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Overview for Johnny Carson
Johnny Carson

Johnny Carson


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Also Known As: John William Carson Died: January 23, 2005
Born: October 23, 1925 Cause of Death: emphysema
Birth Place: Corning, Iowa, USA Profession: Music ... comedian talk show host actor ventriloquist magician


A towering figure in the history of television, Johnny Carson was the host of "The Tonight Show" (NBC, 1954- ) for three decades. During that time, the congenial Midwesterner established a blueprint for the job through his quick wit, impeccable taste in guests (especially comedic talent) and personable delivery that made every guest - from the biggest star to the man on the street - shine in the spotlight. Carson's magnetism and talent made him not only a celebrity, but also part of the national fabric: as David Letterman once said, people wanted to end their day by being tucked in by Johnny. His unexpected death in 2005 left a vast void in not only the talk show world, but in the entertainment industry as a whole.

Born Oct. 25, 1925 in Corning, IA, John William Carson was the son of power company manager Homer "Kit" Lloyd Carson and wife Ruth Hook Carson. The family relocated to Norfolk, NE when Carson was eight; once there, he developed an interest in sleight of hand and launched his career as a 14-year-old magician-comic under the name "The Great Carsoni." After a year of higher education at Millsaps College in Jackson, MS, he left to join the Navy with the goal of becoming a pilot. Carson was instead sent to Columbia University to receive midshipman training and was assigned to the USS Pennsylvania in the Pacific. However, he never saw combat - the military dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki shortly before he reported for duty on Aug. 14, 1946.

After returning to civilian life, Carson began his career in earnest at WOW's radio and television stations in Omaha, NE. His ease in front of the camera soon earned him a solo job as the host of a morning program called "The Squirrel's Nest," which allowed him to poke gentle fun at the local political and civic figures. The wife of one such target found his humor endearing enough that she referred him to her brother, who was part of the growing television market in Southern California. Carson soon relocated there, and in 1951, launched his own comedy show, "Carson's Cellar," which ran until 1953. Though low-budget, the program was an early venue for his talent with monologues and sketch comedy, and his work earned him fans from the movie and television community like Groucho Marx and Red Skelton who were occasional guests on the program. Skelton later asked Carson to join the writing staff of his variety series, "The Red Skelton Show" (CBS/NBC, 1951-1971), and on one memorable occasion, the veteran performer's illness forced Carson to stand in as host of the show. The experienced helped to cement Carson in the minds of television producers as a burgeoning on-air talent.

Carson's first gig as host came with the short-lived quiz program "Earn Your Vacation" (1954), but the strength of his guest shot on the Skelton program quickly earned him his own variety show the following year. However, "The Johnny Carson Show" (CBS, 1955-56) was not a success, despite offering a blend of its star's knack for sketch comedy and monologues. He was soon back on the game show circuit; this time as the host of "Who Do You Trust?" (ABC, 1957-1963). A substantial hit, it pushed Carson further up the television food chain, but its true cultural significance was in its introduction of Carson to Ed McMahon, who was the show's replacement announcer in 1958. From that point on, the two men would work together and remain friends for the next four decades.

Carson was remarkably busy during this period; in addition to his hosting duties, he was also a regular guest on other variety programs and quiz shows, and even contributed a few dramatic turns on live television dramas like "The United States Steel Hour" (ABC/CBS, 1953-1963). He was also briefly considered for the lead role in Carl Reiner's sitcom "Head of the Family," which became "The Dick Van Dyke Show" (CBS, 1961-66). But the path of his life and career changed in 1962 when he was selected to replace Jack Paar as the host of "The Tonight Show." The volatile and emotional Paar had announced his departure in March of that year, and Carson's success on "Who Do You Trust" had made him the leading candidate for the job. However, his contract with ABC prevented him from taking the host's chair until it expired at the end of September. Guest hosts, including Carson's friend Groucho Marx, handled the hosting duties until Oct. 1, 1962, when Marx introduced Carson to television audiences as the host of "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson." At the time, the show's lineup was comprised of Carson; Ed McMahon as announcer, whose introductory cry of "Here's Johnny!" soon entered the national lexicon; and Skitch Henderson as leader of the "Tonight Show" orchestra. Milton DeLugg later replaced Henderson before jazz trumpeter Doc Severinsen would take the helm in 1967.

Within four months of assuming the mantle of "The Tonight Show," Carson had added nearly half a million viewers to the show's viewership - a considerable feat, especially in the face of competition from "The Steve Allen Show" (NBC/ABC, 1956-1961) - and for the next 15 years, Carson would double his audience. Carson's formula for success appeared to have been a combination of numerous factors: First and foremost was Carson's personality, which personified Midwestern values in its affable and confident nature; his comic timing - Carson was peerless in his ability to not only deliver all manner of gags - but also how to modify his delivery from joke to joke based on how well the material was translating; and a well-oiled stockpile of facial expressions and gestures that could turn even the dullest quip into a minor classic. Carson was also unafraid to be silly, as his numerous recurring characters showed. Among them were the hapless mentalists Carnac the Magnficent and the lesser-known El Mouldo; the seedy Art Fein, host of the "Tea Time Movie;" crotchety Aunt Blabby; and a dead-on impersonation of Ronald Reagan during his terms in office. In these and other routines, the Mighty Carson Art Players, a rotating group of stock performers, frequently supported Carson.

