Johnny Carson

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Johnny Carson

John William "Johnny" Carson (October 23, 1925January 23, 2005) was an American actor, comedian and writer best known for his iconic status as the host of The Tonight Show from 1962 until 1992.


Before The Tonight Show

Carson was born in Corning, Iowa and grew up in Norfolk, Nebraska, where he learned to perform magic tricks, debuting as "The Great Carsoni" at age 14. He served in the Navy from 1943 to 1946, then attended the University of Nebraska where he was a member of Phi Gamma Delta, graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1949. The next year, Carson took a job at a local Nebraska radio station; Carson then took a job at Los Angeles television station KNXT, which would be his entry to the big time. In 1953, well-known comic Red Skelton – a fan of Carson's sketch comedy show, Carson's Cellar, which ran from 1951 to 1953 on KNXT – tabbed Carson to join his show as a writer. In 1954, Skelton knocked himself unconscious just one hour before his live show went on the air; Carson filled in for him – and a star was born. He hosted several TV shows before his run on The Tonight Show, including the game show Earn Your Vacation (1954), the variety show The Johnny Carson Show (1955 - 1956), and a five-year stint on the game show Who Do You Trust? (1957–1962), during which Carson met long-time sidekick Ed McMahon.

The Tonight Show

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Art Fern and his assistant
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Johnny Carson smiling during the opening of a show, 8 May 1987
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A black-and-white still image from the December 21, 1989 episode with Red Skelton, Bob Hope and Carson as host.

Carson became the host of NBC's The Tonight Show on October 2, 1962. His co-host was Ed McMahon throughout his entire tenure with the program. His first guest was Groucho Marx, who had been one of many substitute hosts following the departure of Jack Paar. With Paul Anka, Carson co-wrote "Johnny's Theme", the title music for his version of the program.

No video of Carson's first appearance on The Tonight Show is known to exist. However, an audio recording of the broadcast has been played on television. Carson began his first monologue by crying "I want my na-na!"

For millions of people, watching The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson at the end of the evening became a ritual, and Carson became a well-known entertainer loved by many. Most of the later shows began with music and the announcement by Ed McMahon "Heeeeeere's Johnny!," followed by a brief comedic monologue by Carson. This was often followed by comedy sketches, interviews, and music. Carson's trademark was a phantom golf swing at the end of his Tonight Show monologues, aimed at stage right where the band was. Guest hosts would sometimes parody that gesture. Bob Newhart, for example, would finish by simulating rolling a bowling ball toward the audience.

During his tenure, The Tonight Show was often referred to as "the Johnny Carson show" or just "Carson". This was reinforced by the official title, "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson". The show's current title is "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno".

The Tonight Show received an enormous audience on December 17, 1969, when Tiny Tim married Miss Vicki during the show.

The show was originally produced in New York City, with occasional stints in California. It was live in its early years, then switched in the late 1960s to "live on tape" (uninterrupted unless a serious problem occurred). In May 1972 the show permanently moved from New York to Burbank, California, and Carson stopped doing shows five days a week. Instead, on Monday nights there was a "guest host" (leaving Carson to do the other four each week). Joan Rivers became the "permanent" guest host from September 1983 until 1986. Thereafter, The Tonight Show returned to using various guest hosts, with Jay Leno the most frequent. Leno then became the exclusive guest host in the fall of 1987. Eventually, the pattern became relatively set. Monday night was for Jay Leno. Tuesday night was for the Best of Carson, which were rebroadcasts of earlier episodes (usually of a year previous but occasionally back into the 1970s with edited episodes).

Starting with the 1980 season, on September 16, the show's length was cut back, from 90 to 60 minutes (as per Total Television, by Alex McNeil).

In 1973, Carson had a legendary run-in with popular psychic Uri Geller when he invited Geller to appear on his show. Carson, an experienced stage magician, wanted a neutral demonstration of Geller's alleged abilities, so, at the advice of his friend and fellow magician James Randi, he gave Geller several spoons out of his desk drawer and asked him to bend them. Geller proved unable, and his appearance on The Tonight Show has since been regarded as the beginning of Geller's fall from glory.

