CARSON, JOHNNY

U.S. Comedian/Talk Show Host

Johnny Carson is best known as America's late night king of comedy. As thirty year host of NBC television's Tonight Show, his topical monologues, irreverent characters, comical double takes and frivolous sketches entertained more people than any other performer in history. His late night arena provided plugs for untold books, films and products, created a springboard to stardom for an infinite number of new performers and, more than occasionally, offered a secure refuge for aging legends.

Carson began performing professionally at the age of fourteen as a magician-comic, "The Great Carsoni," for the local Rotary Club in his hometown of Norfolk, Nebraska. After a two year stint as a Navy Ensign during World War II, and four years as a radio-drama major at the University of Nebraska, he plunged headfirst into the world of broadcasting as a radio announcer-disc jockey. When WOW in Omaha began television operations in 1949, Carson was there to host his first video program, The Squirrel's Nest, a daily early afternoon show. The young performer told jokes, conducted humorous interviews and staged various skits with wacky comic characters and premises. Squirrel's Nest gave Carson the opportunity to develop a good portion of his public persona and adjust his performance style to the intimate visual medium.

Relocating to Hollywood in the early 1950s, Carson's television career took a step forward with his weekly low budget series, Carson's Cellar, on CBS' KNXT. Performing monologues and satirical sketches reminiscent of his later work, Carson attracted the attention of such stars as Fred Allen, Groucho Marx and Red Skelton--all of whom dropped by to appear on the local show at no charge. Based on his work with Carson's Cellar, a more sophisticated Johnny Carson Show was created for regional broadcasts in the western United States. This proved unsuccessful and Carson subsequently began work for the Red Skelton Show as a writer.

Casting about for new on-air opportunities, Carson's first prime time network television exposure happened in May 1954, as host of the short-lived quiz show, Earn Your Vacation. Fortunately, working for Skelton provided more of a career boost. When Skelton was injured during a show rehearsal, the young Carson was thrust instantly into the limelight as substitute host. On the strength of this appearance, CBS created a new prime-time Johnny Carson Show, a traditional potpourri of comedy, music, dance, skits and monologues. Working through seven writers and eight directors in thirty-nine weeks, the troubled show left the air due to poor ratings.

As quizmaster of the ABC-TV daytime show, Who Do You Trust?, in 1957, Carson's career again took an upward turn. This highly rated daytime entry allowed Carson to display his engaging personality and quick wit through five years of continual give and take with a wide variety of guests. During this time, he worked also at extending his reputation and base of experience by appearing on a number of television musical variety shows and game shows, on Broadway and as a guest actor in live television plays. Most importantly, Carson's successes brought him offers to substitute for Jack Paar as guest host on The Tonight Show and ultimately to replace Paar when the temperamental emcee retired.

On 1 October 1962, Carson broadcast his first Tonight Show as permanent host. Less excitable and emotional than his predecessor, Carson's relaxed pace, more casual interviewing style, impeccable timing and ability to play straight for other guests proved instantly popular with his viewing audience. Comparing differences between Paar and Carson, Time magazine reported on 28 May 1965 that "Paar's emotionalism had made the show the biggest sleep stopper since caffeine. By contrast, Carson came on like pure Sanka. But soon his low-key, affable humor began to prove addictive. Paar generated new interest, but Carson is watched."

Within four months of assuming Tonight Show reins, Carson surpassed Paar's old record nighttime ratings by nearly a half million viewers adding approximately twenty stations to the NBC network--this despite heavy CBS competition from former Tonight Show host Steve Allen. Incredibly, over a fifteen year period, with continual competitive threats from CBS and ABC, the Tonight Show doubled its audience. Observed Kenneth Tynan in his New Yorker portrait of Carson on 20 February 1978, this was "a feat that, in its blend of staying power and mounting popularity, is without precedent in the history of television."

Despite occasional contract squabbles, criticism over his numerous days off, marital conflicts and assorted family problems, Carson continued to outdistance his competition for an additional fifteen years. Without losing his timing, his unpredictability or his perfectionist work ethic, for thirty years he kept his finger on the pulse of mainstream America's moods, attitudes and concerns. Combining his verbal dexterity with a well stocked supply of facial expressions and gestures, he became the acknowledged master at lampooning the pretentious, salvaging the boring or sharpening a nervous guest's performance for maximum effect.

