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Johnny Carson, the King of Late Night

22 Dec 2016Personal Essays

Before the limelight

John William Carson was born in Corning, Iowa on October 23, 1925, but he grew up in Norfolk, Nebraska. At the age of 14, he started performing magic tricks and used the moniker “The Great Carsoni.” He graduated in 1949 at the University of Nebraska. A year after, Carson worked as a radio announcer and at a television station in Omaha. He also landed a job at The Squirrel's Nest, an early-morning television program. In 1950, he worked for KNXT, a station based in Los Angeles, owned by CBS. He was given a job in writing in The Red Skelton Show after he starred in Carson's Cellar. It was a lucky break for Carson when Skelton got injured; he substituted Skelton for the show. After several game and variety shows, Johnny Carson finally had the defining career of his life, being the host of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

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The Tonight Show

The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson became a home for Johnny Carson, his sidekick Ed McMahon, and other regulars for 30 years. He filled in after Jack Paar left The Tonight Show. As Carson was a jazz-lover and amateur drummer, he retained Paar's band, with Doc Severinsen. Ed McMahon would start the show by his famous “Heeeeeere's Johnny” introduction, ushering Carson out the stage followed by a short comical monologue by Carson. His opening monologue depended on the mood of the nation. His every punch line has a valuable point to it. His most important ingredient was politics, mirroring the voice of the people, but also devoured on latest trends, scientific discoveries, peculiar news, and even his porces. He presented a peek of what was happening in the nation and the world. The show then would be filled with music, interviews, and comedy sketches. Carson's illusory golf swing directed toward his band would signal the end of the show.

Originally, the show was produced in New York. Also, it was not broadcasted live at first. After the Jack Paar days, it had been aired on television live and uninterrupted. The show was permanently moved to Burbank, California in 1972.

After the transfer, Carson wanted to have guest hosts on Monday nights so he would only have to host for four days. Initially, The Tonight Show had various hosts, but in September 1983, Joan Rivers became its constant guest host until 1986 (she was fired for accepting a work at a competing show without permission from Carson). After that, the show again had various guest hosts until Jay Leno became permanent in 1987.

Many performers, especially comedians, considered their appearance to the show a jump start of their careers. Thus, once in the show, performers would try their best to make Carson laugh, a good sign for a starting career. Jay Leno, David Letterman, and Jerry Seinfeld, popular comedians, among others, all eagerly awaited for an invitation by Carson to sit and chat. Carson created and portrayed iconic characters, the most popular of which is “Carnac, the Magnificent,” who consistently brought out hoots from the audience.

A testimony to his brilliance, in 1987, Carson was inducted to Television Hall of Fame. He also received a George Foster Peabody Award and six Emmy Awards. In 1992, Carson was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian honor. The following year, he became the recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors.

Carson's life outside television

Johnny Carson had several failed marriages. In his first marriage, Carson was rumored to physically hurt his wife Joan Wolcott, whom he had three sons. The marriage ended in porce. He then married Joanne Copeland and lived together for nearly 10 years. His third marriage with Joanna Holland, a former model, surprised his friends and the public. By this time, he made jokes about marrying women with similar names. At the age of 61, he found another love of his life, who was almost 30 years younger than he was. His relationship with Alexis Maas was the longest among all his marriages.

Carson stepped down his throne

The “King of Late Night” ended his show business career on May 22, 1992, his last night as host in The Tonight Show. With the growing number of competing shows and celebrities, he wanted to retire at his peak. As most would expect this last show to be jam-packed with celebrities, Carson opted to have no guests at all. He just sat there on his chair and talked to the people, thanked them for watching him and letting him to their lives through the years. It was a touching moment for Carson and his colleagues when he delivered his farewell statement on his last show. Jay Leno, who was then Carson's permanent guest host, replaced him as host. After his retirement, he was rarely seen again on television despite numerous invitations to interviews and other events. His most notable was his guest appearance at The Late Show with David Letterman, where he received a standing ovation from the audience.

He donated an astounding more than five million dollars to the University of Nebraska Foundation to support the theater arts. Another five million was donated to the university after his death. He supported several causes, such as medical, animal conservation, and youth foundations. Carson Regional Cancer Center and Johnny Carson Theatre were both based in Norfolk, his hometown.

The country mourned his death and considered him a great loss. Nobody knew he was sick; perhaps he concealed his health problems on purpose. Several television shows paid tribute to him. Jay Leno and David Letterman had as guests former associates of Carson in their respective shows. Letterman stated in his tribute that Carson had been part of the every day lives of people and that people always looked forward at night when Carson would end their day with a smile.

Carson, the television legend

The formulas of his show, which had been proven effective, served as the format for most succeeding late-night shows, such as those hosted by Letterman, Leno, and O'Brien. Specifically, the opening monologue, the live band and audience, and taped segments outside the set were emulated by other shows. Some hosts even adopted his gesture when delivering jokes.

True, he was not the pioneer of late-night television, but he brought it to its finest. Oprah Winfrey believes that Carson defined “the original talk show.” David Letterman was once quoted saying, “All of us who came after are pretenders.” His successor Jay Leno has the same thought as Letterman, “No single inpidual has had as great an impact on television as Johnny. He was the gold standard.” President George W. Bush recognized in his statement Carson's “profound influence on American life and entertainment.” Many recognized and applauded his generosities to newcomers, being responsible for the success of a number of comics. He perfected the mix of late-night talk, music, and comedy.

His heartland charm and humor immediately won the heart of the audience, but his wit and his impressive handling of audience made him the most recognizable figure in television. Whereas Carson's personal life was not exactly a joyful one, his professional life achieved perfection. Although we would never get to hear McMahon booming “Heeeeeere's Johnny” ever again, Johnny Carson already made his mark in American television.


McMahon, Ed (2005). Here's Johnny!: My Memories of Johnny Carson, The Tonight Show, and 46 Years of Friendship. Nashville, Tennessee: Rutledge Hill Press.

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