Jeff Labrecque
November 03, 2006 AT 05:00 AM EST

The Genius of Johnny Carson

If true comic genius is achieved not by saying funny things, but by saying things funny, then Johnny Carson had no peer. When he was on — like when Ed Ames nailed a wood cowboy in the crotch with a tomahawk (”I didn’t even know you were Jewish!”) — he was brilliant. But when he was off — telling supply-side-economics jokes or stumbling over punchlines — he was immortal. No one bombed like Johnny. A double take or bemused stare boomeranged choruses of groans into a chain reaction of laughter. With Carson as maestro, the three-disc Best of Carson Volume 1 and Carson Country — a one-shot hodgepodge of twangy guests and performances — are wild, wild stuff. In a recently resurrected clip on Best of, Bob Hope and Dean Martin gloriously hijack a live Tonight Show broadcast, and Carson fans the booze-fueled flames until third wheel George Gobel sums up his own modest presence: ”Did you ever get the feeling that the world was a tuxedo and you were a pair of brown shoes?” The sets suffer, however, when Carson yields the spotlight to those so-called brown shoes. The show was renowned as a comic’s launching pad, but the emphasis on obscure comedians (Darryl Sivad?) feels like a Sunday night at Rascals.

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