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Carson, John William ("Johnny")

CARSON, John William ("Johnny")

(b. 23 October 1925 in Corning, Iowa), comedian and host of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson throughout most of the 1960s.

Carson was the second of three children born to Homer ("Kit") Carson, a power company manager, and Ruth Hook. Growing up in Iowa and Nebraska, his major interests were magic, ventriloquism, and radio comedy. He spent hours studying the comedy of Bob Hope, Fred Allen, and especially Jack Benny. He began performing his magic act publicly as "The Great Carsoni" as a teen and expanded his repertoire to include ventriloquism while in the U.S. Navy from 1943 to 1946, and at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln from 1946 to 1949.

After earning his B.A. in radio and speech, Carson took a job with WOW radio in Omaha, where by the end of 1949 he had his own program, The Johnny Carson Show. A predictor of things to come, the show was dominated by Carson's comedy routines and jokes, which illustrated the fact that his distinctive style of easy, accessible humor with just a pinch of the risqué was already developed. Carson married Joan ("Jody") Wolcott, with whom he would have three sons, in 1949. Soon he had his own TV show, The Squirrel's Nest (1949–1951), where he further honed the personality for which he would later become so famous on The Tonight Show.

During the 1950s Carson moved up through the television ranks with a series of shows. In 1951 he joined KNXT-TV in Los Angeles as an announcer, and by 1952 he had his own show, Carson's Cellar. In 1954 Carson began working on network television as the host of the short-lived prime-time game show, Earn Your Vacation, followed by Carson's Coffee Break and a stint writing for The Red Skelton Show. When Carson substituted for Skelton, he gained so much recognition that the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) introduced The Johnny Carson Show (1955), as a summer replacement. The show was not successful in prime time, however, and was cancelled the next year. Carson returned immediately to daytime television with a show of the same name, but in 1957 moved to New York City and the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) for the game show Who Do You Trust?.

In 1958 Carson substituted for Jack Paar on The Tonight Show, a successful National Broadcasting Company (NBC) program that had been hosted by Steve Allen from 1954 to 1957, and by Paar since then. Paar, who continually pushed the boundaries of acceptability in late 1950s and early 1960s late-night television, departed in 1962. NBC invited Carson, who was still hosting Who Do You Trust?—also a highly successful show—to take his place. On 1 October 1962 Carson debuted as host of The Tonight Show, which aired from 11:15 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. He brought with him Ed McMahon, who had served much the same function on Who Do You Trust? as he would on the new show. Skitch Henderson returned to The Tonight Show to act as musical director, as he had when Steve Allen was host. (Carl "Doc" Severinsen replaced Henderson in 1967.)

Significant parts of Carson's act were clearly derivative. He had several of Jack Benny's mannerisms and facial expressions, and his Carnac the Magnificent was very much like Steve Allen's The Answer Man, while Aunt Blabby was a close cousin of Jonathan Winters's Maude Frickert. The Mighty Carson Art Players had their antecedents in Fred Allen's Mighty Allen Art Players. Nevertheless, Carson adapted these ideas in such a way as to make them distinctively his own. Like Paar, he began each show with a monologue, but not with the highly personal, often controversial tone Paar had used. Like Steve Allen, Carson had musical numbers, skits, and stunts, but these were performed by different guests every night and not, as on Allen's show, by a troupe of regular performers. Carson interviewed famous guests, but they were generally show business personalities plugging some book or new project; he was not running the intellectual salon Paar had been hosting.

Carson had a special predilection for eccentrics, the elderly, young children, and animals of all sorts, and he frequently featured them on the show. He was also known for remarks tinged with sexual innuendo, and for commenting on social and political issues of the day. But unlike Paar, Carson did not so much push the limits of current public tastes as he reflected changes to the limits of those tastes. In the 1960s and beyond, Carson turned The Tonight Show into a sort of "cultural cornerstone" and himself into a video-age Will Rogers.

In spite of his tremendous popularity, Carson did have several major conflicts with NBC during the 1960s. In 1964 NBC frequently interrupted The Tonight Show for news reports during the Republican and Democratic conventions, which led to a showdown between Carson and the news division of NBC. For better or worse, ratings prevailed over news, and Carson came out on top. By 1965 Carson was fed up with the fact that The Tonight Show began at 11:15 p.m., and that many stations were not picking the show up until 11:30, thus cutting out Carson's entire monologue. He began a one-man strike and simply refused to show up until 11:30, thereby successfully pressuring NBC to change the starting time. When NBC showed reruns of The Tonight Show during a 1967 strike by Carson's union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), this engendered such ill will that Carson remained on strike even after other AFTRA members went back to work. Carson returned only after contract renegotiations won him vastly greater control over the show, and over time, he became legendary for working fewer and fewer nights for more and more money.

In 1964 The Tonight Show began the practice of week-long special visits to Los Angeles, and in April 1972 it moved there permanently. Some of the most notable events on The Tonight Show took place during the 1960s, among them the 1965 tomahawk incident in which Ed Ames emasculated a plywood "sheriff" while demonstrating tomahawk throwing. The highest-rated Tonight Show ever took place in 1969, when the eccentric singer Tiny Tim married "Miss Vicki" Budinger on the show.

During Carson's tenure, The Tonight Show became a major showcase for musical acts and especially comedians. After The Ed Sullivan Show went off the air in 1974, a booking on Carson's became a symbol of success. Comedy greats such as Woody Allen, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, Bill Cosby, Don Rickles, and Joan Rivers came into national prominence based largely on their Tonight Show appearances.

Throughout the 1960s Carson was active beyond The Tonight Show. For example, when he played Las Vegas in 1963, he broke the opening night record at the Sahara Hotel's Congo Room set by Judy Garland. He performed at President Lyndon B. Johnson's inaugural gala in 1965, and published two books, Happiness Is a Dry Martini (1965) and Misery Is a Blind Date (1967). Carson made the cover of Time magazine on 19 May 1967, and in 1969 tried his hand at an unsuccessful prime-time variety special.

His greatest achievement, however, was The Tonight Show, which proved such a success that other networks jumped on the late-night bandwagon with their own shows. Les Crane (1964–1965), Joey Bishop (1967–1969), Dick Cavett (1969–1974), David Frost (1969–1972), and Merv Griffin (1969–1972) all went up against Carson, but none could dent his ratings.

During his time on The Tonight Show, Carson went through several changes in his personal life. He and Wolcott divorced in 1963. He married Joanne Copeland in 1963; they divorced in 1972. He and Joanna Holland married in 1972 and divorced in 1983. He married his fourth wife, Alexandra ("Alexis" or "Alex") Mass, in 1987. His second son Rick died in a traffic accident in 1991. Carson spoke of retiring several times, but was coaxed into continuing until May 1992, when he left after three decades as host.

In the 1960s Carson perfected the model for the late-night talk show, and the format he developed—the opening monologue, the live band, the studio audience, taped stunts and skits, novelty guests and animal acts, even the set with its couch and desk—would remain in place decades later. Carson's own monologue style was reflected in the stand-up performances of later comedians such as Dennis Miller and Bill Maher, and his topical and slightly off-color humor led the way to increased political and sexual content on television.

Biographies of Carson include Nora Ephron, And Now Here's Johnny (1968); Douglas Lorence, Johnny Carson: A Biography (1975); Paul Corkery, Carson: The Unauthorized Biography (1987); and Laurence Leamer, King of the Night: The Life of Johnny Carson (1989).

Patricia L. Markley

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