It would be hard for anyone born after 1962 to understand just how BIG Johnny Carson was. From 1962, when Carson made his debut as host of The Tonight Show until the advent of the Reagan Presidency and the breakout of cable TV nationally, television was dominated by the three networks ABC, CBS and NBC. Network TV was a colossus that dominated American culture. And no one was bigger in the Leviathan that was the Business of Network Television than Johnny Carson.
Johnny Carson, the legendary “King of Late Night TV” who dominated the medium’s nether hours for three decades, was born in Corning, Iowa, but moved with his family to nearby Norfolk, Nebraska when he was eight years old. It was in Norfolk, where he lived until he joined the US Navy in 1943, that he started his show business career. At age 14, Carson began appearing as the magician “The Great Carsoni” at local venues.
After brief stints on radio stations in Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska, Johnny Carson‘s career was exclusively in television, starting with work at Nebraska TV stations in the late 1940s which preceded his 1951-53 skit program Carson’s Cellar (1953) on Los Angeles station KNXT-TV. Attracting the attention of the industry, he was hired as a comedy writer for The Red Skelton Show (1951) which provided him with a career breakthrough when Skelton was injured backstage and Carson substituted for him, delivering his first monologue before a national audience. This led to a stint as the host of the quiz show Earn Your Vacation (1954) and the variety showcase The Johnny Carson Show (1955) in 1955-56. The man who would soon become the most famous late-night TV personality in history hosted the daytime game show Who Do You Trust? (1958) from 1957-62, teaming up with long-time sidekick Ed McMahon in 1958.
Before his triumph on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (1962), Carson tried his hand at dramatic acting, appearing in Three Men on a Horse during the inaugural season of Playhouse 90 (1956) in 1957. In 1960, he shot a pilot for a prime-time TV series, Johnny Come Lately, that was not picked up by a network.
Johnny Carson had sat in for Tonight Show host Jack Paar in 1958 and, when Paar left the show four years later, NBC chose Carson as his replacement, taking over the cat bird seat on Oct. 2, 1962. The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (1962) became a major phenomenon in American pop culture in the 1960s and beyond. Sidekick McMahon’s “Heeeeere’s Johnny!!!” introduction of Carson became a cultural catchphrase, memorably re-prised by Jack Nicholson in Stanley Kubrick’sThe Shining (1980), Woody Allen’s character in the Best Picture Academy Award-winning Annie Hall (1977), stand-up comic Alvy Singer, is recognized in front of a movie theater by a street tough due to his appearance on “Johnny Carson.”
In 1962, Carson was chosen by NBC to succeed the controversial Jack Paar and his The Jack Paar Tonight Show (1957). Paar had decided to quit the show and begin a once-a-week show for NBC in prime time on Friday nights. Johnny Carson would never be controversial like Paar, preferring to good-naturedly skewer politicians and celebrities in his opening monologue and staging stunts such as the on-stage marriage of retro-singer Tiny Tim to his “Miss Vicky” in 1969.
His popularity with the late-night audience became so great, and the income from advertising on his show so profitable that, in 1967, NBC had to lure Johnny back to The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (1962) after a walkout with a three-year contract guaranteeing him a minimum of $4 million. In the early 1970s, TV Guide reported that Carson was earning $2 million a year, making him the highest paid TV entertainer ever, a record he repeatedly surpassed, pulling down a then-record $5 million annual salary in the 1980s.
The Consummate Host
Johnny Carson created a sense of intimacy with his guests and audiences that made him the unvanquished “King of Nighttime TV”. Countless talk shows hosted by the likes of Joey Bishop and Dick Cavett and other non-talk show programs were launched against him year after year only to fail, with the notable exception of ABC News Nightline (1980) halfway through his reign. Aside from his loyal audience, Carson was beloved by his guests and the legions of young comics whose careers were launched on The Tonight Show, colloquially known as The Johnny Carson Show. His tempestuous love-life, which included two high-profile divorces, became the fodder of such celebrity staples as The National Enquirer and later People Magazine, and he was even the subject of a roman a clef pulp novel in the early 1970s. There have been at least seven published biographies of Johnny Carson.
