Johnny Carson (born 1925), dubbed the King of Late Night Television, became a pioneer in show business as host of The Tonight Show for 30 years. His interviewing and comic techniques won over a huge audience and spawned numerous imitators.
There was no way of knowing the young magician performing before the local Rotary Club would one day become America's most recognized face. The Great Carsoni, or young Johnny Carson, had already begun to master the techniques that would become so useful when entertaining people like Bob Hope, Steve Martin, politicians, musicians, and other performers on The Tonight Show. Carson became a pioneer in the television industry when he got his chance to host the Tonight Show after Jack Paar left the show in 1962. After many memorable late night evenings with Carson, the King of Late Night Television stepped down from his throne May 22, 1992, after 30 highly successful years.
Johnny Carson came into the world October 23, 1925, in Corning, Iowa. At the age of eight, Carson's father, Kit, packed up the family: matriarch Ruth, older sister Catherine, Johnny, and his little brother Richard, and moved to Norfolk, Nebraska. It was there that Carson came of age and began nurturing his talent for entertaining. His first paid gig was at the Norfolk Rotary Club when he was 14 years old. With the Great Carsoni emblazoned on a black velvet cloth draped over his magician stand, Carson performed for his mother's bridge club and the Methodist Church socials.
Carson's ability to entertain came as no surprise to him or his family, according to a quote in Carson, the Unauthorized Biography, by Paul Cockery.
"I can't say I ever wanted to become an entertainer. I already was one, sort of—around the house, at school, doing my magic tricks, throwing my voice and doing Popeye impersonations. People thought I was funny; so I kind of took entertaining for granted… It was inevitable that I'd start giving little performances."
Carson was in his senior year of high school when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. After graduating, he enlisted with United States Navy. For two years, he served in non-combative positions before being assigned to the USS Pennsylvania, which the Japanese torpedoed in Okinawa two days before his arrival. Carson also spent time on the island of Guam in the South Pacific, where he entertained the troops with his ventriloquist dummy named Eddie.
One favorite Johnny Carson anecdote came from his military period. On board the USS Pennsylvania, one of his duties was decoding and delivering messages. Once he had the opportunity to deliver a message to James Forrestal, the Secretary of the Navy. Forrestal, as the story goes, asked Carson if he wanted to make the Navy his career. Carson replied no and told him his dream was to become a magician and entertainer. Forrestal asked if Carson knew any card tricks and Carson was only too happy to oblige the Secretary of the Navy with some jokes and card tricks.
After the Navy, Carson returned to Norfolk and attended the University of Nebraska. He became a Phi Gamma Delta fraternity member and graduated in 1949 with a major in speech and a minor in radio. So enthralled with radio and comedy, Carson made a recording of all his favorite comedians like Bob Hope, Jack Allen, and Milton Belle, for his final thesis on "How to Write Comedy Jokes."
In the Beginning
Carson joined the forces of WOW Radio, Omaha, directly out of college, and on August 1, 1949, The Johnny Carson Show went on the air for in the morning for 45 minutes. Two months later, Carson married Jody Wolcott, his college sweetheart and the first of four wives. During his time at the radio station, Carson was becoming known for his cheerful banter while reading the news, but something bigger was about to begin in Omaha—television. Carson was about to embark on a new territory, a pioneer in television, just like everyone else at the time. But with his pleasant on-screen personality and satirical wit, he quickly became a recognizable figure in the small broadcast area of WOW-TV.
With the success of his television debut show Squirrel's Nest, Carson decided to take his talents on the road and see if he could make it in Hollywood, California. After months of rejection, Carson was offered a job at KNXT to read the station call letters, the time, and the weather. The job did not offer the notoriety or prestige he experienced in Omaha, but it was Hollywood and it was where he wanted to be. The Carson's Cellar was introduced a year later at 7:00 p.m. and many skits and characters seen by millions on the Tonight Show made their television debut.
Being a hard worker by midwestern nature, Carson diligently plugged away at his job, often putting in extra hours in and out of the studio. After Carson's Cellar went off the air, he became a game show host for Earn Your Vacation, and a comedy writer for Red Skelton. His tenacity payed off when he was asked to fill in for Skelton, who had become injured during rehearsals. He signed a contract for CBS shortly after, and a year later, Johnny Carson had his own half hour comedy show, aptly titled The Johnny Carson Show. Rumors were beginning to rumble about Carson becoming the next George Gobel, the very successful television comedian. But it did not last. The program was canceled four months later due to network lay offs and interference. CBS failed to renew his contract. Carson was left unemployed with a wife and three sons. His only option was to accept a job as game show host for Do You Trust Your Wife?, which eventually became Who Do You Trust?, on the ABC network and move to New York City.
