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."
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, 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. □