exactly the kind of reflex needed - intuitive, casual, ready to pounce on anything promising a laugh. Carson had utilized "the look," his deadpan stare of mock disaster that serves him so well as an all-purpose remedy for trouble. If a gag flopped, Carson could get a laugh from the failure itself simply by using "the look."

It was all part of the chemistry that "Tonight" has historically depended on, and that has sustained Carson himself: a balance of show-business adrenaline and laid-back command that allows "Tonight" hosts to survive the years - especially in face of the merciless demands the show used to make. Carson's current one hour a night, four nights a week is challenging enough, but at one time the schedule was positively insane. Original host Steve Allen, then Paar, and for a few years Carson himself, had to do a n hour and three-quarters, five nights a week, live! Never mind how these hosts survived the decades. How did they survive one show?

It probably helped to be Midwestern, as Allen, Paar, and Carson are. Paar once told me that something in the Midwestern personality wears well on "Tonight." It conveys common sense and an emotional equanimity - a good cloak for the alertness and intensity that's required.

Jay Leno, who takes over as host on Monday night, is not Midwestern, but he conveys the same sense of decency and an even keel - the kind of personality that makes it easier for a broad TV audience to accept the strange, hybrid format "Tonight" represents.

That format is not really "the house that Johnny built," as one commentator recently described "Tonight." It was established by Allen when he became the show's first host in 1954. What Carson did was brilliantly modernize the house, turning it into a sleek setting for getting big names on and off stage. In the process, the nooks and crannies, those odd byways and human eccentricities that used to be part of the late-night feeling, began disappearing. Carson was a standardizing presence behind the host's desk - friendly, neutral, basically unknowable. When he moved the show from New York to Burbank, Calif., it lost a lot of its improvisational, "Saturday Night Live"-ish feel. When it was pared down to an hour a night in 1980, it stopped being a marathon viewing exercise for insomniacs.

It became - and still is - a heady arena for big-time personalities and hopefuls, most of them handled with unmatched smoothness by a host unafraid to make others look good, even at his own expense. If you were a bright new star like Mariette Hartley, you had to prove yourself. She once described how friendly and exhilarating it was to be on his show, but how conscious you were that you were on trial, being tested for star appeal. And some stars didn't always appreciate the protocol expected of guests: O ne night years ago Rodney Dangerfield told me about the deferential conversation style he felt compelled to adopt ("Oh, yes, Johnny").

Yet Carson is the medium's only real genius at that supreme task of the true talk-show host, subordinating your own personality to let your guests shine. It will seem strange without him, but before you know it, they'll be calling it the house that Jay built.

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