Recurring characters and sketches

  • "Carnac the Magnificent", where Carson played a psychic who gave a punchline to a joke before revealing the corny setup. This was to some degree a variation on Steve Allen's recurring "The Question Man" sketch. "Carnac" examples:
"Billy Graham, Virginia Graham and Lester Maddux" ... "Name two Grahams and a Cracker!"
"Debate" ... "What do you use to catch de fish?"
"Frathouse" ... "What do you call a Japanese home struck by a meteor?"
  • "Floyd R. Turbo", a dimwitted yokel responding to a TV station editorial
  • "Art Fern", the fast-talking host of a "Tea Time Movie" program, who advertised inane products and romanced his attractive blonde assistant, played by Carol Wayne (1971-82) and Teresa Ganzel (1982-91), when the camera was off.
The fake movies he would introduce usually had a cast of several actors with similar-sounding names, typically topped off by some variation on "Rex, the Wonder Horse".
On giving directions to a fake store he was touting, he would show a spaghetti-like road map, sometimes with a literal "fork in the road", other times making the joke, "Go to the Slawson Cutoff...", and the audience would recite with him, "...cut off your Slawson!"
  • "Aunt Blabby", an old woman whose appearance and speech pattern bore more than a passing resemblance to comedian Jonathan Winters' character "Maude Frickert"
  • "Stump the Band", where studio audience members ask the band to try to play obscure songs given only the title. The band almost never knew the song, but that did not stop them from inventing one on the spot. Example:
Guest's request: My Dead Dog Rover
Doc Severinsen, singing: "My dead dog Rover / lay under the sun / and stayed there all summer / until he was done!"
  • "The Mighty Carson Art Players", which spoofed news, movies, television shows, and commercials.
Example: Johnny, dressed as a doctor, starting to talk about some intimate topic (just as in the real ad) and then being hit by cream pies from several directions at once.
  • "The Edge of Wetness", in which Johnny would read humorous plot summaries of a fictional soap opera while the camera panned the audience, stopping on an unsuspecting audience member which Carson claimed was, for example, the butler from the soap.

Carson was often at his best, however, when sketches went wrong, as they often did. If the opening monologue fared poorly, the band would start playing the song "Tea for Two" and Carson would start to dance, which invariably earned laughs from the studio audience. Alternately, Carson might pull down the boom mike close to his face and announce "Attention K-Mart shoppers!" Carson had a talent for declaring quick quips to deal with unexpected problems.

Perhaps the most celebrated, and frequently replayed, example of Johnny being quick-on-his feet was the "Ed Ames tomahawk" incident. This was a black-and-white videotape clip thankfully saved from the New York years. Ames was then playing a Native American on the Daniel Boone TV series, starring Fess Parker. Ames was attempting to demonstrate how to throw a hatchet in the air to hit a target, the outline of a cowboy on a piece of plywood. The throw hit the figure square in the crotch, and the audience screamed. Ames instinctively started to go retrieve the hatchet, but Carson smoothly held him back. When the laughter had almost died down, Carson remarked, "I didn't even know you were Jewish!" and the audience screamed again.

Carson would frequently bring out zoologists such as Joan Embry or Jim Fowler, with exotic animals that he could interact with to comedic effect. In one frequently-shown clip, he leaned over a little too closely to the cage of a panther, which swiped its claws at him. He ran across the stage and jumped into Ed McMahon's arms.

Another tradition evolved over the years so that anytime Carson would say a phrase in his monologue such as "It was so (hot/cold/dark/etc.)..." someone in the audience would invariably call out "How ---- was it?" which would set up Carson's rejoinder "It was so ----, that ...." and complete the joke (the contemporary game show The Match Game had a similar tradition). According to a later biography of Carson, however, it was actually against the rules for someone in the audience to interrupt Carson this way, and anyone who called out "How ---- was it?" was invariably removed from the studio.

Another staple consisted of making fun of nearby cities. In the New York Days, Carson would invoke the odd-sounding names of New Jersey cities like Weehauken and Nutley to get a laugh. He used to say that his tailor was "Raul of Bayonne". After the move to the Los Angeles area, he would constantly make fun of Burbank, the site of the NBC studios.