New York was not as easy as Hollywood, but Carson kept plugging away. In 1957, Carson interviewed a man who would become synonymous with Johnny Carson and The Tonight Show—Ed McMahon. Carson substituted for Jack Paar on The Tonight Show for two weeks in 1958 and did a comedy routine for The Perry Como Show. Slowly, Carson was making a name for himself again, and when time came to restructure The Tonight Show, he wanted a chance to be involved.
The Tonight Show
The Tonight Show, which originated with Steve Allen on the radio in 1951 in Los Angeles, made the jump to television in 1954 in New York. Allen lasted two-and-a-half years and was replaced with Jack Paar. The show aired from 11:15 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. every night. Several millions of viewers watched every night—there was not a whole lot to choose from then. Johnny Carson took over October 1, 1962. The rest is television history.
Over thirty years, Carson had the perfect stage presence. An opening monologue and golf swing, his attention to comic details like timing, delivery, and gestures, plus his fair treatment of guests, made him a natural host of the most popular television show of the time. Carson believed that if the guest sparkled, so would the show. Over the years, many of the country's greatest entertainers, plus some local folks, came out from behind the stage curtain and sat between Carson and McMahon. The guest list was plentiful— Ethel Kennedy, Buddy Hackett, Ed Ames and his tomahawk, Pearl Bailey, Bob Hope, Dean Martin, and George Gobel all took time to talk with Carson about their newest projects. Carson and his show could make or break a struggling performer's career, and comedians like David Letterman, Jay Leno, George Carlin, and Joan Rivers all got their big break from appearing on The Tonight Show. Wild animals were special guests too, often creating hilarious disasters on Carson or his desk.
Carson's stage demure was quite different from his off-the-air personality. The pleasantries he bestowed to his guests were often not shared with anyone else. Carson preferred to remain aloof, almost shy, and small talk did not impress him. Carson preferred to save himself for his audience. He was divorced three times and often worked the proceedings and settlements into his monologues. Currently, he is married to Alex Mass, whom he met in 1984.
After hosting The Tonight Show 4,531 times for millions of people over 30 years, Carson was ready to retire from the show. On Friday, May 22, 1992, Johnny Carson did his famous golf swing for the last time. He resides in Malibu with his wife and manages to play a few games of tennis when he is not putting in time at his company, the Carson Production Group. He was reportedly entertaining thoughts of releasing The Tonight Show reruns for cable syndication.
Leamer, Laurence, King of the Night: The Life of Johnny Carson, 1989.
Corkery, Paul, Carson: The Unauthorized Biography, Randt &Co., 1987. □
Born: October 23, 1925
American television host
Johnny Carson has been called the "King of Late Night Television." He became a pioneer in television as host of The Tonight Show for thirty years. His interviewing and comic techniques won over a huge audience and produced numerous imitators.
Johnny Carson was born on October 23, 1925, in Corning, Iowa. At the age of eight, Carson's father moved the family to Norfolk, Nebraska. It was there that Carson grew up and began developing his talent for entertaining. At twelve Carson found a book of magic and became fascinated by it. He ordered a magic kit and began practicing. He wanted to be a magician. Carson's first paid performance was at the Norfolk Rotary Club when he was fourteen years old. He had a magician's stand with the name "The Great Carsoni" on a black velvet cloth draped over the front. Carson also performed for his mother's bridge club and the Methodist Church socials.
Carson was in his senior year of high school when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. After graduation he enlisted with the United States Navy. He was never in combat, but during this time he would help entertain the troops by giving shows using his ventriloquist dummy, Eddie. After the navy Carson returned to Norfolk and attended the University of Nebraska. He graduated in 1949 with a major in speech and a minor in radio. His final thesis (an academic paper) was on "How to Write Comedy Jokes."
Start in broadcasting
Carson joined the radio station WOWAM in Omaha, Nebraska, directly out of college. He was given his own show, which debuted on August 1, 1949. The Johnny Carson Show went on the air for forty-five minutes in the morning. He became known for using cheerful banter (good-humored teasing) while reading the news. His show was a success.
