Johnny Carson (1925–2005)

The “He-e-e-ere’s Johnny” intro of Ed McMahon on NBC’s longest-running late night show is a lasting part of the United States’ cultural history. Even the members of Generations Y and Z know the name Johnny Carson. His 30-year run as host of the Tonight show gave insomniacs, night owls, and 10 to 15 million ordinary Americans something to stay up for. He was “America’s bedtime story,” as one critic said, “king of the night” as a biographer claimed. And, as another late-night talk show host, David Letterman, said in tribute, “At the end of the day, that’s who you wanted to be there.”

At his death in 2005, the New York Times proclaimed Carson “the biggest, most popular star American television has known.” “Virtually every American with a television set saw and heard a Carson monologue at some point.” Johnny Carson embodied an American brand of humor with his deadpan delivery and exquisite sense of timing, his ironic attitude, and his quick wit. He would dress up and portray comic characters from a repertoire which included Floyd R. Turbo, the bumbling redneck, and Aunt Blabby, a busybody dressed in black. He was good at skewering the foibles of the prominent, including “preening lawyers, idiosyncratic doctors, oily accountants, defendants who got off too easily and celebrities who talked too much,” as Times reporter Richard Severo wrote. And he set the stage, literally, for the late-night talk show hosts to come, like Letterman, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Fallon, and others who would, in one way or another, copy the Carson formula for success with an opening monologue, celebrity interviews, and variety acts. As an entertainer, Carson was American television for millions of viewers, “the last man America saw before it went to sleep.”

One of the attractions of his show was its reassuring consistency. Leading into the “He-e-e-re’s Johnny” introduction by Ed McMahon, the Doc Severinsen studio band would play the show’s theme song (written by Paul Anka with lyrics by Carson). Then came Johnny through the curtains, with his opening monologue and some 16 to 22 jokes. Carson would then swing an imaginary golf club and walk over to his desk. There, in front of a blue backdrop and some potted palms, he sat at the desk and bantered with McMahon before he proceeded to interview and ad lib with the night’s guests, watching some of them—including dogs, birds, and once, an elephant—perform, punctuated with more jokes. It went on for an hour and 45 minutes.

He had gotten into television early, as an announcer at KNXT-TV in Los Angeles when he was 25, coming from broadcast experience at the radio station where he had worked right out of college. He talked the TV station into giving him a comedy show, Carson’s Cellar, which was telecast on Sunday afternoons when, usually, nobody was watching TV. But comedian Red Skelton was and so were Groucho Marx and Jack Benny, all of whom put in an appearance on the show without asking for a fee. Skelton hired Carson as a writer for his own CBS television show, and at one point, Carson had to substitute for Skelton on camera, a performance so good that CBS offered him his own show. But The Johnny Carson Show lasted only four months, and Johnny was out of there, off to New York City. He made guest performances there on several shows, including Tonight when Jack Parr was host, and then was hired by ABC to run a game show, Who Do You Trust? Ed McMahon was the announcer. The two of them kept it going for five years.




He-e-eres Johnny! For 30 years Johnny Carson was host of the Tonight Show, one of the most popular nighttime television shows in U.S. history.





He-e-ere’s Johnny! For 30 years Johnny Carson was host of the Tonight Show, one of the most popular nighttime television shows in U.S. history. (AP Photo)

Then, in 1962, Jack Parr left the Tonight show where he had been host for five years following the first late night host, Steve Allen, who had started the show on the radio in Los Angeles. Allen was host of Tonight for two years when it was moved to television in New York in 1954, running in a late night slot from 11:15 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. When Parr left, NBC offered Carson the job, and he took it, his start delayed by his ABC contract that still had six months to go. Like its morning counterpart, the Today show, Tonight was a mix of interviews, news, and entertainment, and it turned out to fit Carson like a glove. Ed McMahon followed along, and the two of them launched a three-decade reign over late-night television on October 1, 1962, with guests Mel Brooks, Tony Bennett, and Rudy Vallee on the first show.

The audience loved Johnny Carson. His personality was perfect for television. Not only was he funny and friendly, but he had a kind of Midwestern charm that wore well. He was polite, a bit aloof, and he never seemed to be trying too hard, the perfect straight man. Even though off camera, he seemed reserved and uncomfortable around people, Carson loved the spotlight and said that he had discovered at an early age how much he enjoyed the attention he got by telling funny stories and showing off the magic tricks he taught himself.

