Over the years, we have occasionally had the pleasure of witnessing people doing something they were undoubtedly born to do. What better example of this than Johnny Carson’s 30 year stint hosting the “Tonight Show”? Although it’s been exactly 50 years since he first stepped behind his NBC microphone, and over 20 years since his departure, Carson is still the gold standard to which all late night talk show hosts are measured. The “Tonight Show” had been successful before Johnny Carson took the helm, and Carson was certainly doing well prior to accepting the job, but I doubt any one would have guessed that Johnny’s debut as host of the program would eventually be seen as a watershed moment in television history.
Born in Nebraska in 1925, Johnny Carson’s initial fling as an entertainer was as a magician. Obtaining a book on magic at the age of 12, Carson developed an act, and by age 14, was performing at picnics and county fairs under the guise, “The Great Carsoni.” Over time, Carson realized that his real talent wasn’t in doing tricks, but rather the amusing dialogue he would employ while conducting the magic. Blessed with an excellent speaking voice, Carson migrated to broadcasting, beginning his career in Omaha at radio and television station WOW in 1950. Moving to California the following year, Johnny landed a job in Loa Angeles at the CBS affiliate KNXT, where he hosted “Carson’s Cellar,” a low budget comedy sketch show. Although only airing locally in Southern California, “Caron’s Cellar” developed a strong cult following, including Red Skelton, who invited Carson to join the writing staff of Skelton’s popular network variety show. Carson’s first major national exposure came in 1954, when Skelton was knocked unconscious during rehearsals shortly before airtime, and Carson successfully filled in for him. Soon, Carson was receiving plenty of TV work, appearing as a guest on various variety shows and as a panelist on different game shows. Unfortunately, Johnny Carson’s first attempt as a prime-time host was short lived as his CBS program, “The Johnny Carson Show” was canceled after the 1955-56 season. Carson, hoping to re-jumpstart his career, moved to New York where he accepted hosting duties for the ABC afternoon game show, “Who Do You Trust?”. The significance of Carson’s years with “Who Do You Trust” was that the show’s format (more time spent interviewing contestants than quizzing them) allowed Carson to hone his legendary art of conversation, plus it teamed him with Ed McMahon, who would remain with Johnny the rest of his show business career.
In the early days of television, late night broadcasting was comprised mostly of bad movies and test patterns. NBC president Pat Weaver felt there might be a larger potential audience if midnight viewers were given better programming, and so Weaver took a local nightly show, hosted by Steve Allen on WNBC, and added it to the NBC network on September 27, 1954. Part music, part comedy and part informal interview, the program was named “Tonight”, making it a counterweight to NBC’s morning offering, “The Today Show.” Airing weeknights at 11:15, “Tonight” ran for 105 minutes, or, as Steve Allen quipped at the beginning of the first show, “forever.” “Tonight” made Steve Allen television’s first late night star, but his popularity soon made him feel his stature had outgrown the still limited after-hours landscape. In 1957, Steve Allen left “Tonight” to concentrate on his prime-time variety show, prompting NBC to switch format, with something called “America After Dark.” Debuting on September 28, 1957, “America After Dark,” a news and feature show, modeled after the “Today Show,” was a ratings disaster from the start. After six months, NBC pulled the plug, and reverted back to “Tonight,” on July 29, 1957, with a brand new host, Jack Paar. Under Paar, the program gravitated toward what became its most recognizable format: a monologue, followed by a string of guests, filling the chair and couch that sat next to the host’s desk. The “Tonight” show made Paar a major television personality, but like Steve Allen, he was anxious move on to prime-time, making the “Tonight Show’s” desk empty again in March of 1962. Noting Johnny Carson’s success with “Who Do You Trust?”, NBC offered him the “Tonight Show”, an offer Carson accepted with a bit of reluctance.