Carson decided to see if he could make it in Hollywood, California. He could not find a job for months. Finally, Carson was offered a job at KNXT to read the station call letters, the time, and the weather. The job did not give the fame or status he experienced in Omaha, but it was Hollywood and that was where he wanted to be. After a year Carson was given his own television show called Carson's Cellar. Many skits and characters that were later seen by millions on the Tonight Show made their television debut on Carson's Cellar. Carson worked very hard at his job. He put in extra hours, working both in and out of the studio on his show. After Carson's Cellar went off the air, he became a game show host for Earn Your Vacation and a comedy writer for Red Skelton (1913–1997). His hard work paid off. He was once asked to fill in for Skelton when the comedian was injured in rehearsals. Carson impressed the television network management.
Carson signed a contract with the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) shortly after. A year later Johnny Carson had his own half-hour comedy show called The Johnny Carson Show. However, because of problems the network was having with writers and directors, the program was canceled after four months. CBS failed to renew his contract. Carson was left unemployed with a wife and three sons to support. He accepted a job as game show host for Do You Trust Your Wife?, which later became Who Do You Trust?, on the American Broadcasting Companies (ABC) network. He had to move to New York City for the job. New York was not as easy as Hollywood, but Carson kept working hard. He was asked to substitute for Jack Paar, who was the host of a program called The Tonight Show, for two weeks in 1958. He performed a comedy routine for The Perry Como Show about the same time. Slowly, Carson was making a name for himself again.
The Tonight Show
Steve Allen (1921–2000) started The Tonight Show on the radio in 1951 in Los Angeles, California. The show moved to television in 1954 in New York. Allen hosted the show for two-and-a-half years, and was eventually replaced by Jack Paar. Several million viewers watched every night from 11:15 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. Johnny Carson took over on October 1, 1962. The rest is television history.
Over thirty years Carson developed perfect stage presence. His opening comic monologue (an act read by one person) and golf swing, his attention to comic details like timing, delivery, and gestures, plus his fair treatment of guests, made him a natural host of the most popular television show of the time. Carson believed that if the guest sparkled, so would the show. Over the years many of the country's greatest entertainers, celebrities, and everyday people sat and talked with Carson. He was a major influence in helping new performers. Comedians David Letterman (1947–), Jay Leno (1950–), George Carlin, and Joan Rivers all got their big break from appearing on The Tonight Show. Jay Leno eventually replaced Carson as the show's host.
Carson's personality in his private life is very different from the personality he played on the television set. On The Tonight Show Carson always seemed very relaxed and seemed to enjoy making casual chat with his guests. Outside the studio, Carson preferred to remain distant. He was almost shy and small talk did not impress him. Carson preferred to save himself for his audience. He has been divorced three times and often worked those experiences into his monologues.
After The Tonight Show
After hosting The Tonight Show 4,531 times for millions of people over thirty years, Carson decided to retire from the show. On Friday, May 22, 1992, Johnny Carson did his famous golf swing for the last time.
Carson lives in Malibu, California, with his wife, Alex Mass. He manages to play tennis and sail his boat when he is not working at his company, Carson Production Group. He reportedly entertains thoughts of releasing The Tonight Show reruns for sale directly to local cable television channels. Carson had surgery to treat coronary (heart) artery disease in 1999. In 2002 he donated seventy-five thousand dollars to build a skateboard park in his hometown of Corning, Iowa. Many people think that every host of late-night television has a show today because of what Johnny Carson accomplished.
For More Information
Corkery, Paul. Carson: The Unauthorized Biography. Ketchum, ID: Randt & Co., 1987.
Leamer, Laurence. King of the Night: The Life of Johnny Carson. New York: Morrow, 1989.
McMahon, Ed. For Laughing Out Loud. New York: Warner Books, 1998.
Born John William Carson, October 23, 1925, in Corning, IA; died of complications from emphysema, January 23, 2005, in Los Angeles, CA. Television show host. Johnny Carson was one of the most powerful figures in show business during his 30-year reign as the host of NBC's Tonight Show. From 1962 until his sign-off in May of 1992, Carson traded quips with celebrities, politicians, and ordinary Americans from his familiar desk. His show, which aired weeknights just after the local late-night newscast, was virtually the only original programming in the time slot for an entire generation in the era before cable television.
Carson was born in 1925, the middle child of three, into a farming family in Iowa. His father was a district manager for the local utility company, and the family moved to Norfolk, Nebraska, in 1933. An admittedly shy child, Carson discovered early on he had a gift for storytelling and jokes and, paradoxically, felt far more confident around others while performing. He was a working teenage magician before graduating from high school in 1943, and after serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II enrolled at the University of Nebraska. Earning his degree in just three years, Carson began his career in radio and quickly moved on to the fledgling medium of television. He met Ed McMahon, his long-time Tonight Show sidekick, while hosting the game show Who Do You Trust? in the late 1950s.
