Bio

Johnny Carson was known as “The King of Late Night.” From 1962 until his retirement in 1992, he was more than the host of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson ; he was a cultural phenomenon, seen by more Americans than any other performer of his time. Johnny Carson was born John William Carson on October 23, 1925 in Corning, Iowa to Homer “Kit” Caron and Ruth Hook. Carson wanted to be an entertainer from childhood, despite his conservative, middle-class and middle-America background. He grew up in a financially comfortable family, even during the worst of The Great Depression, since his father worked in executive positions in the power industry.

From the age of eight until he entered the Navy in 1943, Carson lived in Norfolk, Nebraska, where he was described by his classmates as someone who enjoyed being the center of attention, and yet shy; a boy who could be alone in the midst of other people. When he discovered magic at the age of 12, Carson became obsessed with learning and perfecting his act, which he began to perform at local functions as early as 14, using the name “The Great Carsoni.” As part of the act, he developed comedic patter, which he worked at with similar obsession, constantly telling and retelling his jokes to friends until he thought they were perfect. This continued through his stint in World War II, where he sometimes entertained his fellow troops, and after, when he entered college.

Carson had grown up listening to radio comedians like Fred Allen, Red Skelton and his idol, Jack Benny, whose programs he recorded and then painstakingly analyzed. He wanted to learn how the comedians and their writing staff set up the jokes, how each had their own sense of timing, and how jokes could be milked, or built upon. This in-depth study of comedy, particularly that of Jack Benny, became the thesis project for his Bachelor of Arts degree in radio and speech, which he received in 1949 from the University of Nebraska.

After graduation, he worked as an announcer at WOW, the local Omaha radio station and then WOW television when it launched in August 1949. Early television was mostly live and would feature whatever the talent could think up to kill time. As host of The Squirrel’s Nest , Carson lampooned the local politicians of the day, conducted turtle races and even “interviewed” pigeons who lived on the courthouse roof about political corruption.

With ambition, drive and the knowledge that Nebraska was not going to be his ticket to stardom, Carson travelled with his wife, Jody, to Los Angeles in 1950, where he got a job as a staff announcer for the local television station KNXT. He quickly progressed to being the host of his own show, Carson’s Cellar (1951-1953) which became a local sensation, attracting fans like Red Skelton, who hired Carson as a writer for his program.

While Carson’s reputation was growing, his lucky break came because of an accident. Red Skelton was rehearsing a scene in which he ran into a prop door, which was supposed to be a breakaway that would prevent him from being hurt. Something went wrong during the stunt and he hit his head and fell to the floor with a concussion. Skelton later remembered that before he passed out, he instructed his staff to get Carson to replace him on the show, which was slated to begin in only two hours. Incredibly, Carson composed his opening monologue in the car driving from his home in the San Fernando Valley to Hollywood, piecing together jokes from memory. He was so good that Jack Benny later said, “You better watch that Carson kid. The kid is great.” In 1955, Benny invited Carson to appear on his show, during which Carson did his Jack Benny impersonation, exactly as he had done for his friends in the schoolyard a decade before.

As Carson was to learn, there are a lot of ups and downs in show business and television careers can burn bright and burn out very quickly. Although he had found early success, he was in danger of becoming a has-been when The Johnny Carson Show was cancelled after only one season. He made the decision to go to New York and it would change his life.

In 1958, Carson was hosting a popular daytime game show called Who Do You Trust? and needed a new announcer. One of the men applying for the job was Philadelphia-based Ed McMahon, who later wrote that his audition consisted of nothing more than a six-minute conversation in Carson’s dressing room. “It was only years later, deep into The Tonight Show , that I learned Johnny had made up his mind the moment he saw me to move me above seven other candidates and make me his announcer for Who Do You Trust? By then, I knew that this was his style—he always knew instantly what he liked and he went for it at once.” It was a partnership and a friendship that lasted until Carson’s death. “For forty-six years, Johnny and I were as close as two non-married people can be. And if he heard me say that, he might say, “Ed, I always felt you were my insignificant other.” McMahon may have joked about it, but Carson always acknowledged McMahon’s contribution to the show.