Carson's show was the launching pad for many talented performers, notably comedians. Many got their "big break" by appearing on the show, and it was considered the crowning achievement to not only get Johnny to laugh out loud, but also to be called over to the guest chair. In many ways, Carson was the successor to The Ed Sullivan Show as a showcase for all kinds of talent, as well as continuing the Vaudeville variety-show tradition.

Guest hosts

Frequent guest hosts included:

Virtually all of the pre-1970 shows were lost to history when an NBC employee decided to reuse the videotapes for other purposes. It was rumored that many other episodes were lost in a fire, but NBC has denied this. Many 1970s-era episodes have been licensed to distributors of the sort that advertise mail order offers on late-night TV. The later shows are stored in an underground film archive in Kansas.

Critical acclaim

Carson was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1987. His other awards include 6 Emmy Awards, and a George Foster Peabody Award. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1992, and the Kennedy Center Honors in 1993.

Personal life

Carson married his college sweetheart Joan Wolcott on October 1, 1949. They had 3 sons. Their son, Richard, was killed on June 21, 1991, when his car plunged down a steep embankment along a paved service road off Highway 1 near Cayucos, a small town north of San Luis Obispo. Apparently, Richard had been taking photographs when the accident occurred. On his first show after his son's death, Carson gave a stirring tribute to Ricky Carson in the final minutes of his show as several of his photographs were displayed.

In 1963, Carson got a "quickie" Mexican divorce from Joan and married Joanne Copeland on August 17, 1963. After a protracted divorce in 1972, Copeland received nearly half a million dollars in cash and art and $100,000 a year in alimony for life. At The Tonight Show's 10th anniversary party on September 30, 1972, Carson announced that he and former model Joanna Holland had been secretly married that afternoon, shocking his friends and associates.

On March 8, 1983, Holland filed for divorce. Under California's community property laws, she was entitled to 50 percent of all the assets accumulated during the marriage even though Carson earned virtually 100 percent of the couple's income. During this period, he joked on The Tonight Show, "My producer, Freddy de Cordova, really gave me something I needed for Christmas. He gave me a gift certificate to the Law Offices of Jacoby and Meyers." The divorce case finally ended in 1985 with an 80-page settlement, Holland receiving $20 million in cash and property.

The story goes he met his fourth wife, Alexis Maas, when he saw her strolling along the beach near his Malibu home holding an empty wine glass. He left his house and offered to fill the glass up for her. They married on June 20, 1987. That broke the "Joan"-"Joanne"-"Joanna" cycle, and his marriage with Alexis was happy by all accounts.

Carson was a major investor in the ultimately failed De Lorean Motor Company, and was cited in a 1982 drunk driving incident while driving a De Lorean DMC-12 sportscar in Beverly Hills. Represented by Robert Shapiro, he pleaded no contest to the charges, and played off the incident by having a uniformed police officer escort him on to the Tonight Show stage.

Carson was close friends with astronomer Carl Sagan, who often appeared on The Tonight Show to give presentations on astronomy. (Carson himself was an amateur astronomer). The unique way Sagan had of saying certain words, like "billions" of galaxies, would lead to Carson ribbing his friend, imitating his voice and saying "BILL-ions and BILL-ions", a phrase soon erroneously attributed to Sagan himself. According to Sagan's biographer, Keay Davidson, Carson was the first person to contact Sagan's wife with condolences when the scientist died in 1996.


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Johnny Carson

Carson retired from show business on May 22, 1992 when he stepped down as host of The Tonight Show. NBC gave the show to occasional guest host, Jay Leno, despite having promised the job to David Letterman in the 1980s. Letterman, who had been a longtime friend of Carson's, called him to ask him what to do about losing the show. Carson told him to walk. Leno and Letterman were soon competing on different networks.

At the end of his final Tonight Show appearance, Carson indicated that he would return with a new project, but instead chose to go into full retirement, rarely giving interviews and declining to participate in NBC's 75th Anniversary celebrations. He made the occasional cameo appearance, most notably as a voice actor on an episode of The Simpsons ("Krusty Gets Kancelled").

