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Jay Leno's Tribute to Johnny Carson, Tonight Show, Jan. 24, 2005

The following is a transcript of host Jay Leno's comments at the top of the show:

Welcome to "The Tonight Show." As you know, it's been a tough 24 hours for those of us who are fans of Johnny Carson. I was thinking about what I could say about Johnny Carson, and I kept trying to search for something new that hadn't been said before. After a couple hours, I realized that was impossible. Maybe that was the greatest thing about Johnny, imagine getting to the end of your life and there's no compliment that you haven't been paid. Johnny had that special quality of grace, charm and dignity in the public arena. He was an incredibly polite man and when you were invited into his house, this show, you knew you were an honored guest. Before he became host of "the Tonight Show", he was the host of a show called "Who Do You Trust?" which was the perfect title for show starring Johnny Carson. Because the truth is, we trusted Johnny. We trusted him to make us laugh, to entertain us, to speak for us with what was a truly an American voice.

Johnny hosted this show for 30 years…Think about that, these days some NBC shows don't last 30 days. What made Johnny such a unique talent was that for 30 years he was hip, but smart enough not to be so hip that next year he was out of style. That was a fine, almost impossible, line to walk and no one did it better than Johnny Carson. Johnny never went out of style. As a comedian he taught me that it was okay to be known for doing political humor, but never making the mistake of thinking you're a political commentator. It's okay to satirize the society we live in, just don't start believing you're a social commentator.

You know, people say this country is divided now, these people forget the 60s and early 70s. There were almost daily marches, there were race riots, there were assassinations, there were anti-war demonstrations all the time. We witnessed the most drastic cultural change in American history. But, throughout it all, no matter what the state of the world, it seemed to get its sanity back every night at 11:30. Johnny was a constant in our lives and every night he made us feel okay about it.

As good as Johnny was with celebrities and politicians, he was at his best with ordinary folks. Because they didn't treat him as Johnny Carson, "the king of Late Night", they treated him as Johnny Carson from Norfolk, Nebraska. There was always a moment when he would ask, "Do you ever watch my show?" And the person would always say something like " No, I don't stay up late unless there's something worthwhile to do." Well Johnny loved that, he would laugh and laugh and he thought that was the greatest thing in the world.

As a performer I don't think I ever wanted to impress anyone more than Johnny Carson. He had that effect on comedians. When he gave you that wave, or the wink, or the call over to the desk. Nothing before or since has had as profound an effect on me as that one little gesture. In the mid-80s I started working as a guest host for Johnny. And it's strange, after all these years, I still feel like a guest in his house… Because he built this place, everyone who does this for a living owes it to him. Johnny was the best, plain and simple. The best way to sum it up is, you had to be there. If you were fortunate to be watching during Johnny's 30-year run, consider yourself lucky, cause you're not going to see the likes of him ever again.
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