From the Archives: Johnny Carson Defined Late-Night TV
Johnny Carson, who in three decades as host of “The Tonight Show” became one of America’s most influential entertainers as well as one of television’s most powerful figures, died Sunday. He was 79.
His nephew, Jeff Sotzing, a former producer of “The Tonight Show,” said Carson died peacefully, but declined to give a location or other details.
NBC, Carson’s longtime employer, said the comedian died of emphysema at his Malibu home. He had suffered a heart attack and undergone quadruple bypass surgery in 1999.
Sotzing said there would be no memorial service.
Former NBC Chairman Grant Tinker once called Carson’s run on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” “the biggest and best television has ever been.”
When Carson announced his retirement in 1991, another comedy legend, Bob Hope, said it was “sort of like a head falling off Mt. Rushmore.”
Although Carson was not the first “Tonight” host — Steve Allen and Jack Paar preceded him — he carried the format to previously unimagined heights and made late-night TV an enduring institution.
Millions of fans stayed up past their usual bedtimes to watch his interviews with stars and odd newsmakers, as well as sketches involving his silly, sometimes demented characters, such as TV host Art Fern and fortune teller Carnac the Magnificent.
He also is frequently credited with giving vital early breaks to two top-rated late-night hosts — Jay Leno and David Letterman — as well as a legion of stand-up comics. That list includes David Brenner, George Carlin, Billy Crystal, Don Rickles, Joan Rivers and Jerry Seinfeld.
Ed McMahon, the sidekick who always introduced Carson with “Heeeeere’s Johnny!” said the former talk-show host was “like a brother to me.”
“Our 34 years of working together, plus the 12 years since then, created a friendship which was professional, family-like and one of respect and great admiration,” McMahon said in a statement
“It’s a sad day for his family and for the country,” Letterman said in a statement. “All of us who came after are pretenders. We will not see the likes of him again.”
Leno, who followed Carson as host of “The Tonight Show,” called him “the gold standard” of television.
“No single individual has had as great an impact on television as Johnny,” Leno said in a statement. “It’s hard to believe he’s actually gone. It’s a tremendous loss for everyone who Johnny made laugh for so many years.”
Peter Lassally, Carson’s producer for more than two decades, told reporters last week that even though the comedian had been battling emphysema “a long time,” he remained an avid TV viewer and was even sending jokes to Letterman for monologues on his CBS show, “The Late Show with David Letterman.”
Known for his deadpan expressions and wry delivery, Carson proved that late night could be profitable for the networks, and the wee hours are now crammed with talk shows inspired by his success on “The Tonight Show.”
But none of those shows will probably ever match Carson’s reach. In 1969, ukulele-playing camp figure Tiny Tim and his bride, Miss Vicki, married in an on-air ceremony on Carson’s “Tonight Show.” Critics derided the event as a stunt, but more than 40 million viewers tuned in — a staggering figure for late night, and about as many as watched the 2004 Academy Awards in prime time.
Carson kept growing his audience throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, even as NBC’s competitors cooked up rival shows designed to end his dominance. But TV viewers developed a bond with Carson that others could neither duplicate nor shatter. In a 1978 New Yorker profile of Carson, writer Kenneth Tynan observed that this was “a feat that, in its blend of staying power and mounting popularity, is without precedent in the history of television.”
Carson spun running gags from those who joined him on the show. There were frequent cracks about McMahon’s supposed penchant for alcohol and the relentlessly dull social life of band member Tommy Newsom. But as an interviewer, Carson was as gentle as he was effective. He asked guests questions that viewers wanted answered, but he managed to avoid seeming prying or mean-spirited.
That goes a long way toward explaining why virtually every figure of importance from show business and politics eventually wound up on “The Tonight Show,” from Martin Luther King Jr. to Bill Clinton to Tom Cruise. All told, Carson was host to 22,000 guests during his 30 years on “The Tonight Show.”
The late-night host had become an extraordinarily private figure in recent years, given the national stage he commanded for three decades. He seldom appeared in public and — other than a few cameos on Letterman’s late-night show and a tribute to Hope — completely eschewed television after leaving “The Tonight Show” on May 22, 1992, with a retrospective that drew an audience that rivaled ratings for the Super Bowl.
“I bid you a very heartfelt good night,” were his parting words.
After years of silence, Carson spoke to Esquire magazine for a 2002 profile, reconfirming his belief that he had done the right thing in essentially disappearing from public view.
“I left at the right time,” he said. “You’ve got to know when to get the hell off the stage, and the timing was right for me. The reason I really don’t go back or do interviews is because I just let the work speak for itself.”
From a cultural standpoint, Carson’s nightly monologue developed a reputation as a bellwether in terms of the national mood. When Carson began making Watergate jokes, the New York Times wrote in 1975, “We knew it was permissible to ridicule the president, that Mr. Nixon was done for.”
“The influence he had on the country was unique. He was the conscience of America,” said Lassally, who noted that Carson also was extraordinarily evenhanded, so much so that no one ever knew his personal political leanings.
Carson also had a major effect on television standards, lacing his monologues with sexual innuendo that once would have been unthinkable on television.
“Next to Milton Berle and Lucille Ball, he’s had the single greatest influence on the content of television,” said Jeffrey Cole, director of the UCLA Center for Communication Policy. “He really created the monologue and turned it into a cultural barometer of political and social events. Many people got their take on what was acceptable from the monologue.”