But Carson's appeal lay beyond his performances. As an interviewer, he was generous and conversational, which frequently brought out the best in his guests. Carson gave ample time to those who could hold the spotlight during their appearances, like Burt Reynolds, Tony Randall and Orson Welles. But he also devoted equal energy and time to offbeat guests, like psychiatrist Dr. Joyce Brothers, and milked bits with zoo animals for all they were worth. Carson was also renowned for spotting and encouraging stand-up comedians; among the performers who appeared regularly or got their first breaks on "The Tonight Show" were Bill Cosby, George Carlin, Jerry Seinfeld, Ray Romano, Joan Rivers, Don Rickles, David Brenner, Drew Carey, and Jay Leno and David Letterman - both of whom would find their futures permanently intertwined with Carson's. In fact, it was considered the pinnacle of success for stand-ups to be asked to sit next to Carson on the couch after their sets, as was confirmation of "the King's" approval.

Carson could also be cutting, when needed; he spared no quarter to certain celebrities, including Frank Sinatra and Dolly Parton. Occasionally, the humor hit too close to the bone, as evidenced by a long-standing feud with Wayne Newton over gags that suggested that the Las Vegas entertainer was homosexual. However Carson's most critical gags were reserved for political figures; during the controversies that boiled over during the Nixon administration, Carson's monologues became an integral part of the national discussion. His humor and observation, delivered in his unique manner, seemed to sum up how most Americans - no matter what their political denomination - were thinking. For his efforts, Carson won six Emmys, including the Governors Award, as well as Peabody and People's Choice Awards. He also became the host of choice for numerous high profile television programs, including the Academy Awards and the Emmy awards.

Carson's tenure with NBC was occasionally fraught with tension. He took the network to court in 1979 over issues stemming from his 1972 contract; the case was eventually settled out of court, with Carson receiving not only his wish to cut the show from 90 minutes to 60 XXXXXX. He later preserved about 20 years' worth of "Tonight Show" episodes in an underground facility in Kansas; the collection was considered to be the largest single yield of television episodes in the world. Carson also chided the network for moving the program from New York to the NBC production facility in Burbank in 1972, which prompted decades worth of jibes about "beautiful downtown Burbank."

Another stipulation Carson received in his contract was a three-day weekend; a guest host would fill in for him on Mondays before his Tuesday return. A wide range of talent assumed the guest host duties throughout the 1970s and '80s, including David Brenner, Bob Newhart and entertainer John Davidson. Comedian Joan Rivers became Carson's permanent guest host in 1983, but her vaunted status ended in 1986 when she accepted her own talk show on the new Fox Channel without informing Carson. After that, stand-up Jay Leno became the exclusive guest host beginning in 1987 when Carson cut his schedule back to three days a week and a "Best of Carson" clip compilation filled out the Tuesday night broadcast.

In 1992, Carson sent shock waves through the entertainment industry by announcing that he would retire as the host of "Tonight." NBC named Leno his successor, which shocked Carson and many of those around him who had considered David Letterman to be the person worthy of following him to the "Tonight Show" chair. The veteran host was appalled by the network's decision. Despite the rancor, the NBC feted Carson like the cultural icon he was for several broadcasts during the third week in May 1992. The tribute was capped by an emotional duet with Bette Midler on "Here's that Rainy Day." The singer later serenaded Carson with the standard "One for My Baby (and One More For the Road"), which reduced the normally stoic host to tears. On his final broadcast, which took place on May 22, 1992, Carson was center stage for the entire show, during which he bid a heartfelt adieu to a loyal audience that had welcomed him into his their homes and clung to his every word for three decades. The Carson era of the "Tonight Show" ended as it had begun - with charm, wit and class.

In the years following Carson's retirement, he maintained an exceptionally low profile. There was talk of a return to television, but the effort never came to fruition; Carson would later state in one of the two interviews he granted after his departure that he believed he could never top what he had done with the "Tonight Show." There were the expected tributes, including a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1992 and a Kennedy Center Honor in 1993. But Carson scrupulously avoided celebrations of NBC's late night legacy, and aside from a voice-over guest appearance on "The Simpsons" (Fox, 1989- ), he was largely out of the public eye. He did, however, maintain a relationship with Letterman by contributing gags to his monologue and appearing on "The Late Show with David Letterman" (CBS, 1993- ) to deliver the "Top 10 List" to thunderous applause. The visit would be Carson's final television appearance and a final confirmation of just who Carson believed should have taken over "The Tonight Show."

In 1999, Carson suffered a severe heart attack at his home in Malibu, CA. He was rushed to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he received quadruple bypass surgery. In 2002, Carson stunned the nation by revealing that he was suffering from emphysema due to a lifelong smoking habit. The disease would claim his life three years later when he died on Jan. 23, 2005 from respiratory arrest. Tributes from every part of American life, from President George W. Bush to Jay Leno to Carson's favorite, David Letterman, who rightly asserted the notion that all talk show hosts that followed in Carson's footsteps were simply trying to live up to the standards established by the man.

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