Johnny Carson

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John William "Johnny" Carson (October 23, 1925 – January 23, 2005) was an American actor, comedian and writer best known for his iconic status as the host of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson for 30 years. His late night arena provided favorable publicity for innumerable books, films and products as well as a launch pad to fame for a host of new performers. His daily soliloquies, character imitations, sidesplitting double takes and lighthearted theatrical acts kept viewers attention year after year. Carson's final days on the show were a major media event, stretching over several nights from May 18 through May 22, 1992.

Carson almost single-handedly made the late-night light television entertainment show a national institution in the United States. So much that all who succeed him see him as a model to emulate, combining humor with just enough serious commentary on current affairs and on events in the worlds of show business and of celebrity life to interest a wider public.


Carson was born in Corning, Iowa, to parents Homer "Kit" Lloyd Carson, a power company manager, and Ruth Hook Carson. Johnny Carson grew up in Norfolk, Nebraska, where he learned to perform magic tricks, debuting as "The Great Carsoni" at age 14.

He attended Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, where he received V-12 officer training, and then served in the Navy from 1943 to 1946. Carson then attended the University of Nebraska where he joined Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1949.


The next year, Carson took a job at WOWT radio and television in Omaha, Nebraska. He appeared on radio with Ken Case, an Omaha native who was later a news anchorman and sports broadcaster in Monroe, Louisiana. Carson soon hosted an early morning television program called The Squirrel's Nest; Carson then took a job at CBS-owned Los Angeles television station KNXT, which was his entry to the big time.

In 1953, well-known comic Red Skelton – a fan of Carson's sketch comedy show, Carson's Cellar, which ran from 1951 to 1953 on KNXT – tapped Carson to join his show as a writer. In 1954, Skelton knocked himself unconscious just one hour before his live show went on the air; Carson filled in for him.

He hosted several TV shows before his run on The Tonight Show, including the game show Earn Your Vacation (1954), the variety show The Johnny Carson Show (1955 - 1956), a regular panelist gig on the first version of "To Tell The Truth" until 1962 and a five-year stint on the game show, Who Do You Trust? from 1957 to 1962, during which Carson met long-time sidekick, Ed McMahon.

Carson became the host of NBC's The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, taking over after Jack Paar in October 1962. His announcer and on-air sidekick was Ed McMahon throughout his entire tenure with the program.


Carson married his college sweetheart Joan "Jody" Wolcott on October 1, 1949. The marriage was volatile, with infidelity being admitted by both parties, finally ending in divorce. They had three sons. Their son Richard died in a car accident on June 21, 1991.

In 1963, Carson got a "quickie" Mexican divorce from Joan and married Joanne Copeland on August 17, 1963. After a protracted divorce in 1972, Copeland received nearly half a million dollars in cash and art and $100,000 a year in alimony for life.

At the Carson Tonight Show's 10th anniversary party on September 30, 1972, Carson announced that he and former model Joanna Holland had been secretly married that afternoon, shocking his friends and associates. On March 8, 1983, Holland filed for divorce. Under California's community property laws, she was entitled to 50 percent of all the assets accumulated during the marriage even though Carson earned virtually 100 percent of the couple's income. During this period, he joked on The Tonight Show, "My producer, Freddy de Cordova, really gave me something I needed for Christmas. He gave me a gift certificate to the Law Offices of Jacoby & Meyers." The divorce case finally ended in 1985 with an 80-page settlement, Holland receiving $20 million in cash and property.

Carson married Alexis Maas, on June 20, 1987; Johnny was 61, Alexis 35. The marriage was Johnny's longest, and the press reported that this union was a happy one.


