"Since the pandemic put normal life on pause, the only talk show I have regularly watched is, oddly enough, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, which airs weeknights on Antenna," says Jason Zinoman, author of a biography of David Letterman. "This isn’t because I am seeking escape in the pleasures of my childhood — although I have done that, revisiting Heathers and A Tribe Called Quest as if they were old friends. But Johnny Carson holds no nostalgic appeal. When I was a teenager in the late ’80s and early ’90s, he represented the bland center of the mainstream, a toothless holdover from a Vegas-infused era of show business. What could be less cool than pantomiming a golf swing? I returned to his show first out of professional curiosity. Despite being the most visible and powerful comedian in America for three decades, building the talk show into a juggernaut on NBC before ending his run in 1992, Carson has mostly vanished from the public consciousness, discussed more as a gatekeeper than as a performer. But once I started bingeing old episodes of The Tonight Show, I found something oddly calming about his topical jokes about Watergate, Iran-contra and other grave events that no longer seem urgent. Comedy plus time equals a certain indifference. But it wasn’t only that: Carson hosted with an unusually light touch and an equanimity that stands out in today’s hyperventilating culture. His monologue jokes are OK, steadily mediocre if sometimes corny constructions with amusing word choices ('topless kazoo player riding a yak') but never as funny as the way he self-deprecatingly recovers from ones that bombed. He lingers on those, holding a pause or leaning forward ever so slightly, goosing the audience for more laughs at his expense. David Letterman admired this about Johnny Carson, and you can see the influence. But whereas Letterman brooded over his flops, Carson never seemed angry for more than a moment, or for that matter, particularly thrilled. The guests ran hot and cold, but he never budged from room temperature. There is something even eerily alien about his temperament as if he was observing humanity from a distance. The critic Kenneth Tynan once described Carson as 'an immaculate machine.'"