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Johnny Carson remains the standard by which all late night comedy talk show hosts are measured, with his name inevitably rising to the top of the list during any discussion of the field. But his legacy likely is not much more than an abstraction to those too young to remember even his emotional final sign-off nearly 20 years ago.
That's part of the reason we were thrilled to read YouTube’s announcement this week that it’s started a Carson channel featuring classic clips from his 30-year run on "The Tonight Show." The virtual resounding of Ed McMahon’s cry of "Here's Johnny!" is a gift to fans – old and new.
There's an almost-shy Madonna's first major TV interview from 1987 (a marked difference from her cursing out David Letterman seven years later). There’s master comedian and storyteller Bill Cosby doing stand-up (before he became America's Dad) and Tony Bennett singing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” (before he became America’s cool granddad). There's a young Steve Martin, way back when his hair was, well, white.
The individual moments stand as both pop culture time capsules and timeless testaments to what made Carson a must-watch every night and to why he looms large in the collective memory. Taken as a whole, the clips also serve as a strong reminder of his skills – as comedian who skewered the powerful in his nightly opening monologues, as a skit-player (the goofy Carnac the Magnificent bits still earn laughs) and as a quick-witted interviewer confident enough to do more listening than talking, allowing his guests to shine.
About 50 videos have been uploaded so far, and more are on the way. The YouTube channel allows users to suggest clips they’d like to see (our vote would be for more early performances by some of the comedians Carson gave a huge break to, like Jerry Seinfeld, Garry Shandling and his onetime favorite – and later feuding partner – Joan Rivers). The channel also serves as a tout of sorts for a site that sells Carson DVDs, but that seems like a fair tradeoff given the wealth of material offered online.
The announcement on YouTube’s blog about the Carson channel came on Monday, just two days after the video site’s parent company, Google, mounted a classy, clips-filled tribute to Lucille Ball on what would have been her 100th birthday. The announcement also came as YouTube noted on the blog that its promoted videos have logged a cumulative 1 billion hits – showing the site’s power as a potential tastemaker.
We’re glad to see YouTube is highlighting material both old and new. But most of all, we’re just happy to watch the Carson clips. Check out a sampling below:
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992.