Carson was a major investor in the ultimately failed De Lorean Motor Company, and was cited in a 1982 drunk driving incident while driving a De Lorean DMC-12 in Beverly Hills, California. Represented by Robert Shapiro, he pleaded no contest to the charges, and played off the incident by having a uniformed police officer escort him on to the Tonight Show stage. Other business ventures included a successful clothing line, through which his turtleneck shirts became a fashion trend, and a failed restaurant franchise.[1]

Carson was close friends with astronomer Carl Sagan, who often appeared on The Tonight Show to give presentations on astronomy. (Carson himself was an amateur astronomer). The unique way Sagan had of saying certain words, like "billions" of galaxies, would lead to Carson ribbing his friend, imitating his voice and saying "BILL-ions and BILL-ions," a phrase soon erroneously attributed to Sagan himself. According to Sagan's biographer, Keay Davidson, Carson was the first person to contact Sagan's wife with condolences when the scientist died in 1996.

Also a talented amateur drummer, Carson was shown on a segment of 60 Minutes practicing at home on a drum set given to him by close friend jazz legend Buddy Rich who was the most frequent jazz musician to appear on the Tonight Show.

Carson's son from his first marriage, Richard Carson, was killed on June 21, 1991, when his car plunged down a steep embankment along a paved service road off Highway 1 near Cayucos, a small town north of San Luis Obispo, California. Evidence points to the belief that his son had been taking photographs when the accident occurred. Carson was deeply shaken by his son's death. On his first show after his death, Carson gave a stirring tribute in the final minutes of his show as samples of his son's photographic work (and images of his son) were displayed with the music accompaniment of Riviera Paradise by blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan (himself the victim of an accidental death less than one year earlier). In addition, the final image of Carson's last show in May 1992 featured a photo Richard Carson had taken.

Carson was an ordained Minister with the Universal Life Church.[2].

The Tonight Show

For millions of people, watching The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson at the end of the evening became a ritual, and Carson, with his quick wit and natural charm, became a well-known entertainer loved by many. Most of the later shows began with music and the announcement by Ed McMahon "Heeeeeere's Johnny!", followed by a brief comedic monologue by Carson. This was often followed by comedy sketches, interviews, and music. Carson's trademark was a phantom golf swing at the end of his Tonight Show monologues, aimed at stage left where the Tonight Show Band was located. Guest hosts would sometimes parody that gesture. Bob Newhart, for example, would finish by simulating rolling a bowling ball toward the audience.

Paul Anka wrote the theme song ("Johnny's Theme"), a reworking of an earlier Anka song called "Toot Sweet" that had been given lyrics, renamed "It's Really Love," and recorded by Annette Funicello in 1959. Anka gave Carson co-authorship credit and they split the royalties for the next three decades. For years, the theme opened with a memorable drum riff that was later dropped.

The show was originally produced in New York City, with occasional stints in California. It was not live in its early years, however during the 1970s, NBC fed the live taping from Burbank to New York via satellite for editing (see below). The program had been done "live on tape" (uninterrupted unless a serious problem occurred) since the Jack Paar days. In May 1972 the show permanently moved from New York to Burbank, California.

After the move, Carson stopped doing shows five days a week. Instead, on Monday nights there was a "guest host" (leaving Carson to do the other four each week). Joan Rivers became the "permanent" guest host from September 1983 until 1986, when she was fired for accepting a competing show on the startup Fox network without consulting Carson first. Thereafter, The Tonight Show returned to using various guest hosts, including legendary standup comic George Carlin. Jay Leno then became the exclusive guest host in the fall of 1987. Eventually, the pattern became relatively set. Monday night was for Jay Leno. Tuesday night was for the Best of Carson, which were rebroadcasts of earlier episodes (usually of a year previous but occasionally back into the 1970s with edited episodes).

Carson had a talent for coming up with quick quips to deal with unexpected problems. If the opening monologue fared poorly, the band would start playing the song "Tea for Two" and Carson would start to dance, which invariably earned laughs from the studio audience. Alternately, Carson might pull down the boom mike close to his face and announce "Attention K-Mart shoppers!"

Carson's show was the launching pad for many talented performers, notably comedians. Many got their "big break" by appearing on the show, and it was considered the crowning achievement to not only get Johnny to laugh out loud, but also to be called over to the guest chair. In many ways, Carson was the successor to The Ed Sullivan Show as a showcase for all kinds of talent, as well as continuing the Vaudeville variety-show tradition.

