Herbie J Pilato: Why Johnny Carson was the best “Tonight Show” host

The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carsonby Herbie J Pilato

As a page for NBC in Burbank from May 1984 to December 1985, I worked on several shows that became classics, including The Golden Girls, Family Ties, and more.

No show was more exciting to be involved with – sometimes on a daily basis, than The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson.

Mr. Carson has been called the “King of Late Night TV” – and there’s a reason for that.

It’s because that’s what he was – and remains.

No TV talk show host, past, present or future of The Tonight Show, or any “chat” program, of late night or daytime – possessed the style, grace, elegance, humor and sophistication of Johnny Carson.

But the main reason why he was the ultimate talk show host is because he actually allowed his guests to talk.

Go figure, right?  A talk show granting his guest time to speak.

Mr. Carson opened the show with his monologue, maybe did a few skits here and there (i.e. “Carnac, the Magnificent”), and then his line-up of guests would commence their time on the sofa, one by one…sometimes all remaining together on that sofa until the show’s closing credits.

There was comedy, but nothing obnoxious.  There was a gracious audience (that the NBC pages kept in check); and there was no loud screaming or fist-pumping.

The audience was never allowed to touch Mr. Carson or shake his hand in any which way.  His desk on stage was positioned somewhat distantly from the studio audience, and everyone was okay with that – because he was the “star”…when being a “star” meant having class.  Not arrogance, but class.

He’d joke with his guests; and laugh with them, but never at them.  He never insulted his guests, and he always made sure they’d shine, specifically young comedians who were just starting out; or who he thought was an amazing talent.

Suffice it to say, he showed respect for his guests, and ultimately his TV audience – and his studio audience (his “Stump the Band” segment, which I was honored enough to “co-host” with him one night, remains a classic “skit history”).

In short, Johnny Carson was not only the ultimate talk show host, but was the ultimate host, period.

And there will never be another one like him anytime soon – or ever.

Cheers to you, Johnny – for all the entertainment, laughs, and again – just plain class that you brought to the world of late night television – and beyond.


Read more about Herbie J Pilato’s adventures as an NBC Page.

Author: Herbie J Pilato

Writer, Author, Producer, Actor, Singer/Songwriter, Lover of Life