Although Johnny Carson was announced as the “Tonight Show’s” new host in early 1962, he still had six months remaining on his ABC contract, and ABC saw no reason to release him any earlier. From March until the end of September, the “Tonight Show” functioned without a permanent host, relying on a series of “guest hosts,” a list that included Jerry Lewis, Joey Bishop and Groucho Marx. Finally, on October 1, 1962, Johnny Carson stepped onto the “Tonight Show” stage, after being introduced by Groucho Marx (Ed McMahon’s traditional “Here’s Johnny” began on the second night). Johnny’s opening night guests were Rudy Vallee, Tony Bennett, Mel Brooks and Joan Crawford. Although many, including Carson himself, were unsure if he could adequately fill Jack Paar’s shoes, but after a shaky first few weeks, Johnny began to put his own unique stamp on the, pushing the ratings far beyond where Jack Paar or Steve Allen were ever able to take them. Among some of the ongoing bits that Carson introduced to the “Tonight Show” audience were “Carnac the Magnificent,” the bumbling psychic, “Aunt Blabby,” the confused elderly lady who would usually chastise Ed for using any phrase that might suggest death, and “Art Fern,” the “Tea Time Movie” host, who would constantly interrupt that day’s film to give an oily sales pitch. Whether participating in a skit or performing his nightly monologue, Johnny Carson showed himself the master of comedic timing, a trait a credited from studying Jack Benny. Carson not only could be funny when delivering a great joke, but could often be even funnier if the joke fell flat, never wallowing in the discomfort of poor material. His live audience became so familiar with his style, that all Johnny would have to do is say, “boy, was it hot today,” knowing his crowd would be sure to ask, “how hot was it,” giving him the opportunity to produce a punch line. Carson’s comic instincts served him well as an interviewer, as he would be the perfect straight man for the many comedians who came on his show, knowing exactly what it took to put his guests over with the audience…no wonder that every funny man or woman would crawl over broken glass to appear on the program.
The success of the “Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” was not unnoticed by the other networks, and before long ABC and CBS began producing their own late night talk shows, hoping to steal a decent portion of Carson’s audience. Les Crane, Joey Bishop, Merv Griffin and Dick Cavett were among those who tried and failed to unseat Johnny Carson as king of late night. In 1974, ABC even tried bringing back Jack Paar, but the former “Tonight Show” host could make no inroads against his successor. The only chance Johnny’s rivals had a chance for decent ratings were when he took one of his frequent vacations. Carson’s reign as “King of the Night” continued for the remainder of the 1960’s, and through the ‘70’s and 80’s. During that time, the “Tonight Show” underwent several changes, including the length of the show, from 105 minutes to eventually 60, and the program being moved, in 1972, from New York to NBC studios in Burbank, California. Probably the most obvious change was in Carson’s appearance, which is understandable considering the years in put into the show. As Carson himself said, “I started the “Tonight Show” as a young comedian, and ended up a white haired, old comedian.” In 1992, Johnny Carson finally retired, turning the program over to Jay Leno after an incredible 30 years.
Johnny Carson’s legacy is due to the fact that, unlike Steve Allen and Jack Paar, he never sought a move to prime-time in order to enhance his career. Instead, Carson stuck with late-night television, and built the “Tonight Show” into his own empire, making it by far the network’s most profitable property. The “Tonight Show” still exists as a valuable franchise, but as far as the show’s prestige, it has been suggested that when Johnny left, he took that with him.
Note: Going back to the Steve Allen days, the “Tonight Show’s” starting time was 11:15pm, which coincided with the conclusion of most of NBC’s affiliate’s newscasts. During the 1960’s, many local stations started expanding their news to 30 minutes, and would begin airing the “Tonight Show” in progress, 15 minutes into the program. Carson, aware that much of the country was missing his monologue, decided in 1965 to delay his appearance until the show reached the 15 minute mark (11:30), turning the first portion of the show over to Ed McMahon. NBC finally threw in the towel, and in January of 1967, permanently changed the start of the “Tonight Show” to 11:30.