This piece was originally posted at The New Democrat
Johnny Carson is not the best interviewer of all-time, but he was a very good interviewer. A bright guy who did his homework. Johnny is not the best standup comedian of all-time, but he’s certainly on the short list of greatest standup comedians who have ever performed. But what Johnny is, is the best comedy talk/variety show host of all-time because of his ability to do so many things and play so many roles. That generally started off with a very good standup performance of his own, followed by an interview that he would do.
I think what made the The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson work and there is really only Tonight Show at least as far as I’m concern, but what made that show work was that it didn’t try to be anything other than what it was. Johnny would interview everybody and only interview those people as himself. Not interview a politician as if he was Walter Cronkite. Not interview a great athlete as if he was Curt Gowdy. Or interview a great entertainer as if he was Barbara Walters. He was comedian first and foremost and played the other roles on the show as himself doing the best job he can.
The Johnny Carson Show was real and it was about Carson and what made Carson work. The standup part for him and perhaps the comedy skits were natural for him. But the interviews and preparation were work because that wasn’t his background, but he was intelligent and knew enough about the other issues he dealt with like interviewing public officials and politicians and interested in those things as well that he could interview people well and have intelligent conversations with them.