1925 - 2005
For three decades, he was a good friend to many Americans, a part of the family. He could make you laugh uncontrollably, or move you to tears. He had a true instinct for what was funny, but seemed to know when to back off and extend the laughs. He knew when to get slightly bawdy, and was smart enough not to go over the line. He helped launch the careers of many now-famous comics. In short, Johnny Carson was the unofficial king of US late-night television. Period. And there will never be another like him. The 79-year-old entertainer died January 23rd from emphysema at his Malibu, California home. His legacy to broadcasting won’t soon be forgotten.
John William Carson was born October 23rd, 1925 in Corning, Iowa; his family then moved to Norfolk, Nebraska. At age 14, he received his first taste of show business by performing a magic act as “The Great Carsoni” for the local Rotary Club. During World War Two, he served in the Navy; after his military stint, Carson attended the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, majoring in drama and radio. His first job was as an announcer for Lincoln station KFAB. He later moved to Omaha, where he worked for radio and television stations WHO. Carson’s first television show was a local production called "The Squirrel’s Nest", an early afternoon show featuring skits, jokes and interviews. In 1950, Carson made the move to Southern California, and again hit local television. "Carson’s Cellar", which aired on Los Angeles’ CBS-owned station, featured Carson doing jokes and skits, gaining the attention of such stars as Red Skelton and Groucho Marx, who appeared on the show for free. During the early 1950’s, Carson became a writer for Skelton’s weekly CBS program and had his own quiz show, “Earn Your Vacation”.
Carson’s big break came when Skelton hurt himself during a rehearsal for his show; Carson was tapped to substitute for the ailing Skelton, earning praise for his humor and cool under fire. That performance led CBS to give him his own program. “The Johnny Carson Show” was a variety program that ran for just one season, a victim of backstage troubles and low ratings.
When the show ended its run, Carson went back to guesting on a number of comedy, drama and variety shows of the period. But his next big break came in 1957, when he was hired to host an ABC game show called “Who Do You Trust?” Carson demonstrated his quick wit and comic skills on “Trust,” making it a late afternoon hit for the third-ranked network. (Carson’s announcer on “Trust” was a Philadelphia-based announcer named Ed McMahon; the pair proved to be an effective match.)
During the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, Carson continued to guest on various programs, and he was occasionally tapped as substitute host for Jack Paar on NBC’s late-night “Tonight” show. So when Paar announced his retirement from “Tonight” in March 1962, NBC executives decided on Carson as his replacement, believing he had the right instincts to host the show. But Carson couldn’t start his new job until his ABC contract ran out. On October 1st, 1962, with Ed McMahon at his side, Carson finally began his tenure as host of “The Tonight Show”.
Carson made the decision to turn “Tonight” into a pure entertainment program, with an emphasis on humor. Paar was known as a serious man with many grudges; unpredictable to a fault but managing to capture a large audience. Carson’s instincts proved to be right on target; he was relaxed, funny and seldom controversial. Viewers responded to the new “Tonight” host; four months after his debut, Carson surpassed Paar’s show in the ratings.
Carson’s format proved to be predictable—he’d start the show with a monologue about the politics of the day or whatever made national news. His monologues proved to be a barometer of what Americans were feeling at the time. He managed to take swipes at top leaders and public figures without being mean or nasty. Following the monologue, Carson would either take part in skits or interview guests.
By all accounts a private man, Carson had his moments in the spotlight he didn’t particularly enjoy. His much-publicized three divorces; his battle with alcohol; and the death of one of his sons in a car accident—these and other personal stories didn’t seem to affect Carson’s public persona of being cool, unflappable and funny.
Johnny was at his best when he interacted with children and animals; plenty of both came to his set during his three decades as host. He also loved comedy and gave time for new stand-up comics to shine. Among the many famous names Carson helped give national exposure: Joan Rivers; Roseanne Barr; Freddie Prinze; Ellen DeGeneres; Jerry Seinfeld; Robin Williams—and two men who would battle to become Carson’s heir apparent, Jay Leno and David Letterman.
All this proved to be great fun for the estimated 10 to 15 million viewers who watched Carson on a regular basis—not to mention NBC, which reportedly generated about 20 percent of its profits from “Tonight” during Johnny’s reign. (One of Carson’s highest-rated moments came in 1969 when the falsetto singer Tiny Tim married his 17-year-old love “Miss Vicki”; 58 million people watched the much-publicized wedding.)