In the late 1950s, Carson had been asked to fill in for Jack Paar, host of The Tonight Show , and when Paar quit for good, Carson was NBC’s choice of replacement, with Ed McMahon as his announcer and sidekick. The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson debuted on October 1, 1962, introduced by no less than Groucho Marx. The difference between Paar and Carson was apparent from the beginning. Paar was controversial and emotionally high-strung whereas Carson kept his show light and funny. He once said, "I think it would be a fatal mistake to use my show as a platform for controversial issues. I'm an entertainer, not a commentator. If you're a comedian your job is to make people laugh."

His comedy sketches and jokes might not have always worked, but if a joke failed, Carson would be able to turn that failure into a laugh. He also had the ability to make the audience think that he was great friends with his celebrity guests, which was often not the case. He rarely spoke to the guests before or after the show. Orson Welles, who once called Carson “the only invisible talk host,” recalled the day when Carson popped into his dressing room before the show to say a brief hello. “The production staff behaved the way the stagehands did at the St. James’s Theatre in London twenty-five years ago when Princess Margaret came backstage to visit me. They were in awe! One of Carson’s people stared at me and said, ‘He actually came to see you!’

Perhaps the secret of Carson’s success was best summed up by legendary director Billy Wilder. Critic Kenneth Tynan was discussing Carson with Wilder and expected that the notoriously sharp-witted Wilder would say something disparaging, Instead, Wilder praised Carson because of his ability to make even the most boring guest seem funny and exciting. “If he’s talking to an author, he has read the book. Even his rehearsed routines sound improvised. He’s the cream of middle-class elegance, yet he’s not a mannequin. He has captivated the American bourgeoisie without ever offending the highbrows, and he has never said anything that wasn’t liberal or progressive. […] [H]e does it without a net. No rewrites. No retakes. The jokes must work tonight.”

Making the jokes work was a high-pressure, nerve-wracking job for everyone, but especially the host. The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson took over his life. Carson worked tirelessly, was making millions of dollars a year (at one point he was the highest paid TV entertainer), hosted the Academy Awards several times, was the most quoted American of the day, recognized everywhere he went and constantly showered with praise. Yet he was described by many as an unhappy man and his private life was less than successful. In sharp contrast to his on-air self, the real-life Carson was an extremely shy person who had difficulty being around large groups of people unless he was performing. Fellow talk-show host and comedy writer Dick Cavett said that he pitied Carson for being “so socially uncomfortable. I’ve hardly ever met anybody who had as hard a time as he did.”

For many years, Carson had a drinking problem, which resulted in several public scenes and an arrest for drunken-driving. His four marriages and two of his three divorces were fodder for the tabloids, which followed him relentlessly. He was even the recipient of death threats, which made it necessary for NBC to pay for round-the-clock security. Perhaps worst of all, the time he devoted to his career came at the expense of his three sons, who were deeply affected by his lack of attention.

Longevity in television usually means five years, but The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson lasted for thirty. Many, like Joan Rivers (Carson’s favorite substitute), Chevy Chase, Arsenio Hall and Joey Bishop tried to go up against him and failed because Carson had firmly established himself in the hearts of the American public. He could have gone on forever, but in 1992 he had had enough. His final show, broadcast on May 22, 1992, was one of the highest-rated late night shows in history.

In his retirement, Carson travelled, played tennis and occasionally wrote jokes for David Letterman (whose show was produced by Carson’s company). He even made a few brief appearances on Letterman’s show. While he kept himself in good shape, Carson was a heavy smoker and developed emphysema, which was the cause of his death at the age of 79 on January 23, 2005.

Carson
25 Interviews - Tuesdays in March at 8:00PM(et) - Curated and edited from the Johnny Carson Archives.