But in reality, Carson prevailed because he was the personification of a successful performer–he was proud of his work, his demeanor and talent were unfailingly consistent, and he brought joy and community to an audience without demeaning its interests or thrusting upon it his private agonies, which were not infrequent.
After Robin Williams and Bette Midler on Thursday, the final night would be perceived by some as anticlimactic. But it was typical of the man–understated, a quiet, personal kind of closure. It possessed, of course, the appropriate clips, the symbols, as if any were needed, of what the show could achieve without even breaking a sweat. But more than anything else, the program was simple.
And nothing symbolized that more than the monologue. There was, of course, the almost obligatory vice president joke. The GE joke. The joke about the proliferation of late night talkshows. But most important, and so consistent with a private persona, was the quiet but gracious references to family. And particularly to the son who died recently in a car crash.
“It would have been a perfect evening if … Rick would have been here with us, but I guess life does what it is supposed to do. And you accept it and you go on.”
The concluding shot of the broadcast was a photograph of a sunset taken by Rick shortly before his death.
It all began on Oct. 1, 1962, with Mel Brooks, Tony Bennett, Rudy Vallee, Joan Crawford and Groucho Marx as guests. It concluded with just the regulars … Carson and his sidekicks, Ed McMahon and Doc Severinson.
In between, every person managed to find his or her favorite guest, favorite skit, favorite one-liner. Remember Ed Ames who threw tomahawks as a hobby? One night, with Carson goading him on, Ames hurled a tomahawk at a cutout of a lawman. The weapon struck the cutout in an anatomical region of unusual sensitivity to males.
“Frontier bris,” Carson quipped. It was fast, cut (so to speak) across some cultural lines and was funny. That’s one I’ll keep.
There had to be a concluding show, but Johnny Carson is not a performer you can ever say goodbye to. He is too much a part of our lives. And on those nights when Jay or Arsenio or Whoopi or whomever bombs, we will always (unfairly) shrug in discouragement, and remember those great nights with the man who defined the art.