Sixteen years ago today, Johnny Carson ended his 30-year run as the King of Late Night Television. Johnny's relaxed manner and casual interviewing style made him a trusted friend to many Americans, and was the sole reason that many families purchased a second TV (for the bedroom, since The Tonight Show didn't wrap up until 1:00AM EST). Ask Dave, Conan, Jay, et al, who their mentor and inspiration was, and the answer is always the same: Johnny Carson. Here are just a few examples of what made Johnny a cut above the rest:
1. Carson Made Magicians Tremble
Carson had always been fascinated by magicians, and at age 12 he sent away for a mail order magic kit. After a bit of practice he became The Great Carsoni and performed for church socials and Rotary Club luncheons. He never lost his interest in sleight of hand, and when world-famous "psychic" Uri Geller was booked for an appearance on The Tonight Show in 1973, Johnny contacted his good friend and fellow magician James Randi for advice on how to keep Geller's performance "honest." Geller adamantly billed himself not as a magician, but as a true psychic who could bend spoons with his mind. Randi advised Carson to have his own staff set up the necessary props, and not let Geller's people near them. Geller was visibly filled with trepidation from the get-go when asked to determine which metal container was filled with water without touching them (watch carefully and see him gently nudge the table with his knee in an effort to get a hint). Throughout the entire fiasco, Johnny remained poker-faced and never indicated that he had any doubt in Geller's abilities.
2. A Soft Spot for Weirdos
Johnny invited his share of eccentrics onto his show, but he never openly mocked or belittled them. That's not to say that he didn't have fun with them. Take, for instance, Myrtle Young. Ms. Young was an employee of the Seyfert Potato Chip Company, and her job entailed sitting at the end of the production line and removing any chips that had too much starch or too many burn marks. She began collecting oddly-shaped chips and that hobby landed her a spot on The Tonight Show. Poor Myrtle almost had a heart attack, though, when she heard a suspicious "crunch" during her presentation and thought that Johnny had munched on one of her masterpieces.
3. Quick, Cutting Remarks
Ed Ames caused of one of the longest laughs in Tonight Show history. The year was 1965 and Ames was co-starring as Mingo, Fess Parker's Native American sidekick on TV's Daniel Boone. He had developed an aptitude for tomahawk throwing while filming the series, so Johnny handed him a couple of hatchets during a visit and invited Ames to toss them at a line drawing of a cowboy. The slightly different construction of a hatchet versus a tomahawk threw off Ames' aim, and he hit the target in a cowpoke's most delicate region. As Ames covered his face in embarrassment, Carson remarked, "I didn't even know you were Jewish!"
4. Animal Magnetism
Many of us city-dwellers would probably never have seen such exotic creatures as a Celebes macaque or a two-toed sloth if it hadn't been for Joan Embery's frequent visits to The Tonight Show. Johnny was always a good sport about playing second fiddle to the unpredictable animals Joan brought with her from the San Diego Zoo, and he laughed along with the audience when a few of those critters used his designer suits as a comfort station.
5. A Tearful Farewell
Bette Midler's musical send-off on Johnny's final show was certainly poignant, but we expect tears at a retirement party, no? An equally moving moment caught viewers by surprise in 1981 when actor (and part-time poet) Jimmy Stewart pulled a wrinkled paper from his coat pocket and proceeded to read a tribute to his beloved dog, Beau. In the past, Stewart's couplets had been of the humorous variety, and this one started out in a similar vein. But by the time he read the final few lines, Jimmy was having trouble with his voice and the normally unflappable Carson was wiping away tears. You'll want to have a Kleenex handy when watching this video.