Warning: This may end up a battle of opinion between Baby Boomers and Generation Xers/Ys, but here’s MHO–and I’m between Boomer and Xer.
Leno and Letterman are funny as hell, but Carson was IMHO the King of Comedy. Not only did Johnny have a style and inimitable panache that the other two simply don’t, but he also didn’t have to stoop to the vulgarity that is becoming Leno’s trademark. For instance, Carson would never–or, perhaps, could never–have said the things that Leno has said of President Clinton.
Don’t get me wrong, Leno can tear up a house, and Letterman (and creative team) breathed life into the genre. But when I watch old Johnny Carson monologues, it’s like watching magic. I’d also say Carson’s timing was better than Leno’s and Letterman’s edginess and borderline creepiness really rub me the wrong way after awhile. Letterman’s always had a reputation as being cantakerous and difficult. Last, Carson seemed a better listener than Leno who, IMHO, while listening to his guest is actually trying to set up his next joke. Johnny Carson still rules!