Saturday, May 22, 2021

Heeer’s the Johnny We Hardly Knew

                            Johnny Carson on his last Tonight Show.

May 22, 1992 was the last broadcast of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson on NBC.  It ended a thirty-year run that began in New York as the young comedian and game show host took over the reins of the Tonight Show from Jack Parr.  Critics called him likable but bland and predicted quick failure in the wake of the mercurial Parr. 

Carson was Midwestern to the core.  Born in Iowa on October 25, 1925 and raised in Norfolk, Nebraska from the age of eight, his background could not have been more different that the mostly Jewish comics who dominated stand up from the 1950’s on.  But to the network, that might have been an advantage—his predecessors Parr and Steve Allen also had Midwestern roots—Ohio and Michigan for Parr and Chicago for Allen.

Teenage magician The Great Carsoni.

He showed interest in performing from an early age.  By 12 he was doing a magic act as The Great Carsoni.  As soon as he graduated from high school, he hitchhiked to Hollywood.  He later claimed to have been arrested and fined for impersonating a Navy midshipman, a tale some believe may have been invented.

But it was war time and the Navy was in his future.  He joined the service at age 18 in June 1943.  He qualified for the V-12 Navy College Training Program and took classes at Columbia University in New York and Millsap College in Mississippi before being commissioned as an ensign late in the war.  He was assigned to the battleship USS Pennsylvania as a communications officer in the Pacific.  While on board he fought and won 10 amateur boxing matches and frequently performed his magic act for the crew.  He once even entertained and charmed notoriously crusty Secretary of the Navy James Forestall.


                            Carson in the V-12 Navy College Training Program.

Carson never saw combat.  He had been transferred to a troop carrier on its way to a planned invasion of Japan when American atomic bombs ended the war.

Thanks to the GI Bill Carson completed the college credits he had amassed in the V-12 program at the University of Nebraska where he switched majors from journalism to speech when he decided he wanted to become a radio comedian.  His senior thesis was How to Write Comedian Jokes.  Meanwhile his magic act, now salted with patter and jokes, helped pay the bills.  He graduated after three years on campus in 1949.

 By early 1950 Carson was working on Omaha’s WOW radio and television where his duties included a morning TV sketch comedy show that featured a shtick about pigeons on the roof of the local courthouse chatting about the political corruption they had seen.  This early foray into topical humor was done with enough charm to entertain even the targets of his barbs at local banquets and civic events.  The wife one of them who was also a part owner of WOW recommended Carson to her brother who was working in TV in Southern California.  Perhaps she just wanted to remove the embarrassment.

Carson leapt at the chance and was soon toiling on CBS-owned Los Angeles TV station KNXT where he hosted a variety of programs, notably a bargain basement sketch comedy show Carson’s Cellar, a not-so-subtle tip-o’-the-hat to Fred Allen’s popular Allen’s Alley.  The show became something of a cult classic and attracted the notice of CBS’s biggest comedy star, Red Skelton who hired Carson as writer as a side job.  When Skelton, a physical comic, knocked himself out practicing a prat fall just before a live broadcast, Carson successfully stepped in for his network debut.

                        Carson's spot-on imitation of Jack Benny earned him an appearance on Benny's top rated comedy show. in 1955,

That was just the kind luck that seemed to follow the young comic on his rapid rise.  In 1955 Jack Benny had him on his TV show where Carson famously matched Benny’s gestures and timing—a bit he would continue to use through his long career.

Carson never seemed to be out of work.  He first hosted a game show, Earn Your Vacation in 1954 and had a weekly CBS variety show, The Johnny Carson Show in 1955 and 1956.  After that show failed, he moved to New York City to host Who Do You Trust?  From 1957 to 1962. He was a guest panelist on the original To Tell the Truth starting in 1960, becoming a regular in 1961 and 1962.

For five years Carson's ABC game show romp Ho Do You Trust? was the hottest program on daytime TV..

Who Do You Trust?  first teamed him with Ed McMahon and had a loose enough format so that he could combine interviews with contestants with ad libs, in the manner of Groucho Marx on You Bet Your Life.  In its five-year run on ABC TV the show became “The hottest item on daytime TV.

That success got the attention of NBC brass who began to woo Carson while the unhappy Parr was still on the air.  Carson at first demurred, but when Parr actually departed took the offer.  He still had six months to run on his ABC contract, so NBC had to use fill-in guest hosts like Merv Griffin, Art Linkletter, Joey Bishop, Arlene Francis, Bob Cummings, Jerry Lewis, Groucho, and Donald O’Connor until Carson could step through the curtains for the first time. Groucho introduced him on the first show.

The Tonight Show broadcast the first ten years from New York then from NBC’s Burbank, California studios, became an American late night tradition.  His opening monologues traced the history of his times.  Even when the jokes sometimes failed his self-depreciating demeanor kept the studio audience roaring with laughter.  Carson famously showcased and encouraged the careers of many comedians and his invitation to join him on the couch after a monologue was the cue of approval for a generation of comics. 

Carson with Muhamad Ali  from his New York studio early in the run of  The Tonight Show.

The show was also famous for occasional sketch comedy bits by the Mighty Carson Arts Players, set-piece routines like Carnac the Magnificent, and forays into the audience for silly games like Stump the Band. 

Carson brought back bearded Skitch Henderson from Steve Allen’s tenure as host to lead the on-stage NBC Orchestra.  After a brief interlude by Milton Delugg in 1966 jazz trumpeter Doc Sevrensen took over as band leader and a foil of many Carson jokes.  The familiar Tonight Show theme was adapted from Paul Anka’s Toot Sweet. 

