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Johnny

It's cliche, but it feels like the death of a friend. Where had he been the last 13 years? Didn't see this one coming. Young folks may not realize this, but Johnny Carson may well have been the biggest TV star ever. Bill Cosby might be bigger, and more culturally influential. Oprah is huge. But Carson was not only the King of late-night talk-shows, he was the quintessential Hollywood figure, the career-maker for so many others, the guy who had the requisite mansions and divorces. He had class, and his off-color quips were never very off-color. As the tributes on TV last night showed, he had exquisite comic timing, and I wonder if he actually created, over the years, our notion of what comic timing is. No one ever finessed a bad joke better. He was almost better with bad material than good. He always had such dignity on stage, even if it was the dignity of a man going down with his ship. Letterman is a great innovator, having escaped the stage and the interview desk, taking the camera backstage and into the audience and out onto the street, and in some ways Leno may be more of a pure comedian. But they're no Johnny Carson.

By Joel Achenbach  |  January 24, 2005; 11:09 AM ET
 
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