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Carson, Johnnylocked

(23 October 1925–23 January 2005)
  • Richard Harmond

Carson, Johnny (23 October 1925–23 January 2005), comedian and television host of the hugely popular The Tonight Show, comedian and television host of the hugely popular The Tonight Show, was born in Corning, Iowa, the son of Homer Carson, a lineman with a local power company, and Ruth Hook. Homer moved about, seeking and finding better positions in the utilities industry. The Carson family moved to Norfolk, Nebraska, in 1933, where Homer became a manager of the Iowa-Nebraska Electric Light and Power Company. The Carsons lived on the good side of town and experienced little of the deprivations of the Great Depression. And so when Johnny, in 1937, wanted to send to Chicago for a magic kit, the money was forthcoming. He became fascinated with magic and practiced card and other tricks for hours before a mirror. He gave magic shows at his mother's bridge club and at high school assemblies. Johnny was fourteen when, as the “Great Carsoni,” he gave his first professional performance before the Norfolk Rotary Club. He was paid three dollars.

Carson graduated from Norfolk High School in 1943 and immediately joined the navy. After three years of service he used his G.I. Bill benefits and enrolled in the state college at Lincoln, Nebraska. He majored in speech and radio, with the hope of a career in show business.

When Carson finished college in 1949 he got a job as a disc jockey and newscaster at the radio station WOW in Omaha. More satisfying was The Squirrel's Nest, a fifteen-minute show he had on WOW's new television station. The station had a limited number of viewers, but Carson entertained his audiences with low-key gags and humorous interviews. Moreover, his monologues were the frontrunners of those he would deliver on The Tonight Show.

In 1951 Carson moved to Los Angeles to explore television opportunities. He was disheartened by his initial reception. But his persistence was rewarded; he got a fifteen minute gig on station KNXT, called Carson's Cellar. He commented humorously on current issues and offered parodies of other television shows. The latter appealed to his audience, which was comprised, in part, of people in show business. Indeed the comedians Red Skelton, Fred Allen, Milton Berle, and Jack Benny appeared on Carson's Cellar. Other telecasts were less successful. Still in July 1955 CBS gave Carson his own program—The Johnny Carson Show. But because of problems with writers and directors, the network canceled the broadcast in 1956. Disappointed, he headed for New York City.

At first Carson scrambled, as he spent months making guest appearances on various television programs. In time, however, he impressed the right people, and in 1957 ABC awarded him a contract to host the game show Who Do You Trust? The program succeeded because of Carson's ability to improvise. He was a “reaction comedian” who responded in unscripted fashion to what was happening around him, with an ad lib, a roll of the eyes, or a Jack Benny pause (Benny was the comedian who most influenced Carson, although Carson also admired Fred Allen, Bob Hope, and Red Skelton).

Carson remained with Who Do You Trust? until October 1962 when he was chosen by NBC to replace Jack Paar as host of The Tonight Show (Paar recommended Carson as his successor). Carson sought advice from friends and associates and gave considerable thought to the show's layout. The show began with Carson's fifteen minute monologue, often based on newspaper or magazine stories. Then Carson chatted with guests—show business celebrities, authors, politicians, and others of general interest. The next segment characteristically featured skits or musical acts. Occasionally Carson would wrestle exotic animals. Most important, though, Carson appreciated that television was a personal medium and he was very successful in instilling a kind of vitality in the camera that viewers experienced as a sense of intimacy. Though both his predecessors, Steve Allen and Jack Paar, contributed to the archetype of the talk show host, Carson perfected the model, and his format remained intact at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

With Carson at the helm, The Tonight Show, which originally aired from 11:15 p.m. to 1:00 a.m., was a hit (it later ran from 11:30 p.m. to 12:30 p.m.). By the mid-1960s it was garnering more money for NBC than any other program on television. Carson, however, was displeased with the network's control over the show and sought a new contract. When NBC balked Carson staged a boycott in the spring of 1967. The network tried substitute hosts, who proved unsatisfactory. NBC finally agreed to a new contract that gave Carson full control of The Tonight Show. Carson could now hire and dismiss staff. He also received a boost in pay, to $1 million a year.

Until the late 1960s Carson really had no competitors in the talk show realm. But the success of The Tonight Show and its low cost and high profits sparked imitators. By the early 1970s New York City, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and other cities were broadcasting talk shows. The Joey Bishop Show, on ABC, aired during the same time slot as Carson's program. Other entertainers, such as Dick Cavett and Merv Griffin, also failed to challenge Carson's status as “King of the Night.”

In 1972, to tap a deeper pool of talent, Carson moved his show to Burbank, California, a decision that was instrumental in shifting the power of the television industry to Los Angeles. His early years on the West Coast coincided with the Watergate scandal, which provided Carson with months of material for political satire and humor. On one hand audiences loved it, on the other hand the political establishment came to fear his jibes. Of Bob Dole, a Republican presidential aspirant, Carson quipped: “He recently willed his body to science, and they contested the will.”

For the most part, however, Carson carefully avoided conveying his political views on The Tonight Show. He lampooned political figures but seldom invited them onto the show as he “didn't want it to become a political forum” (Miller, p.265). Although he gave an interview expressing his personal opposition to the Vietnam War, Carson thought it inappropriate to use the show to influence the opinions of his viewers. As he once said, “it's easy to be socially relevant and discuss serious issues,” but “that's not what I do. I always look at myself as an entertainer” (Miller, p.278).

During the Carson years The Tonight Show had thousands of guests. Among them were talented newcomers such as the comedians Woody Allen, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Jay Leno, David Letterman, and Joan Rivers, whose careers received a hefty boost from their appearances.

Carson ruled the night in the United States, but The Tonight Show was too American to travel well. In 1981 the program was tried briefly in Great Britain, but Carson's brand of humor was not well received, and the show was cancelled after running a year.

Carson, a self-described loner, married four times, and three of these unions—to Joan Walcott (1949–1963), Joanne Copeland (1963–1972), and Joanna Holland (1972–1985)—ended in divorce. He predeceased his fourth wife, Alexandra “Alexis” Mass (1987–2005). He had three sons with his first wife.

Carson garnered six Emmy Awards as well as a 1985 Peabody Award during his career. In 1987 he was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame. He also was a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1992. Aside from entertaining more than 15 million viewers five (later four) nights a week—people deferred sleep to watch Carson—his measurable effect on American life can be found in his charitable contributions, funded by money earned on The Tonight Show. The John W. Carson Foundation has used its assets to make grants to schools, environmental organizations, children's aid charities, and AIDS groups.

A chain-smoker, Carson died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles of complications arising from emphysema. In a statement, David Letterman, a late night host himself, said: “All of us who came after [Carson] are pretenders. We will not see the likes of him again.”


Johnny Carson's papers are at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. For more information see Paul Corkery, Carson: The Unauthorized Biography (1987), John Miller, From the Great Plains to LA: The Intersecting Paths of Lawrence Welk and Johnny Carson (Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 79), and Laurence Leamer, King of the Night: The Life of Johnny Carson (1989). See also Timothy White's interview of Carson in Rolling Stone, 27 Mar. 1979. There is an obituary in the New York Times, 24 Jan. 2005.