It was considered a sign of success for any celebrity or politician to appear on the Tonight show, sit on the famous couch, and be chatted up and kidded by Johnny Carson. He was good at advancing careers, like those of Woody Allen and Steve Martin, and at discovering new talent like Jerry Seinfeld and Roseanne Barr. Politicians knew he would skewer them somehow, but they willingly let themselves in for it, just to be on the show. Carson had a heyday with Nixon jokes during Water-gate, but Nixon still put in an appearance on the show later, as did Ronald Reagan, Hubert Humphrey, and Jack and Bobby Kennedy, among others. Stars including John Wayne and Lauren Bacall, Fred Astaire, Jack Benny, Madonna, Elizabeth Taylor, and Jane Fonda showed up, some several times, for a ribbing and some friendly back-and-forth.

Carson had a team of crack writers but he wrote many of his own jokes and scenarios, often turning the joke on himself. His four marriages and three divorces provided a lot of material (“Married men live longer than single men. But married men are a lot more willing to die”). Politics provided humor but Carson was careful to keep to the jokes without saying much about his own politics: “You get the feeling that Dan Quayle’s golf bag doesn’t have a full set of irons,” he said of President George H. W. Bush’s vice president. When a reporter asked what he wanted as his epitaph, Carson said it ought to be “I’ll be right back.” When a joke bombed or the audience reaction was less than he expected, he usually could rescue it with an ad lib or an immediate revision. And if a guest bombed, the show would quickly cut to a commercial and hustle the guest off stage. Carson was a performer par excellence, punctuating all the jokes and talk by dressing up to play one of his favorite characters like Carnac the Magnificent, the clairvoyant in the giant turban or Art Fern, the stereotypical TV announcer. Carson was not afraid to get involved physically with his guests, once with a sumo wrestler, another time playing baseball with Mickey Mantle, even performing a karate chop with his head and parachuting out of an airplane. One of his more memorable show stunts was staging the wedding of Tiny Tim and his fiancée, Miss Vicki, on December 17, 1969. The studio was filled with thousands of tulips in homage to Tiny Tim’s trademark song, “Tip Toe through the Tulips.”

By the mid-1970s, Johnny Carson was the highest paid person on television, making $4 million a year as the host of the Tonight show (the equivalent of $13, 466,000 today), and NBC was enjoying a bonanza of ratings and profits. Sometimes the network tried to intervene, complaining about Carson’s time off or his use of repeat shows during the summer. All Carson had to do was announce he was going to quit when his contract expired in 1979, frightening the network and negotiating a new $5 million salary.

Eventually, Carson owned the show himself and profited further from the sale of videos of his performances. He was an investor and entrepreneur, buying up two television stations, one in Las Vegas, another in Albuquerque. He owned a major piece of the DeLorean Motor Company until it went under, and owned the Johnny Carson Apparel Company, which featured his famous turtlenecks and other elements of his trend-setting casual style.

Carson not only exerted a powerful influence on a generation of TV viewers but also changed television itself. His decision in 1972 to move his show from NBC’s Rockefeller Center studios in New York to NBC studios in “beautiful downtown Burbank,” California, shifted the power zone of TV to the West Coast. And, because of the time difference, his show had to go from live to taped. Much of television followed suit, and taped shows are now the norm. Carson also wrestled the network, NBC, to cut the Tonight show down to a more manageable 90 minutes (and thereby opened up a time slot for a late-late show host).

He was not above controversy. When comedienne Joan Rivers, who had been a regular guest host for Tonight, decided to start her own talk show on the Fox network in the same time slot as Tonight during the 1986–1987 season, he never spoke to her again. He had a long-running feud with Wayne Newton in a dispute over the purchase of a Las Vegas casino, and he successfully sued the manufacturer of portable toilets who was using the slogan “Here’s Johnny” to sell them. And if he and his three former wives had their disputes, the wives still made out very well in the divorce settlements.

John William Carson was born October 23, 1925, in Corning, Iowa, to Homer Lloyd Carson, known as Kit, and Ruth Hook Carson. He was the middle child, with an elder sister Catherine and younger brother Richard. The family moved to Norfolk, Nebraska, when he was eight, where he grew up and graduated from Norfolk High School. Along the way, Johnny Carson, who said he was shy as a kid, realized he could get attention by telling funny stories and doing the magic tricks he taught himself from a mail-order kit. He became “the great Carsoni” in high school, putting on his first paid performance at the local Rotary club, and doing shows for church socials and his mother’s bridge club.