Carson and long-time announcer/sidekick Ed McMahon do their signature Carnac the Magnificent mind reading act.

Throughout the entire run Carson’s announcer/side kick was Ed McMahon, who had been with him for five years on Who Do You Trust.  The burley McMahon was a comic foil and straight man.  Much of his job was simply reacting to Carson and cuing the audience that, “this is funny.”  His signature introductionHeeeeeer’s Johnny!” may be the most famous tag line in television history. 

Through its long run audiences watched the boyish Carson’s dark hair go salt-and-pepper to silver and his clothes from the narrow tie with two button skinny suits of the early ‘60’s through the gaudy plaid and patterned polyester sport coats and super wide ties of the ‘70’s to the blue and gray blazers and khaki slacks of the later years.  But Carson himself seemed timeless. 

He often battled the network over scheduling and control of the program.  From an original 104 minutes five nights a week, he eventfully did four sixty-two minute programs with a Best of Carson on Monday nights.  When he took time off, he tapped a pool a regular guest hosts including Joey Bishop, Bob Newhart, John Davidson, David Brenner, Burt Reynolds, and David Letterman. 

Three people were made permanent guest hosts—Joan Rivers, Gary Shandling, and Jay Leno.  Each was rumored to be considered as a potential replacement for Carson when he would retire.  When Joan Rivers, who was chaffing at the wait, accepted an offer from the new Fox Network for a late night show opposite him without even personally informing him, Carson angrily fired her from her remaining scheduled dates and permanently banned her from the show.  Her own show quickly failed and Rivers’s career was severely damaged. 

Others who offended him for one reason or another were more quietly excluded, but Carson, although personally aloof and not a close friend of many of his guests, was widely liked and admired by most of the celebrities who sat on his couch.  Carson was a generous interviewer and if a guest had any comic chops he enjoyed feeding him or her or even playing straight man himself. 

Carson reputedly favored David Letterman over Jay Leno to succeed him.  When Leno got the nod from NBC, Carson fed Letterman monologue gags when he went on the air with his CBS show opposite Leno.

As Carson wound down his last year, an epic battle to replace him broke out behind the scenes between his two leading protégés—Leno and Letterman.  Leno was a sharp monologist and had been tapped as Carson’s last permanent guest host.  Letterman was quirkier, but Carson admired that and produced Letterman’s Late Show which followed the Tonight Show.  Letterman believed NBC had promised him Carson’s slot.  Leno felt that Carson had given him the nod.  The maneuvering became the subject of a bestselling book and an HBO movie.  Carson evidently favored Letterman, but the NBC brass thought Leno was more mainstream. 

The final weeks before Carson’s final shows were a parade of favorite guests sharing memories and of clips from the program—at least surviving clips.  NBC had outraged Carson by taping over almost all of his shows before 1970 so that the only surviving clips of that era came on kinescopes kept by some guests. 

Many people falsely remember the next to the last program as the last one.  Guests were Robin Williams at his manic finest, and Bette Midler.  Midler got Carson to sing an impromptu duet with her at the desk and then took to the stage to sing One for My Baby (and One More for the Road) to him as Carson wiped away tears.  Midler won an Emmy for the appearance. 

There were no guests the next night, Carson’s final show 50 million viewers tuned in to see the farewell.  Carson reminisced with Sevrensen, McMahon, and long-time producer Fred de Cordova.  The program ended, as Jack Paar’s final appearance did, with Carson sitting alone on a stool giving an emotional good-by to his audience. 

Although Carson told his audience he planned to return to television some time later and NBC announced a development deal, he never did.  He quietly retired to play tennis and declined almost all interviews—he gave only two the rest of his life.  He told friends he did not feel that he could match or top what he had accomplished on the Tonight Show. 

In his personal life, Carson was painfully shy and had few close friends.  Actor Michael Landon, a tennis buddy was one of the few performers in his tight inner circle.  He had famously troubled marriages.  In while still in college 1948, Carson married Jody Wolcott. Their relationship was volatile, with mutual infidelities, and ended in divorce in 1963 just as his tenure at The Tonight Show was getting underway.  Jody was the mother of all of his three sons, Chris, Cory, and Richard.  Richard, a gifted photographer, died in a traffic accident in 1991 and deeply affected his father.  In fact, the loss may have accelerated Carson’s decision to retire. 

Carson married Joanne Copeland the same year as his first marriage ended.  The match lasted until 1972 and ended in a protracted divorce case with a generous settlement.

In 1972 Carson married model Joanna Holland in a characteristically secret wedding ceremony.  There was much joking about Carson’s marrying women with nearly identical names.  The couple filed for divorce in 1983 and the bitter contested action dragged on for more than two years and ended with Carson paying his former wife more than $20 million which left him bitter.

Finally, in 1987 Carson broke the string of like named wives by wedding Alexis Mass who remained with him for the rest of his life.


In retirement Carson was seldom seen in public but the avid tennis player took in a tournament with his fourth and final wife Alexis.

Carson died of complications of emphysema, the result of a lifetime as a heavy smoker, on January 23, 2005 at the age of 70.  His remains were cremated and at his request there was no funeral service or memorial.  Accolades and salutes came from all sides.  David Letterman, who Carson had secretly been sending monologue jokes, summed it up—all subsequent late night hosts were “just trying to do Johnny.”