More than the laughs he gave us or permanent imprint he made on late-night television, Johnny Carson's greatest legacy may have been demonstrating to the world of show business how to lead an exemplary life in the spotlight. Johnny Carson
Whether on camera or off, Carson, who died Sunday, Jan. 23 at 79, never called attention to himself. He did his work and went home. His work spoke for itself. Rarely did he consent to interviews. In the 12-plus years since relinquishing his desk at The Tonight Show, he spoke once, to Bill Zehme in the June 2002 Esquire. That article, "The Man Who Retired," received remarkably little notice. Probably what Carson preferred.
Carson displayed how to behave by how he treated his guests. He brought on the best, and brought out their best. No one should be surprised that David Letterman and Jay Leno, who now keep his old timeslot warm, earned their seal of approval on Carson's Tonight Show. But before Leno ever made it to The Tonight Show, Carson suggested that Leno's act feature more jokes and less attitude. Leno listened and became perhaps the most talented standup comic of his time.
When NBC celebrated its 75th birthday a few years back, Carson declined to participate. "It's going to be one of those self-congratulatory things. Come look at what we've done!" he told Zehme. "Look how good we are! I'm just not going to do it! I made that decision a long time ago, and it's served me well."
Carson-like dignity - and that's the word for it, dignity - is a precious commodity these days. Instead, the disgusting tendency is to shout to get attention. Fame today is a freak show, a seemingly endless parade of charlatans who can't wait to hawk products while telling you how great they are.
It brings to mind the old Robert Klein line about astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon. Klein said Armstrong could have set up himself and his family up for 26 lifetimes if he'd set foot on the moon and screamed, "Coca Cola!"
Armstrong didn't, of course. And he never cashed in.
Nor did Carson.
Greatness doesn't need to scream to be noticed. Greatness doesn't need to answer questions. Greatness stands on its own. Johnny Carson proved that.