When he graduated from high school in 1943, World War II was in full swing. Carson hitchhiked to California and joined the Navy. He never saw combat, but was sent to officers’ training at Columbia University in New York City and to Millsaps College in California. Two years later, aboard the USS Pennsylvania battleship in the Pacific and then stationed on Guam, he was entertaining the troops with magic shows and jokes, still doing his “great Carsoni” act and now performing with a ventriloquist’s dummy named Eddie.

He was getting plenty of practice as an entertainer, and he was getting good at handling an audience. When the war was over and Carson was discharged, he enrolled on the GI bill at the University of Nebraska in 1946, joined a fraternity, and graduated in three years in 1949 with a BA in speech and radio (his final thesis was “How to Write Comedy Jokes”). He got a job at radio station WOWAM in Omaha and was given his own Johnny Carson show, doing news, weather, and amusing patter for 45 minutes in the mornings. In October, 1949, he got married to Joan “Jody” Morrill Wolcott, who had been his girlfriend in college. Within a year, they had their first child, a son named Chris, and by the following year they were living in Los Angeles where Johnny had gotten a job on the radio as an announcer for KNXT. In October of 1952, he got his own show, “Carson’s Cellar,” which would debut on KNXT’s nascent television station.

Their second son, Richard (Rick), had been born in June, and a third son, Cory, would arrive in 1953. By now, Carson was working for Red Skelton and about to get another of his own Johnny Carson television shows (in anticipation of which he had all his teeth capped for a perfect smile). But CBS canceled the show after only 39 weeks. Carson auditioned for a TV show on ABC, “Do You Trust Your Wife?,” later known as “Who Do You Trust?,” and was hired. He moved his family to New York City and did the show from 1957 to 1962, when he was hired for the Tonight show.

The rest is, as they say, television history. Johnny Carson would go on to win four Emmy Awards in the course of his career. He was host for the Academy Awards five times, and at the 25th anniversary of his show in 1987, he was given the prestigious Peabody Award for Excellence in recognition of his contributions to humor and to television. In the same year, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, and in 1992, Carson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton. The Johnny Carson Foundation he established for children in 1981 is now one of Hollywood’s biggest charities.

Meanwhile, Carson’s private life had many ups and downs. He and his first wife, Jody, divorced in 1963, and he married Joanne Copeland shortly after. That marriage lasted until 1972. Barely three months after they were divorced, Carson married his third wife, Joanna Holland. He was still paying his second wife $100,000 a year in alimony when he divorced Joanna in 1983. He married his fourth wife, Alexis Maas, in 1987.

After 4,531 shows, Johnny Carson decided to retire. The final Tonight show on May 22, 1992, attracted the biggest audience in its history, some 50 million viewers. NBC picked Jay Leno to replace him, though Carson was said to feel that David Letterman was his rightful replacement and he continued to send Letterman jokes he had written for him. During retirement, Carson put in an appearance on several shows, including Letterman’s and that of Bob Hope. He did not like to discuss politics or his private life with interviewers and drew up a list to prewritten answers to give to journalists who asked him questions:

  1. Yes, I did.
  2. Not a bit of truth in that rumor.
  3. Only twice in my life, both times on Saturday.
  4. I can do either, but I prefer the first.
  5. No. Kumquats.
  6. I can’t answer that question.
  7. Toads and tarantulas.
  8. Turkestan, Denmark, Chile, and the Komandorski Islands.
  9. As often as possible, but I’m not very good at it yet. I need much more practice.
  10. It happened to some old friends of mine, and it’s a story I’ll never forget.

In 1999, Johnny Carson suffered a heart attack and underwent quadruple bypass heart surgery. He died six years later on January 23, 2005, of respiratory failure from emphysema. On the following night, the Tonight show with Jay Leno as host was devoted to paying tribute to Carson. David Letterman paid tribute to him on his own show that week as well, saying that for 30 years, Carson’s viewers, whether they had had a good or bad day, wanted to end it by being “tucked in by Johnny.”

—Mary Cross

References

Leamer, Laurence. King of the Night: The Life of Johnny Carson. New York: William Morrow and Co., Inc., 1989.

McMahon, Ed. Here’s Johnny!: My Memories of Johnny Carson, The Tonight Show, and 46 Years of Friendship. New York: Thomas Nelson, 2005.

Tynan, Kenneth. “Profiles: Fifteen Years of the Salto Mortale.” The New Yorker, February 20, 1978.