Wide awake, here is what I see:
The opening monologues: These are just as wildly uneven as I remember. Only now, they seem shorter. And sometimes so short as to leave you wondering if Carson lost faith half way through and walked away from cue cards yet to be read. The jokes can be terrific. They can be awful. And it took how many high paid writers to come up with that? And still, I find myself coming back: Can he bring it off tonight? When he does, it’s magic.
Were the Letterman or Leno monologues funnier? Probably. But Carson had another trick in his bag of charm that endeared him to the audience: Making fun of himself when the laughs didn’t come. Even better, taking pot shots at the audience itself –- or the previous night’s crowd.
At the desk with laughing Ed: I am finding the comedy bits with Ed, as well as Johnny's satiric impersonations of famous figures and stock characters, to be more consistently amusing. A big disappointment, however, is something that I had forgotten: Carson would often skip this segment and go directly into his first guest. I want more Johnny and Ed!
Conversations with the guests: Now wide awake, I am finding Carson to be a far more engaging host than before, possibly because, before, I likely tuned out after the first half hour, favoring the bed. Even now, I can see myself skipping the rest of the show unless there is somebody waiting in the green room that I wish to see, like Orson Welles or Bill Buckley.
The Jack Paar in Johnny Carson: Carson drew from many sources when he developed his own Tonight Show format and persona. First and foremost, clearly he was influenced by watching the man he replaced, Jack Paar. Paar, regarded by many of us as the true king of late night, was dangerously unpredictable and prone to interviewing a wide range of guests. Paar favored real characters who made us laugh, bringing them back sometimes week after week. I waited for Dodi Goodman whenever she was on. So, too, for Alexander King, among other regulars, rarely there to pitch their movies or NBC TV premieres.
Pure Paar: The closest that Carson comes to a typically whimsical Jack Paar interview is when he has on Buck Henry. I had never heard of Buck Henry, below, until now, and I will definitely wade through any future Tonight Show replays in which Henry appears. His wry Pintereque humor is the work of genius. Carson plays brilliantly to it, allowing Henry the long pregnant pauses that seem to produce hilariously off the wall remarks. And together — it’s hard to believe their interactions were not scripted — the two mine comedy gold. What a team! Here is Carson at his greatest.
The man himself: I now wish I knew less about Johnny Carson’s reprehensibly nasty life off camera, starring his monster mother, co-starring all the women he bedded and all the people he used and abused. Certainly do I feel this way after reading the ruthlessly (though truthfully, it would appear) revealing bio of Carson by his long time attorney and virtual paid friend, Henry Bushkin. The evidence seems too formidable. No more books on Carson for me. I prefer the Johnny Carson I see on my television screen. Oh, those good old Midwestern values he brought to the fans! It is almost painful contemplating the illusions we were sold by Johnny Carson, Inc.