Johnny Carson

I was so naïve as a kid I used to sneak behind the barn and do nothing.

Johnny Carson

carsonJohnny Carson died yesterday and Americans lost a great cultural icon. He’d been off TV for thirteen years. Since that time an entire generation came of age who never really knew the easy going humor that Johnny dispensed for thirty years. That’s too bad, because the comedic landscape changed a lot in those thirteen years and something wonderful was lost.

Carson was a class act. He found humor in the same places today’s comedians find it—politicians, celebrities, world events—but the humor was always good natured. He noted life’s ironies but never attacked. Night after night his monologues provided the kind of jokes that could comfortably be retold (and usually were) the following morning at work or school. The core of his humor—and what made everything else work so well—was self-deprecation. He could make a bad joke hilarious simply by laughing at his own flop. Whether dealing with kids, animals or celebrity guests, the common thread was that the joke was often on him. And when it was; his ability to laugh at himself with genuine gusto made everything OK.

Carson also respected his guests. An example comes to mind of segment not likely to be repeated today. Once a year he invited a local science teacher and a hand full of students on to the show. The kids were studying ornithology and one by one took center stage to present a unique bird call. The teacher, the kids and the segment were treated with strict dignity and respect. He appreciated the effort the kids put into learning the calls and the raw courage it took for these teens to go before a live audience—to say the least of a national television audience—to perform. They didn’t deserve to be laughed at and they weren’t

Johnny Carson made the Tonight Show a good way to end the day. It’s not too much of a stretch to believe that if we start the day by treating those around us with respect, approach the day’s frustrations with good humor, and maintain a healthy ability to laugh at ourselves, we might not end up producing a class act of our own. It’s certainly worth a try.

Thanks for thirty years of laughs, Johnny.                                   -—Ebert

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