Through the years, Carson hosted a number of network television specials, including the Academy Awards and Emmy Awards, and performed stand-up comedy at the top hotels in Las Vegas. But, it was The Tonight Show that guaranteed his place in American history. For thirty years, he entered our homes to provide commentary on the day's news, to help determine our next day's conversational agenda and, of course, to entertain. Over time, his mild mannered midwestern brand of humor became more politically biting and sexually frank but never demeaning or offensive. His well-known characters, Carnac, Aunt Blabby, Art Fern, et al., so familiar to multiple generations of American families, remained brash, silly and, somehow, consistently funny.

On 22 May 1992, at the age of sixty-six, Johnny Carson left the Tonight Show--a remarkable thirty year run in more than a half century of comedy performance that raised him to the level of national court jester and national treasure.

-Joel Sternberg


Johnny Carson
Photo courtesy of Carson Productions

JOHNNY (JOHN WILLIAM) CARSON. Born in Corning, Iowa, U.S.A., 23 October 1925. Attended the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Nebraska, B.A. 1949; Ensign, U.S. Navy, World War II. Married, (1) Jody Wolcott, 1948 (divorced, 1963), children: Chris, Ricky, Cory; (2) Joanne Copeland, 1963 (divorced); (3) Joanna Holland, 1972 (divorced, 1983); (4) Alexis Maas, 1987. Began career as radio announcer, KFAB, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1948; announcer, WOW and WOW-TV, Omaha, Nebraska; announcer, KNXT-TV, Los Angeles, California, 1950; began television with Carson's Cellar, KNXT-TV, a comedy-variety-talk show, 1951; writer, The Red Skelton Show, on air as replacement for the injured Skelton, 1954; host-star of quiz show, The Johnny Carson Show, 1955-56; succeeded Jack Paar as host of The Tonight Show, 1 October 1962; last telecast 22 May 1992. Recipient: four Emmy Awards; Friar's Club Entertainer of the Year Award, 1965, 1969; Harvard Hasty Pudding Club Man of the Year, 1977.

TELEVISION

1951-52 Carson's Cellar
1954 Earn Your Vacation
1955-56 The Johnny Carson Show
1957-62 Who Do You Trust?
1961-62 To Tell the Truth
1962-92 The Tonight Show

MADE-FOR-TELEVISION MOVIE

The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom (1993).

FILM

Looking for Love (1965).

PUBLICATIONS

Happiness Is...A Dry Martini. New York: Doubleday, 1965.

Unhappiness Is...A Blind Date. New York: Doubleday, 1967.

"The Last Monologue: Nostalgia and a Few Political Digs." (Transcript). The New York Times, 23 May 1992.

"Notes and Comment: Johnny Carson on Tonight." The New Yorker (New York), 1 June 1992.

FURTHER READING

Bark, Ed. "So Long, Johnny." Dallas (Texas) Morning News, 17 May 1992.

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.

"The Great Carsoni." Time (New York), 28 May 1965.

de Cordova, Fred. Johnny Came Lately: An Autobiography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988.

Du Brow, Rick. "This Is It . . . Maybe, Says Johnny Carson." Los Angeles (California) Times, 23 April 1991.

"The Great Carsoni." Time (New York), 28 May 1965.

Higgins, Robert. "August 31, 1968: Johnny Carson." In, Harris, Jay S., editor. TV Guide: The First 25 Years. New York: New American Library, 1980.

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.

McMahon, Ed, with Carroll Carroll. Here's Ed: The Autobiography of Ed McMahon. New York: Berkley Medallion, 1976.

Metz, Robert. The Tonight Show. Chicago: Playboy, 1980.

"Midnight Idol." Time (New York), 19 May 1967.

Ostrow, Joanne. "Lights Out for Johnny." Denver (Colorado) Post, 17 May 1992.

Rosenfield, Paul. The Club Rules: Power, Money, Sex, and Fear: How It Works in Hollywood. New York: Warner, 1992.

Smith, Ronald L. Johnny Carson: An Unauthorized Biography. New York: St. Martin's, 1987.

Tynan, Kenneth. "Profiles: Fifteen years of the Salto Mortale." The New Yorker, 20 February 1978.

Van Hise, James. 40 Years at Night: The Story of the Tonight Show. Las Vegas, Nevada: Pioneer, 1992.

Wilde, Larry. The Great Comedians Talk About Comedy. New York: Citadel, 1968.

________________. "Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye!" Washington (D.C.) Times, 17 May 1992.

Zoglin, Richard. "And What A Reign It Was: In His 30 Years, Carson Was The Best." Time (New York), 16 March 1992.

 

See also Talk Shows; Tonight Show