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Another classic moment that Carson's eulogizers trotted out last week came in 1965 when Ed Ames of Daniel Boone, demonstrating a tomahawk throw, landed his ax squarely in the crotch of a paper target. Carson's greatness was reflected not just in the zinger he came up with--"I didn't even know you were Jewish!"--but in what came before. Watch the playback: he lets the laughter crescendo--five seconds, 10. He knows he has the joke. He knows it will kill. But you cannot have it yet. For a moment, he is keeping it for himself, like a diamond stowed in his breast pocket.
In comedians, this is called timing, and in leaders it is called command. Carson was not joke for joke the funniest man on TV, nor the best interviewer. He was simply the best host: he could flow with events instead of being carried off by them, yield the spotlight to guests while transcending any particular night's program, withhold even as he made us believe he was giving us all.
When Johnny Carson signed off for the last time, he ducked backstage, away from the waiting media and well-wishers, and boarded a helicopter, not unlike a head of state. Not unlike a certain head of state, in fact, who, asked a too penetrating question on the White House lawn, would cheerfully feign deafness from the chopper blades. His timing impeccable to the last, Carson flew off for Malibu and retirement--no longer the King of Late Night, perhaps, but its President for life, and now, in death. •