Monday, Dec. 19, 2005

Johnny Carson

See You in Our Dreams
His charm was unflagging, his manner cool and easy, his jokes precision guided. But the main reason we will miss Johnny Carson is simple: he put us to bed for nearly 30 years. His was the most intimate kind of relationship between entertainer and audience, ushering viewers from waking life to dreamland. Born in 1925, Carson once described his Tonight Show job in deceptively simple terms: "I'm playing me." That wasn't entirely true — his emotional reserve was his trademark — and to the extent it was true, playing oneself is one of the toughest roles on TV. Selves do not always wear well over three decades, especially late at night. But whereas many comedians have a comic trigger, Carson had a comic rheostat; he modulated his tone precisely, running a low-key cocktail party where Hollywood and Main Street both felt at ease. He gave up the limelight in 1992 but never forsook comedy — he sent occasional gags to David Letterman — until, last January, it became our turn to tell him good-night.