The Tonight Show began in 1953 with comedian Steve Allen as host. He was succeeded by Jack Paar in 1957, and the mix of stand-up comedy, skits, and celebrity guests proved to be a terrific success. Carson took over as host in October of 1962, and the show would eclipse all other imitators over the next decade and cause Carson to be dubbed "the king of late-night TV" in the press. His show dominated the ratings, with 15 million viewers tuning in at its peak popularity; at one point it reportedly accounted for 17 percent of the NBC network's total profits. Middle-class Americans tuned in every night to laugh at Carson's monologue, usually rife with news-of-the-day references. The tone of his jokes became a bellwether for the national mood, and during the Watergate political scandal of Richard M. Nixon's second term, Carson's jokes about the president were the opening salvo in what became a pattern of ridicule and anti-Nixon sentiment in the country; in August of 1974 Nixon became the first president ever to resign from office.
Carson chatted with some 22,000 guests during his three-decade reign, and an appearance on The Tonight Show was an immeasurable publicity boost to any new star. He also had an ear for talented stand-up comics, and scores of future film and television stars had their careers launched by a stint on the show or, even more of an honor, filling in for Carson at his desk during his increasingly frequent days off. Woody Allen, Rodney Dangerfield, Bill Cosby, George Carlin, Robin Williams, Steve Martin, Roseanne Barr, Ellen DeGeneres, Ray Romano, and Drew Carey all appeared early in their careers on The Tonight Show, and two others, David Letter-man and Jay Leno, would go on to host their own immensely successful late-night shows. Both Letter-man and Leno were the entire shortlist to succeed Carson when he announced his retirement, but Leno won The Tonight Show slot, and Letterman eventually resigned from NBC, so deep was the rebuff.
In his final years on the air, Carson earned a reported $25 million a year, and wielded enough clout even to force NBC to cut his show from 90 to 60 minutes in 1980. "More than any other individual," wrote Richard Severo and Bill Carter in the New York Times, Carson "shifted the nexus of power in television from New York to Los Angeles, with his decision in 1972 to move his show from its base in Rockefeller Center in New York to NBC's West Coast studios in Burbank, Calif. That same move was critical in the changeover of much of television from live to taped performances."
Some 50 million viewers tuned in for Carson's farewell as Tonight Show host in May of 1992. He told his studio audience as well as a record-setting number of broadcast viewers that he considered himself "one of the lucky people in the world," he said, according to CNN.com. "I found something that I always wanted to do and I have enjoyed every single minute of it."
Though Carson had often joked in his monologues about his three divorces, he was an intensely private person. He was almost never seen in public after leaving the airwaves, but traveled around the world with his fourth wife, Alexis. They sailed on his 125-foot yacht, the Serengeti, and attended the annual Wimbledon tennis championships in England every summer. He was an avid tennis player, and a golfer, too, whose pretend-swing closed his nightly monologue. Sometimes, upon returning from a commercial in the old live days, viewers might catch Carson stubbing out a cigarette; he was a lifelong smoker and suffered from emphysema in his later years. He died of complications from the disease on January 23, 2005, at the age of 79, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He is survived by his wife, Alexis, and two sons from his first marriage, Christopher and Cory; a third son, Richard, died in a car accident in 1991.
News of Carson's death prompted heartfelt tributes from around the world. Leno, his successor, said that he still felt "like a guest in his house," according to People. Letterman, whom Carson sent the occasional joke for the monologue, credited his career to Carson's generosity, and asserted that his mentor's talent was unparalleled. "All of us who came after," Letterman told CNN.com, "are pretenders." Sources: CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2005/SHOWBIZ/TV/01/2310/carson.obit/index.html (January 24, 2005); http://www.cnn.com/2005/SHOWBIZ/TV/02/10/johnny.carson.ap/index.html (February 10, 2005); Entertainment Weekly, February 4, 2005, pp. 12-16; E! Online, http://www.eonline.com/News/Items/0,1,15672,00.html?eol.tkr (January 24, 2005); Independent (London), January 25, 2005, p. 34; Los Angeles Times, January 24, 2005, p. A1, pp. A14-15; New York Times, January 24, 2005, p. A1; February 7, 2005, p. A2; February 9, 2005, p. A2; People, February 7, 2005, pp. 84-92;