Carson played several continuing characters on sketches during the show, including

  • Art Fern, the "Tea Time Movie" announcer (always selling strange or shoddy merchandise). The character was previously named Honest Bernie Schlock and then Ralph Willie when the Tea-Time sketches first aired (mid-late 1960s).
  • A stereotypical right-wing extremist wearing a plaid hunting coat and cap who always introduced himself as "Floyd R. Turbo American" (with no pause between words)
  • Aunt Blabby, a cantankerous and sometimes amorous old lady who played the foil to Ed McMahon's straightman through pestering and berating.
  • Perhaps his best-known character, Carnac the Magnificent, who pretended to be a psychic who could answer questions before seeing them (and reading them out loud). (This is in fact a parody of a real act known as "one ahead" where the first answer is known to the performer in advance, and each succeeding answer is in fact on the card containing the previous item's question.) Carnac's answers were always humorous, ironic, or puns. Ed McMahon would always announce near the end, "I hold in my hand the last envelope," at which news the audience would applaud wildly, prompting Carnac to pronounce a comedic "curse" on the audience, such as "May all your genes be recessive!" (In fact, the name Carnac the Magnificent was the stage name Johnny used in his magic act as a youth.)

Critical acclaim

Carson was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1987. His other awards include six Emmy Awards and a George Foster Peabody Award. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1992, and the Kennedy Center Honors in 1993.


Carson retired from show business on May 22, 1992 when he stepped down as host of The Tonight Show. His farewell was a major media event, and stretched over several nights. It was often emotional for Carson, his colleagues, and the audiences, particularly the farewell statement he delivered on his final show. Following Carson's retirement, NBC gave the role of host to the show's then-current permanent guest host, Jay Leno. Leno and fellow competitor for the Tonight Show host spot, David Letterman were soon competing on separate networks. Letterman was selected by CBS.

At the end of his final Tonight Show appearance, Carson indicated that he might, if so inspired, return with a new project, but instead chose to go into full retirement, rarely giving interviews and declining to participate in NBC's 75th Anniversary celebrations. He made the occasional cameo appearance, most notably voicing himself on an episode of The Simpsons ("Krusty Gets Kancelled"). Carson's most famous post-retirement appearance came on Letterman's late-night CBS talk show, The Late Show with David Letterman, on May 13, 1994. During a week of shows from Los Angeles, Letterman's guest Larry "Bud" Melman (Calvert DeForest) delivered the "Top Ten Lists" under the impression that a famous personality would be delivering the list instead. On the last show of the week, Letterman indicated that Carson would be delivering the list. Instead, Melman delivered the list, insulted the audience (in keeping with the gag), and walked off to polite applause. Letterman then indicated that the card he was given did not have the proper list on it, and asked Carson to bring out the "real" list. On that cue, the Johnny Carson emerged from behind the stage curtain to a standing ovation from the audience. Carson then requested to sit behind Letterman's desk; Letterman obliged. A clearly overcome Carson mouthed, "I'm back home" to the stage director, ran his hands over the desk, and after a moment walked back off stage without delivering his planned joke. (It was later explained that Carson had laryngitis).

Just days before Carson's death, it was revealed that the retired "King of Late Night" still kept up with current events and late-night TV, and that he occasionally sent jokes to Letterman. [3] Letterman would then use these jokes in the monologue of his show, which Carson got "a big kick out of" according to Worldwide Pants, Inc. Senior Vice-President Peter Lassally, who formerly produced both men's programs. Reportedly, sometimes Letterman would do the golf swing after one of those jokes, as a silent tribute to Carson. Letterman frequently employs some of Carson's trademark bits on his show, including "Carnac" (with band leader Paul Shaffer as "Carnac"), "Stump the Band," and the "Week in Review."

In November 2004, Carson announced a $5.3 million gift to the University of Nebraska Foundation to support the Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts' Department of Theatre Arts, which created the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film. Another $5 million donation was announced by the estate of Carson to the University of Nebraska following his death. Carson also donated to causes in his hometown of Norfolk, including the Carson Cancer Center at Faith Regional Health Services, The Elkhorn Valley Museum, and the Johnny Carson Theater at Norfolk Senior High School.

