August 12, 2014 11:45 AM EDT

Tonight was zippy with Steve Allen, unpredictable with Jack Paar and—well, still on the air with Jay Leno, but it was under Johnny that it reached its apex as a cool but comfortable late-night hangout. It’s a tough balancing act to give a late-night show broad appeal: you’re speaking to both the elderly and young night owls, you need to be relaxed enough to put your viewers to bed without putting them to sleep. Carson was just the right mix of ingenuous Midwesterner and urban sophisticate, in control but self-deprecating, quick-witted but not enervating. His comic style was as smooth as his pantomime golf swing, and he stayed in control even when being climbed by all manner of zoo animals. Ushering viewers from waking life to dreamland, he gave America thirty years of good nights.

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