Press Clippings: David Letterman’s announcement last week that he would retire in 2015 brings an end to era of late night television. Leno went first, in the early part of 2014, and now Letterman will leave CBS–a network which had no late night presence until Dave joined it–in 2015. The old guard will be soon be gone and the new guard of Fallon, Kimmel, O’Brien and Letterman’s replacement (the player to be named later–Stephen Colbert) will take over very lucrative time slots in late night television. A large portion of the credit for turning late night television into a desirable and profitable time slot goes to one man: Johnny Carson. Carson was not the first host of The TonightShow, a show conceived by Pat Weaver (who also developed The Today Show, both for NBC) but certainly the best and the one who most adroitly developed the late night format.
For decades, Carson ruled late night with both quick wit and iron will, trading quips and quickly dispatching guests whose personality failed to engage him or his audience. Johnny Carson was always the master, the gold standard for late night and it’s not surprising that David Letterman, who had hoped to take over The Tonight Show only to see it go to Jay Leno, held Carson in such high regard (and vice versa). Interestingly, today’s top late night hosts all point to Letterman as the beacon for performance and innovation, just as the earlier group used Carson as the benchmark.
One of the very best profiles ever written on Johnny Carson was the one by the English writer Kenneth Tynan (the drama critic of The New Yorker who was himself worthy of a profile, as a click through will prove) which was published in the February 20, 1978 edition of The New Yorker. Tynan’s prose is surprising and elegant and engaging and his profile of Carson reveals a man that few people really knew, despite the fact that millions watched him on television five days a week.
It’s a long read but well worth your time as one era ends and another begins in that twilight zone between late night television and sleep.