Johnny Carson: King of Late Night

May 22, 1992 was the night of my bachelor party. It also happened to be the night of Johnny Carson’s last appearance on The Tonight Show. The television was on in the bar adjacent the social hall where the party was being held. Before the night was over, my guests were all watching television. (If the bachelor party had featured naked women,  as it did not, the story undoubtedly would have been different. Even Johnny would have understood that.)

It’s hard to explain to young people the significance that Carson once seemed to have. But like King Lear, his legacy has been divided up. Neither Leno nor Letterman filled his shoes (I’d cast my vote for Letterman, but the public doesn’t seem to), and nowadays there’s also Fallon, Colbert, Conan, Kimmel and a bunch of others. But once upon a time, The Tonight Show was the only game in town and Carson ruled it.

Born this day in 1925, the Iowa native began performing magic as a teenager as The Great Carsoni. After serving in WWII, he enrolled at University of Nebraska, where he continued his magic career and got a degree in radio and speech. His first tv show was a local morning program out of Omaha. From 1951-53 he hosted a local comedy show out of Los Angeles called Carson’s Cellar that became a cult favorite. Based on its success, Red Skelton hired him to be a writer. An emergency in 1954 necessitated Johnny filling in for Red – -and Johnny pulled it off. From there, Johnny went on to appear in a variety of national comedy, talk and games shows, before taking the reins of Tonight from Jack Paar in 1962.

How he and his staff must have enjoyed this juxtaposition of headlines!

In the early 70s, Carson produced a series of specials he called the Sun City Scandals featuring old time show biz stars who were in the twilight of their careers. It ended up being the last gig for many old time vaudevillians!

Carson himself rode off into the sunset in 2005.

Here’s a historic bit of baton passing: Jack Benny and the young Carson on the former’s show in 1955:

To find out more about  the history of variety entertainmentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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5 comments

  1. Johnny’s blown jokes were absolutely the funniest thing on any show. Ed McMahon’s laughter and Johnny’s aimless look whenever the joke didn’t take, was truly funny and one of the best parts of his show. Also the part when Ed would hold the “last” envelope in has hand and announce that that was the last envelope, and the response of the audience’s applause was also truly funny because Johnny’s response too, was awesome because he always wished the audience something bad such as “May a group of spiders raid your grandmother’s underwear” – I’m still laughing. I think Johnny was just great.

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  2. To this day 45 years later, when I was a mere ten years old, I always stayed with my grandmother for a week or so every summer, I have a vivid and warm lasting memory of falling alsleep on her couch and watching Johnny at 10:30 every night….I can still hear Ed like it was just last night “heres Johnny “…..they don’t make em like that anymore….guess thats why they call it the good old days……really miss that show…Jeff

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    • I have similar memories. The first time I ever show was New Year’s eve when I was about the same age…because of course that was the first time I was ever allowed to stay up that late. Remember it clear as a bell

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  3. I was just old enough, when Johnny retired, to go “Why’s he retiring? He’s still awesome!” Among the thousands of things he did brilliantly, he probably recovered from a blown joke better than anyone who ever lived. He’d do the joke, the audience would go “Uhh….” and with perfect timing he’d do some random thing that was the funniest thing you ever saw. Nothing but love and massive respect for Johnny Carson.

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  4. Also the greatest monologist of the late 20th Century… When the material was good, nobody was better (not even Hope…) And he was a pretty good infighter, too, gaining concessions from the network that took real “cojones” to even ask for…
    The horrible shellacking he took as NBC pressured him to leave The Tonight Show months before his official 30th anni (the better to take advantage of sweeps week with a new host) was an example of corporate power at its most vicious… (Remember Dana Carvey’s merciless parody of Carson on SNL? Remember his first wife suddenly surfacing nearly 40 years after their divorce to bitch that the settlement should be upgraded because Johnny now “has so much money…”? And the threat to resurrect the allegations of spouse abuse in those divorce papers? NBC=National Broadcasting Creeps…)
    Thanks for honoring Carson, who deserves it still…

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