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Carson, Johnny (1925—)

Carson, Johnny (1925—)

In January 1965, Johnny Carson appeared at Lyndon Baines Johnson's presidential inauguration gala. Carson took the stage directly opposite the president and bragged "I've done more for birth control than Enovid." The claim is questionable, but it is vintage Johnny Carson. Like most Carson jokes, it looks neither particularly funny nor particularly racy on paper. In its delivery, however, Carson won much of the audience over, created a flurry of scandal, and effectively situated himself in American cultural history. Carson made one of television's greatest careers by playing his impish wit off his Midwestern charm, bringing the sexual revolution to middle America, middle America to the world, and establishing the form for television variety and humor that continues to dominate.

Carson was born on October 23, 1925 in Corning, Iowa, and spent the first eight years of his life moving throughout Iowa as his father established a management career in the Iowa-Nebraska Electric Light and Power Company. In 1933, the Carson family settled in Norfolk, Nebraska, population 10,000. Carson came of age in Norfolk, premiering his magic act, "The Great Carsoni," there. Carson, along with his magician alter-ego, enlisted in the Navy in 1943, hoping to be a fighter pilot in the Second World War. His military career, however, was more notable for its hilarity than its heroics.

In the fall of 1946, Carson left the Navy and enrolled in the University of Nebraska. As a student he initiated his broadcast career, appearing in a western comedy on KFAB, a Lincoln, Nebraska, radio station. Also at the University of Nebraska, Carson met the first of his many loves—Jodi Wolcott, "The Great Carsoni's" magician's assistant and a native of Western Nebraska.

Wolcott and Carson married in 1949, just after they moved to Omaha where Johnny had taken a broadcasting position at NBC's Nebraska affiliate, WOW. It was the dawn of television, and WOW had just branched out of the radio market to broadcast the region's first television signals. Carson got in early, with an afternoon program called Squirrel's Nest. The Carsons had their first child in 1950, but Carson was unwilling to settle down. In 1951, he set out, alone, in the family Oldsmobile, determined to make it big in California.

The journey was a success, and soon the whole clan made the trek, Jodi pregnant for the second time. In Los Angeles, Carson rose rapidly from late night announcer to host of the prime-time Johnny Carson Show. That first show was a flop, but it led to another, and by 1962, when Carson took over The Tonight Show from Jack Paar, he had already hosted three incarnations of The Johnny Carson Show, two game shows, and several short-run broadcasts.

Even as Carson's corn-fed persona gained prominence in national television, his family was disintegrating. He divorced Jodi Wolcott in 1965, endured hostile publication over his reluctance to pay child support for his three boys, and read his mother's dismissive comments about his show business career in Time magazine. In the years to come, Carson would have two more divorces and three more wives, but somehow, the image of Johnny Carson, the good Midwestern boy with a mean streak survived, and The Tonight Show was a hit.

In 1968, Carson discovered Tiny Tim, a Greenwich Village performer with a ukulele, a falsetto voice, and an odd blend of hippie-left appearance and Barry Goldwater conservatism. Tim and Carson spoke about premarital sex and birth control (Carson was an advocate and Tim an opponent). Tim plugged his album, God Bless Tiny Tim, a collection of obscure American pop tunes, and it became one of the year's best sellers. Before long, Tim was a regular on the show. On December 17, 1969, Tiny Tim married Miss Vicky live on The Tonight Show. Carson biographer Laurence Leamer called the wedding "the most-watched even in late-night television history."

Meanwhile, Carson perfected his trademark animal skits, bantered in his calculated casual manner with such luminaries as Muhammed Ali, Richard Nixon, Luciano Pavarotti, and Ronald Reagan, and became a fixture in American popular culture. In 1972, The Tonight Show moved to beautiful downtown Burbank, California where it was to play for another 20 years; its spartan set of office furniture and indoor plants becoming instantly recognizable to millions of American television viewers. The Tonight Show routine, from Ed McMahon's "Here's Johnny!" through Carson's free-wheeling monologue and its selection of short skits and guests became the model for late-night television. Tonight Show producers Rudy Tellez described the program's formula as "the bland leading the bland." But, combined with Carson's mildly risque sense of humor, it consistently worked, facing and defeating competing shows from Dick Cavett, Joey Bishop, Merv Griffin, Alan Thicke, David Brenner, and Joan Rivers.

Johnny Carson became famous as the man who lulled America to sleep at night. When he left the air in May 1992, his reign was undiminished, his persona was untarnished, and as the Washington Post put it, "he was late night TV."

—Thurston Domina

Further Reading:

Haley, Alex. The Playboy Interviews. New York, Ballantine, 1993.

Leamer, Laurence. The 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 Press, 1987.

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