While the accoutrements of Carson's show never struck Erasmus as anything other than superannuated cheesiness from the earliest days of TV, Carson himself was a tarter, sharper figure than the gauzy, sentimental reminiscences now abounding would lead one to believe. Carson's supreme talent was not stand-up or acting, but interviewing. Unlike either of his two semi-heirs, Letterman and (particularly) Leno, he never made an interview about himself or felt the need to draw attention onto himself. He was happy to be a mirror reflecting the spotlight onto others, letting them display their best, most interesting selves (or personæ). He was brilliant at ad libitum asides, jibes, and ripostes. He was particularly deft at deflating the pompous or aggressive guest, a Nebraskan Groucho Marx.
He seems to have been a man of professional generosity, as the many comedians his show made are now volubly testifying. It's necessary to say "seems" all too often about Carson, as he was fundamentally a private, modest man by the standards of late twentieth-century celebrity. Aside from jokes about his many marriages, he shared very little of himself with his audience but nevertheless was so gracious, genial, and charismatic that virtually anyone who'd watched The Tonight Show during his long stewardship would have felt comfortable saying hello to him on the street.
Johnny Carson, an amateur magician of some talent, pulled off what may have been the greatest legerdemain in the history of celebrity: standing center stage, almost invisible, while everyone around him stood out in sharp, flattering relief.
John William Carson
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