Johnny Carson and sidekick Ed McMahon signed off from "The Tonight Show" 20 years ago this month.
Don Rickles, during “The Comedy Awards” on Comedy Central, alternately insulted and praised the likes of David Letterman, Jay Leno, Jimmy Kimmel and Jon Stewart. But Rickles, on hand to receive the Johnny Carson Award For Comedic Excellence, saved his most irreverent – and reverent words – for the late, undisputed king of late night.
There’s no replacing Carson, who beat all comers during his reign, with only Dick Cavett and Arsenio Hall carving out modest niches. No one, not Letterman, O’Brien or Leno, has neared anything close to Carson’s dominance in the 11:30 p.m. slot.
Despite his considerable reach, wit and charm, there was something aloof and unknowable about Carson, a man let into millions of bedrooms and living rooms at the end of a long day to offer some much-needed laughs and give the vicarious revelers at his nightly party something to talk about at work in the morning. The lingering inability to pin him down two decades after he left public life and nearly 50 years after he took over "The Tonight Show" from Jack Paar remains part of Carson’s lasting allure and mystique.
Carson, who died in 2005, is an abstraction to a generation that never saw his show but has unwittingly experienced him by growing up watching shows he influenced. Those familiar – and unfamiliar – with Carson might want to view PBS’ America Masters presentation Monday of “Johnny Carson: King of Late Night,” which recalls a host who made everybody on his show – and watching at home – feel big. Check out a preview below, along with Rickles’ tribute to Carson:
The 2012 Comedy Awards
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.