- The Washington Times - Monday, January 24, 2005

Americans lost a friend and a national institution this weekend, when Johnny Carson died of emphysema at the age of 79. For 30 years, Mr. Carson sent the nation to bed with civility, grace and a good dose of pretension-deflation. His humor was self-deprecating, playful and gentle to the human spirit.

Mr. Carson’s brand of humor was a throwback to the comedy of the first half of the 20th century. He got his start as a teen-age magician and ventriloquist, and characters like “Carnac the Magnificent” and “Aunt Blabby” showed it vividly. So did the menagerie of ferrets, lions and other animal guests that brought circus gags to late-night comedy.

Mr. Carson’s rise to fame was meteoric, and was indicative of the age. He started in radio and earned early accolades with “Carson’s Cellar,” during which Red Skelton hired him as a writer and helped launch him toward fame. After 39 weeks on CBS with “The Johnny Carson Show,” Mr. Carson moved to New York to host ABC’s “Who Do You Trust?,” where he partnered up with Ed McMahon and set the ground for “The Tonight Show.” The show, which he hosted from Oct. 1, 1962 to May 22, 1992, was an unprecedented success. He logged 4,531 episodes, won 42 Emmy nominations and was wished well by an estimated 50 million viewers for his farewell show. “He was the definition of class and dignity,” said one admirer earlier this week who captured the reality.

It’s ironic, however, that even as Mr. Carson’s career blossomed, American comedy got rawer and edgier, more profane and haranguing. Where once we had Jack Benny and Bob Hope, we now had John Belushi and Chris Rock. Clearly there was something about Mr. Carson’s gentle Midwestern sensibilities, something in his good-natured entertainer’s presence, that viewers clung to even as the overall culture grew coarser. What was it about Mr. Carson’s gentility that so captivated audiences?

The answer could simply be that Mr. Carson was a man of his times. Humor was gentler in the mid-20th century, so a man of Mr. Carson’s mores could be king. It’s not as if the news and the issues from which that humor arose were less divisive or somehow less problematic: Vietnam, Watergate and desegregation were just as trying for Americans as the Iraq war, gay “marriage” or abortion today. It’s telling that through all Mr. Carson’s jabs at politicians left and right, and all the blows to pretension, no one knew much of anything about his political views. The closest we came in recent years was an interview in Esquire in which he criticized Fox News and President Bush — but also said he wished he had been on air to roast up the Monica Lewinksy affair. As goes the culture, so go its comedians.

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