King Of Late-Night Television
Johnny Carson Message
Carson was born October 23, 1925 in Corning, Iowa. Since
1962, watching the "Tonight" show was for millions
of Americans a nightly ritual, particularly Johnny Carson's
opening monologue that chronicled the events of our nation
for three volatile decades. It's been described as "a
magnifying glass on American culture," "the
nation's emotional barometer (also weathervane and thermometer),"
"a national institution," and "the national
is one of the most influential performers in the history
of the [television] medium," wrote James Wolcott
in The Village Voice. As a comedian, he is unquestionably
a master. . . he has distilled the influences of Jack
Benny, Jackie Gleason, Steve Allen, Jonathan Winters,
Fred Allen...into a style which is perfectly calibrated
to the scale of the video medium."
have tried to explain the secret of Carson's success:
his cool, affable, understated style; his uncanny rapport
with the audience and his brilliant blend of comic talent
and down-home charm that disarm everyone. "Accustomed
to thinking of Carson the host, we forget the range of
Carson the actor-comedian," stated Kenneth Tynan.
Carson is capable of daring comic one-upmanship. The way
he uses the camera as a silent conspirator is probably
his most original contribution to TV technique."
up in Norfolk, Nebraska, Carson first practiced his entertainment
skills on family members with card tricks and other magic
acts learned from a mail-order kit. At 14, he was earning
$3 a show as "The Great Carsoni," typical shy,
uncomfortable teenager who blossomed in front of an audience,
appearing in high school plays as well.
serving in the Pacific, he got jobs writing radio comedy
programs while still at the University of Nebraska. Later
in Los Angeles, he became an all-purpose announcer until
he was given his own program, "Carson's Cellar."
This stint was short, lasting less than a year, but it
attracted the attention of several big-time entertainers,
including Red Skelton, who hired him to write for his
television show. In a classic show business turn of events,
one night the star was ill, Carson substituted, he wowed
the audience, and a star was nearly born. His reward,
"The Johnny Carson Show," didn't last a year,
but it led to a game show, "Who Do You Trust,"
which became ABC's top-rated daytime program, which eventually
led to an offer to replace Jack Paar as host of the "Tonight"
show. "With the public," Kenneth Tynan reported,
"Carson's triumph was immediate and nonpareil."
10 years in New York and nearly 20 in beautiful downtown
Burbank, Carson's "Tonight" show became NBC's
most successful show ever. By 1979, it had an audience
of more than 17 million people and accounted for 17 percent
of the network's profit. The show also won critical respect
as well as numerous Emmys and a Peabody.
whose own comedy timing had been described as "so
precise we wouldn't be surprised to find buried in his
skull a quartz crystal" (Seattle Times), inspired
many a young cut-up to go professional, and "Tonight"
became a highly visible showcase for the young careers
of a virtual honor roll of America's great comedians:
Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, David Letterman, Jerry Seinfeld,
and Jay Leno, to name a few. They all cracked jokes on
Carson's couch long before we knew who they were.
good things come to an end and Carson's retirement from
regular television in May of 1992 was treated like a monumental
event in American culture, landing on the front page of
the New York Times. "After all, Carson was late night
TV, and with decency and style he made America laugh and