Death and aftermath

Johnny Carson died January 23, 2005, at Los Angeles' Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, of respiratory arrest arising from emphysema. Following Carson's death his body was cremated, and the ashes were given to his wife. In accordance with his family's wishes, no public memorial service was held. There were countless tributes paid to Carson upon his death, including a statement by President George W. Bush, all recognizing a deep and enduring affection held for him.

Tributes published after his death confirmed that he had been a cigarette chain-smoker. While The Tonight Show was broadcast live, he would frequently smoke cigarettes on the air; it was reported that Carson had said "these things are killing me" beginning in the 1970s.


On January 24, 2005, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno paid tribute to Carson with guests Ed McMahon, Bob Newhart, Don Rickles, Drew Carey and k.d. lang. David Letterman followed suit on January 31 with former Tonight Show executive producer Peter Lassally and bandleader Doc Severinsen. During the beginning of this show, Letterman said that for 30 years no matter what was going on in the world, no matter whether people had a good or bad day, they wanted to end the day by being "tucked in by Johnny." Letterman also told his viewers that the monologue he had just given had consisted entirely of jokes sent to him by Carson in the last few months of his life. Doc Severinsen ended the Letterman show that night by playing one of Carson's two favorite songs, "Here's that Rainy Day" (the other was "I'll Be Seeing You").

Many other talk show hosts came and went during Carson's 30 years. After the tributes, Dennis Miller appeared on the Tonight Show and told Jay Leno about the first time he tried to do a talk show, and how miserably it went. He said that he got a call right after the first show, from Carson, telling him, "It's not as easy as it looks, is it, kid?"

And so it has come to this: I, uh… am one of the lucky people in the world; I found something I always wanted to do, and I have enjoyed every single minute of it. I want to thank the gentlemen who've shared this stage with me for thirty years, Mr. Ed McMahon... Mr. Doc Severinsen… and… you people watching, I can only tell you that it has been an honor and a privilege to come into your homes all these years and entertain you—and I hope when I find something that I want to do, and I think you would like, and come back, that you'll be as gracious in inviting me into your home as you have been. I bid you a very heartfelt good night.
— Johnny Carson's closing words on his final show, May 22, 1992


  1. Adam Bernstein. For Decades, Comic Ruled Late-Night TV. Washington Post, January 24, 2005. [1]. retrieved December 5, 2007.
  2. ["Chicagoscope: Church of the Red Ram," 14 November 2006 Chicagoscope: Church of the red Ram Retrieved December 5, 2007.
  3. New York Times Carson Feeds Letterman Lines [2] accessdate 17 December 2006

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bart, Peter. "We Hardly Knew Ye." Variety (Los Angeles), May 18, 1992.
  • Corkery, Paul. Carson: The Unauthorized Biography. Ketchum, Idaho: Randt, 1987 ISBN 9780942101003
  • Cox, Stephen. Here's Johnny!: Thirty Years of America's Favorite Late-night Entertainment. New York: Harmony, 1992 ISBN 9780517589304
  • de Cordova, Fred. Johnny Came Lately: An Autobiography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988 ISBN 9780671558499
  • Knutzen, Erik. "Celebs Say Thanks, Johnny." Boston Herlad, May 21, 1992.
  • Leamer, Laurence. King of the Night: The Life of Johnny Carson. New York: Morrow, 1989 ISBN 9780688074043
  • McMahon, Ed. Here's Johnny!: My Memories of Johnny Carson, The Tonight Show, and 46 Years of Friendship. Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill Press, 2005 (CD) ISBN 9781598590883
  • Smith, Ronald L. Johnny Carson: An Unauthorized Biography. New York: St. Martin's, 1987 ISBN 9780312010515
  • Van Hise, James. 40 Years at Night: The Story of the Tonight Show. Las Vegas, Nevada: Pioneer, 1992 ISBN 9781556983085
  • Zoglin, Richard. "And What A Reign It Was: In His 30 Years, Carson Was The Best." TIME magazine (New York), March 16, 1992.

External links

All links retrieved August 3, 2022.


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