Hosted: five times (1978-1981, 1983)
What made Carson so great? The man had an extraordinarily healthy ego, one that didn’t require strokes from the outside world. This was a man who had four wives and was wise enough to always crack the first joke about that statistic. He was a star, and elusive in his way, but always very human. Stopped for drunk driving in 1982, he had the good humor to show up at the “Tonight Show” the next week with a police escort. He didn’t need us, but, at the same time, it was clear he liked us quite a bit. The Oscars were important to us, and he understood that, but he never took it too seriously. He knew how to mock his Hollywood brethren (“I see a lot of new faces, especially on the old faces”) in a style that was both wicked and gentle. His wit was remarkably self-deprecating, but never whiny (Letterman, take note) or snotty (ahem, Mr. Martin). Here’s how he summed up 1983: “My personal life has been exactly like this year’s Academy Awards. It started off with 'Terms of Endearment,' I thought I had 'The Right Stuff,' it cost a lot to dress her ['The Dresser'], then came 'The Big Chill,' and the past month, I’ve been begging for 'Tender Mercies.'” From his many late nights in television, he had a keenly developed sense of the timely joke; returning from commercial break during the era of the Iranian hostage crisis, he said, “For those of you who have just joined us at home, this is Day 164 of the Oscar telecast. America has not forgotten you and President Carter is working on a plan for your release.” He had a certain dignity -- the man could hang with Miss Piggy and not look ridiculous -- but mostly, Johnny Carson had serious cool.
Overall impression: Legend, sorely missed, still.