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.
“When the light came on, you felt like you were somebody important,” Rickles told an audience full of top comedians late last month. “He never made you a little guy.”
The insult comic’s heartfelt observation might be the best explanation yet for Carson’s unprecedented and unsurpassed late-night success, as well as his ongoing influence. His “Tonight Show” stint ended 20 years ago this month, but the comedy legend’s presence still resounds through the crowded late-night TV talk show landscape that’s sprouted in his absence.
Letterman, long said to be Carson’s choice as “Tonight Show” heir, packs a similar stoic Midwestern demeanor mixed with a mischievous sardonic streak. Leno’s joke-a-second monologue style remains closest to Carson’s approach. Jimmy Fallon’s easy interaction with his studio audience – even in silly segments like “Lick it for 10” – recalls Carson’s ability to let the crowd get the laughs in bits like “Stump the Band.” Kimmel and Chelsea Handler share Carson’s quick wit in verbal volleying with guests, while Craig Ferguson possesses a similar sense of whimsy.
The comic interaction between Conan O’Brien and Andy Richter has its roots in Carson and Ed McMahon’s 30 years of banter. Stewart and Stephen Colbert consistently deliver sharp political jokes as Carson did, and their guest lists, like Carson’s, include folks from various walks of public life – most notably authors.
Carson, in his absence, has become the Wizard of Oz of late night TV, bequeathing parts of his personality to his would-be successors. He also helped create the kingdom and opened its doors to many, giving an early platform to comedians like Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Ellen DeGeneres and Jerry Seinfeld, among many others – expanding his impact on humor far beyond the late-night realm.
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: