Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The Great American Empath

Johnny Carson, celebrated host of the "Tonight Show," for thirty years the archetype of late-night television, went dark on Sunday morning at his home in Malibu, surrounded by family and the love of millions as ubiquitous as the medium he helped define. He was 79.

In the most public, the most exhibitionist of mediums, Johnny Carson was an enduring paradox, an intensely private man whose high-profile visibility belied that embrace of privacy. But America brought him into its private homes, hearts and other sanctuaries. We trsutedn him. There was somerhing about Johnny; you felt like you could tell him anything and he'd still be your friend, your confidante, the one who'd always laugh at your dumb jokes and keep you going any way he could.

Johnny Carson was the great American empath, that ribald, uproarious, self-effacing conduit of the nation's interests, passions, fears and dreams. When he bounced out from behind that multicolored curtain and bowed to Ed and Doc, you didn't know what he was going to say that evening, you had no idea what rabbit he'd pull out of which hat. He kept us guessing, even while he kept us enthralled by the certainty of some madcap good time.

Unlike his successor, Jay Leno, Johnny Carson had the idea of near-perfect comedic timing. Leno has the mien of a Catskills comic defensive about the laughs he's not getting from material that's not as good as he thinks it is. Leno comes on a little too aggressive, too twitchy, too wired, too weird, too self-absorbed.

Johnny Carson was a host in every ennobling sense of the word: solicitious, charitable, someone you were having a conversation with, a conversation punctuated with jokes when necessary, but jokes always well-timed and often at his own expense. It was humor with a deft but powerful touch, not the whoopee-cushion-and-joy-buzzer style of his successor.

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