The very long, very ambivalent entry for Johnny Carson in David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film contains too many truly bon bon mots to cite them all here. You may as well throw a dart. I don’t have a dart, but I choose an excerpt that captures the man’s characteristic contradiction by invoking another popular icon of his heyday:
He was all antennae, sweeping an audience for sullenness or the sweet mercy that liked him. “I don’t know why, but I’m in a silly mood tonight,” he’d claim, a thousand times, trying to believe it. Whereas Johnny Carson was about as silly as Jack Nicklaus putting for money.
For what it’s worth, I’m a little too young to know what I think about Carson. My parents watched him, but by the time I was staying up that late there was Letterman, whose first NBC show I’d watch after my parents had gone to bed. So I have a certain nostalgia-once-removed for Carson’s Tonight Show. It was the show I mildly looked forward to being old enough to watch, but whose appeal had dwindled and been displaced by the time I was.