Carson's most famous post-retirement appearance came on Letterman's late-night CBS talk show, The Late Show with David Letterman, on May 13, 1994. During a week of shows from Los Angeles, Letterman was having Larry "Bud" Melman (Calvert DeForest) deliver his "Top Ten Lists" under the impression that a famous personality would be delivering the list instead. On the last show of the week, Letterman indicated that Carson would be delivering the list. Instead, Melman delivered the list, insulted the audience (in keeping with the gag), and walked off to polite applause. Letterman then indicated that the card he was given did not have the proper list on it, and asked Carson to bring out the "real" list. On that cue, the real Johnny Carson emerged from behind the stage curtain; when the audience realized that it was truly Carson, they exploded into a standing ovation. Carson then requested to sit behind Letterman's desk; Letterman obliged - and the audience, seeing Carson back behind a desk for the first time in two years, went absolutely berserk. A clearly overcome Carson mouthed "I'm back home" to the stage director, ran his hands over the desk, and - after a moment - walked back off stage without delivering his planned joke. (It was later explained that Carson had laryngitis.)

Just days before Carson's death, it was revealed that the retired King of Late Night still kept up with current events and late-night TV, and that he occasionally sent jokes to Letterman. [1] ( Letterman would then use these jokes in the monologue of his show, which Carson got "a big kick out of" according to CBS Senior Vice President Peter Lassally, who formerly produced both men's programs. Reportedly, sometimes Letterman would do the golf swing after one of those jokes, as a subliminal tribute to Carson. Lassally also claimed that Carson had always believed Letterman, not Leno, to be his "rightful successor". [2] ( Letterman frequently employs some of Carson's trademark bits on his show, including "Carnac" (with band leader Paul Shaffer as Carnac) and "Stump the Band".

At 6:50 AM on January 23, 2005, Carson died at Los Angeles' Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, of respiratory arrest arising from 20 years of emphysema. He was 79 years old. Tribute publications that came out soon after confirmed that he was a lifelong cigarette addict. In the live days of the show, he would frequently smoke on the air. The tribute stories reported that Carson had said even in the 1970s that "these things [cigarettes] are killing me".

Following Carson's death his body was cremated, and the ashes were given to his wife. In accordance with his family's wishes, no public memorial service was held.

On January 24, 2005, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno paid tribute to Carson with guests Ed McMahon, Bob Newhart, Don Rickles, Drew Carey and k.d. lang. Letterman followed suit on January 31 with former Tonight Show executive producer Peter Lassally and bandleader Doc Severinsen. Letterman surprised many by announcing after his monologue that night that it had consisted entirely of jokes sent to him by Carson in the last few months of his life.

Many other talk show hosts came and went during Carson's 30 years. A week or so after the tributes, Dennis Miller was on the show and told Jay Leno about the first time he tried to do a talk show, and how miserably it went. He said that he got a call right after the first show, from Carson, telling him "It's not as easy as it looks, is it, kid?"

Further reading

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Johnny Carson's Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
  • Bart, Peter. "We Hardly Knew Ye." Variety (Los Angeles), 18 May 1992.
  • Corkery, Paul. Carson: The Unauthorized Biography. Ketchum, Idaho: Randt, 1987.
  • Cox, Stephen. Here's Johnny!: Thirty Years of America's Favorite Late-night Entertainment. New York: Harmony, 1992.
  • de Cordova, Fred. Johnny Came Lately: An Autobiography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988.
  • Knutzen, Erik. "Celebs Say Thanks, Johnny." Boston (Massachusetts) Herald, 21 May 1992.
  • Leamer, Laurence. King of the Night: The Life of Johnny Carson. New York: Morrow, 1989.
  • Smith, Ronald L. Johnny Carson: An Unauthorized Biography. New York: St. Martin's, 1987.
  • Van Hise, James. 40 Years at Night: The Story of the Tonight Show. Las Vegas, Nevada: Pioneer, 1992.
  • Zoglin, Richard. "And What A Reign It Was: In His 30 Years, Carson Was The Best." Time (New York), 16 March 1992.

External links

Preceded by:
Jack Paar
Host of The Tonight Show
1962 – 1992
Succeeded by:
Jay Leno

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