Carson and NBC would occasionally butt heads; the biggest and most-publicized flap came in 1979 when the network was in deep ratings trouble in both prime time and daytime. Carson had the clout and he knew it. When the dust settled, Carson walked away with a contract giving him a $5 million a year salary; full ownership of “The Tonight Show”; and a commitment by NBC to buy a number of prime time specials and series from his Carson Productions. (The biggest Carson-produced shows turned out to be “Amen”, the religious situation comedy with Sherman Hemsley that ran from 1986 to 1991; and “TV Bloopers & Practical Jokes”, a weekly series of pratfalls and old commercials hosted by Ed McMahon and Dick Clark that was co-produced by Carson and Clark’s production companies.)
What’s more, he managed to get more time off while cutting “Tonight” from 90 minutes to just one hour every weeknight; the decision led to the creation of “Late Night with David Letterman”, who followed Carson at 12:30 AM starting in 1982.
Perhaps the biggest change in “Tonight” came during 1972, when the show moved from its long-time New York City base to NBC’s Burbank, California studios. It also meant fewer stars from the world of Broadway and theater, and more performers from the movies and television. Sadly, most of Carson’s early “Tonight Show” years are lost to the ages; as the story goes, an unnamed NBC technician videotaped over hundreds of Carson’s shows. The incident led Carson to fight for more control over his work. It was Carson who demanded that NBC stop airing reruns of his old shows on Saturday nights in the mid-1970’s; the repeats were replaced with a new comedy series aimed at a younger audience—and “Saturday Night Live” is still going strong today.
Over the years, rival networks and syndicators tried to break Carson’s winning streak. Les Crane, Joey Bishop, Dick Cavett, Merv Griffith, Joan Rivers, Pat Sajak—all would try and fail to mount a strong challenge. So did young, hip Arsenio Hall—he couldn’t beat Carson in overall viewers, but in the early 1990’s, Hall’s syndicated talkfest drew equally young and hip viewers, some of whom wouldn’t have been caught dead watching Johnny.
Carson was very aware of the competition; he also feared hanging on too long, past his peak. (He learned that lesson from Bob Hope, whose later appearances on NBC specials were a shadow of the vibrant and funny Hope of the early days.) In 1991, he told NBC executives he would retire as “Tonight Show” host. And he did just that in May 1992. The last regular “Tonight” on May 21st was one for the books, with his final guests Robin Williams and Bette Midler (who serenaded Carson in a touching performance that won her an Emmy that year). But it was his final show on May 22nd, which consisted mostly of clips, that Carson was able to show his emotions: A simple thank-you to his audience for inviting him into their homes for three decades, and promising that he would return, “when I find something I want to do and I think you’ll like.” Three days later, NBC took back control of “The Tonight Show” and gave Jay Leno Johnny’s job. Many people—Carson included—felt the gig should have gone to David Letterman. So did Letterman himself. To be fair, NBC did offer Letterman the “Tonight Show” job—but he would have had to wait until after Leno’s contract expired. Letterman placed a call to Johnny Carson and asked for his advice. Carson told Letterman that if he were in Letterman’s shoes, he wouldn’t accept the NBC offer.
Letterman signed with CBS and never looked back. (Just before his death, it was learned that Carson was still submitting material for Letterman to use in his monologues. Old habits indeed die hard.)
We hoped that one day, Johnny would return to television, at least briefly, to say, “Hey, everybody, I’m doing fine”. But the private side of Mr. Carson proved to be too strong. Except for a guest vocal appearance on “The Simpsons” and a visit to David Letterman’s “Late Show” in 1994, Mr. C was nowhere to be seen on the tube.
These days, it’s David Letterman and Jay Leno doing the nightly monologues and chatting with the guests. But you can’t erase 30 years of service. Right up to his death, Johnny Carson was THE talk show host many Americans knew the best and loved the most. He was true Middle America, our court jester and barometer of our society. Above all, Johnny Carson was the modest, rather shy guy from Nebraska, the life of the party who know how to make an entrance—and when to leave before the laughter died down.
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