Aide from his banter with celebrities, he amused his audience for 30 years with broadly played skit comedy by his “Mighty Carson Players” and his spoof clairvoyant “Carnac the Magnificent”. A master at quick repartee, Carson was a relaxed host with a pleasant, ingratiating manner and was quite funny as a skit comedian, but it was the monologue in which Carson’s comic genius flourished. He made memorable put-downs of politicians and celebrities, a format still used by his successors Jay Leno and David Letterman and legions of comics who came after him.
It was his flippant, ironic self-awareness that made Johnny Carson radically different from such monologists as Bob Hope. When a joke bombed during his monologues, Carson would do a wounded double-take as the audience jeered, fully aware of the awfulness of the joke he had just unloaded. Following these bombs with a sly, self-deprecating remark engendered a sense of intimacy between Carson and his fans. Johnny typically moved the blame for a groaner onto his joke writers, which created a “We’re in this together” camaraderie with his audience that spawned a whole new era of self-referential comedy, perhaps best epitomized by Letterman, the man Carson wanted to succeed him on The Tonight Show.
A liberal in the increasingly liberal age of the 1960s and 1970s, so powerful were his opening monologues that by the early 1970s, Johnny Carson could actually affect society at large outside of the pop culture realm. A joke about a shortage of industrial grade toilet paper caused a national panic and a run on all grades of t.p., with a resulting shortage of the product about which he had kidded. Playing off current events such as the Watergate crisis, his comic evisceration of President Richard Nixon was credited with some critics as exerting such a drag on Nixon’s approval rating that it made his resignation possible, if not inevitable. After Johnny Carson’s reign, it became increasingly de rigueur for politicians to appear on late-night TV talk shows and bear a host’s jibes in order to stump for votes.
Johnny Carson‘s connection with the American culture was so absolute, it contributed to one of his few failures, the rejection of The Tonight Show in the early 1980s by British audiences who could not understand the topical references of his monologues. And his audience’s identification of Johnny with the Tonight Show effectively stopped him from work in other media. In the mid-1960s, Carson’s agents wanted to trade on his vast popularity to position him in motion pictures as the “New Jack Lemmon”, but Johnny never made the foray outside of television. His connection with the movie industry remained his hosting of three generations of stars and his memorable turns as the host of five Academy Awards telecasts from 1979 to 1984. In that role, he generally is regarded as the best successor to long-time Oscar host Bob Hope. He did stretch his wings as a producer, his Carson Productions producing TV pilots and series, TV movies and Late Night with David Letterman (1982) in addition to his own talk show.
The six-time Emmy-winner considered a follow-up to The Tonight Show, but nothing caught his interest and he spent the last decade of his life in a quiet retirement in Malibu, California, as befitted his private nature. Thus, it was The Tonight Show that remains his creative legacy. Unlike every other TV star, he remained on top until the very end, the show winning its ratings period every year for 30 years. When Carson retired, his last appearance was one of the highest rated late night TV shows ever.
“I have an ego like anybody else,” Johnny Carson told The Washington Post in 1993, “but I don’t need to be stoked by going before the public all the time”. Frederick De Cordova, the producer of The Tonight Show throughout Carson’s 30-year run, believed that Johnny never pressured himself to launch a follow-up as he already had achieved unprecedented success on TV. “He is one of a kind, was one of a kind”, De Cordova said in 1995. “I don’t think there’s any reason for him to try something different”.
Johnny Carson, who was suffering from emphysema and had quadruple bypass surgery in 1999, died peacefully at the age of 79 on the morning of Sunday, January 23, 2005, surrounded by his family and friends. In terms of career longevity, popularity, peer respect and impact on the medium, Carson ranks with Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason as one of the greatest stars of television. Not only will Johnny be sorely missed, he was sorely missed by his legions of fans after his retirement.