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Johnny Carson: The Man, The Myth, The Legend

Johnny Carson made his debut nearly 60 years ago, and became a touchstone in many of our lives for the next 30 years. Such was his influence that when in 1973 he made an offhanded joke about an alleged shortage of toilet paper, American consumers panicked and wiped out all the toilet paper from supermarket shelves, leading to a real shortage. For several weeks both paper manufacturers and grocery stores had to ration supplies, until the panic was relieved.

The Early Years Of Johnny Carson

He was born on Oct. 23, 1925, and grew up in Iowa and Nebraska. When he was a kid he found a book on magic, and started performing at local picnics and country fairs, for $3 an appearance.

He joined the Navy in 1943, received officer training and was commissioned an ensign. He shipped out to the Pacific on the USS Pennsylvania, where he took a turn as an amateur boxer and posted a record of 10-0. He was en route to a combat zone, aboard a troop ship, when the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan. So he was able to finish out his service as a communications officer, then go home to attend the University of Nebraska. He graduated in 1949 with a major in radio and speech, and a minor in physics.

He got a job on a local radio station, then was tapped to host a local morning TV program called The Squirrel’s Nest. He did a comedy bit involving pigeons reporting on political corruption; and he also supplemented his income by serving as master of ceremonies at local functions — where the very politicians he’d been mocking would likely turn up.

Carson Heads To California

He headed to California in 1951, looking for work, and talked his way into hosting a local sketch comedy show. He was spotted by funnyman Red Skelton, and eventually asked to join his show as a writer. One evening in 1954, so the story goes, Red Skelton knocked himself out during rehearsal and needed a substitute for the night. The former sailor filled in and was judged a complete success.

Johnny Carson

The next year brought him to the Jack Benny Program, and before long he found himself hosting nationwide game shows, until he moved to New York and became a regular on Who Do You Trust? He spent five years on the successful game show, interviewing guests and throwing out one-liners, and also meeting future sidekick Ed McMahon.

The Tonight Show

His success on Who Do You Trust? led NBC to put him — and surely, by now, you know our special guest today is Johnny Carson — in the running as host of The Tonight Show. The fledgling late-night show had originated in 1954 starring Steven Allen. In 1957, Jack Paar took over the show, but the acerbic comedian was not a particularly good match for the late-night audience. NBC asked Jackie Gleason to replace Paar. Gleason refused. NBC turned to Groucho Marx, Bob Newhart, and Joey Bishop. After they all turned down the opportunity, NBC went to Johnny Carson, who took the job, and first opened the curtain on Oct. 1, 1962.

Pop star Paul Anka wrote the lead-in music for the show, and Ed McMahon soon joined Carson as his second banana. The formula was an instant hit, attracting top talent from New York and Hollywood. In 1972 Carson moved the show to Los Angeles — or, “beautiful downtown Burbank,” as he often joked — and continued there until he retired in 1992, at age 66, and was replaced by Jay Leno.

Launching Careers And Destroying Competition

During his 30 years on The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson created many characters, from Art Fern, the Tea Time movie announcer, to Carnac the Magnificant, the psychic who could answer a question before it was asked. He was given credit for launching the careers of many young comedians, including Joan Rivers, Steve Martin, Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Ellen DeGeneres, David Letterman — and David Brenner, who appeared on the show more than any other guest.

Carson also destroyed his competition, including Dick Cavett, Alan Thicke, Pat Sajak, Chevy Chase and a host of others including Joan Rivers, who claimed that Carson never spoke to her again after she went into competition with him.

Johnny Carson did occasionally get in trouble when he made fun of other celebrities, including Las Vegas performer Wayne Newton and corpulent TV detective Raymond Burr. But for the most part Carson projected an amiable personality, refusing to discuss politics, for example, insisting that his personal views didn’t matter and besides they would only serve to alienate a portion of his audience.

The Many Marriages Of Johnny Carson

Carson was married four times — explaining the many alimony jokes on his program — and had three sons from his first marriage. Off camera he was notoriously shy, and after he retired in 1992 he studiously avoided the limelight, although according to the New York Times he did occasionally send jokes to David Letterman to use on the air.

Carson, a long-time smoker, suffered a heart attack in 1999, and in 2002 was diagnosed with emphysema. By the time he died, in January 2005, he had been awarded virtually every honor in American comedy. And in 2012 he was the subject of a PBS documentary, King of Late Night, as part of the American Masters series, narrated by Kevin Spacey.

Here’s a funny bit Carson did in 1968 with Jack Webb, who’d played the detective from the old TV series Dragnet.

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About The Author
Tom Lashnits
Tom Lashnits
Tom Lashnits spent 40 years in New York book and magazine publishing before retiring to Bucks County, PA, in 2017. He now volunteers in the school system, produces the baby boomer blog Sightings Over Sixty . . . and is just starting to chase after grandchildren.
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