Carson himself said in a 1986 interview, “I knew from the monologue the very night that Spiro Agnew was suddenly in deep trouble,” referring to Nixon’s former vice president, who was forced to resign in a financial scandal not related to Watergate. “From a one-line observation I can get a response, a reaction ... that may be the best indicator of how [someone] is perceived in this country.”
If Carson’s jokes reverberated in Washington, an appearance on “The Tonight Show” was seen for many years in Hollywood as a career-making platform, especially for stand-up comedians. Seinfeld said receiving the “OK” sign from Carson after his first appearance was “the Holy Grail of comedy.”
Rickles, the comic who Carson championed early in his career, said in a statement that “Johnny ... always made me look good.”
“That was his nature, to always make his guests look their best, and he made all of my appearances into ‘events,’ ” Rickles said.
Dick Cavett said that Carson “made people.”
“It was the Midas touch for a young comic to come on the show,” he said. “I was always a guest on the couch. My manager wouldn’t let me do stand-up. All the prestige [on the show] was on the couch.”
“What I appreciated about Johnny is that he let me pinch hit there [on “The Tonight Show”], and that really helped me get my own show,” Joey Bishop said in an interview. Bishop, who had a short-lived late-night show on ABC in the late 1960s, was one of many rival entertainers that other networks put forth to try to put a dent in Carson’s ratings.
Introduced by Groucho Marx on his first show on Oct. 1, 1962, Carson went on to host more than 7,500 hours of television and weathered numerous late-night challenges, including competing shows featuring Bishop, Cavett, Merv Griffin, Joan Rivers, Pat Sajak and Alan Thicke, that all came and went during his tenure.
At the end, feeling NBC was maneuvering behind him to line up a replacement, Carson stunned the television world when he announced his plans to retire at an advertising presentation in 1991, setting off a flurry of debate and backstage jockeying to determine whether Letterman or Leno should become his successor. Leno won the job, prompting Letterman to leave NBC for a competing show on CBS.
Although he never publicly took sides in the battle with Leno, Carson was said to have felt privately that Letterman was better-suited to be his replacement.
On Sunday, Letterman credited Carson for his professional success.
“He gave me a shot on his show, and in doing so he gave me a career,” Letterman said. “A night doesn’t go by that I don’t ask myself, ‘What would Johnny have done?’ ”
Lassally called Carson’s ability to step out of the spotlight at 66 and reject entreaties to return “an elegant end to his career.”
Friends frequently tried to coax Carson out of retirement. Steve Martin, a poker buddy, proposed that Carson make an appearance on the Academy Awards — of which he was the host of several times — and NBC Chairman Bob Wright pleaded with him to appear on the network’s 75th anniversary special in May 2002. Carson declined.
Nevertheless, he admitted in the Esquire interview that a decade after leaving “The Tonight Show,” the program stayed with him, telling the magazine that he still had dreams in which he was late for work and suddenly realized that he was unprepared to go on.
“I wake up in a sweat,” he said. “It’s now been 10 years since I’ve been done with the job, but I will still be back there — it was two-thirds of my adult life, remember — and people will be as real and fresh and current as ever in the dream.”
Carson did exhibit some signs of wanting to safeguard his legacy. In 2003, for example, he wrote the Wall Street Journal to correct a reference to the use of canned laughter on the program, stressing that he never did during his 30-year tenure.
“I don’t mean to sound peevish,” Carson said, “but I wouldn’t want people’s memories of ‘The Tonight Show’ to be dimmed because they believed the laughter they heard wasn’t genuine.”
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Carson, as the host, was how effortless he made “The Tonight Show” look. His monologue, never rehearsed, seemed to perfectly capture the tone necessary to let people unwind. He also seemed to possess an innate understanding of the rhythms and pacing of television.
“It should be low-key,” Carson once told reporter Rick Du Brow, then at the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. “It’s the end of the day. People watching don’t want someone who looks like they’re going to have a nervous breakdown.”
In a sense, Carson was the perfect personality for television — reflecting the generation following the great radio stars such as Jack Benny and Hope, one that grew up with the medium.
“I use the camera,” Carson said. “I remember seeing a silent film from the ‘20s with Oliver Hardy sighing directly into the camera. I can’t explain how perfect that sigh was. It’s like trying to explain comedy.”
Lassally said that even in retirement Carson never lost his passion for comedy and was still finding plenty of material from reading the newspaper.
“I think the thing he misses the most is the monologue,” Lassally said.
Some attribute part of Carson’s vast appeal to his Midwestern roots and sensibility.
Born in Corning, Iowa, Carson was raised in Norfolk, Neb., where he began his career as a teenager, performing a magic act he called “The Great Carsoni.”
Unlike the comics he admired, many of whom were from poor backgrounds, Carson enjoyed relative prosperity even during the Depression as the son of a district manager for the power company. He was a middle child, with an older sister, Catherine, and younger brother, Dick, who later worked as a director on “The Tonight Show” and other TV programs.
Carson served in the Navy (a ship he was on, the Pennsylvania, was torpedoed in August 1945, killing nearly 20 of his crew mates) and subsequently attended the University of Nebraska.
Honing his act by performing during college, he landed a job after graduation at a local radio station — WOW in Omaha — where he wrote comedy and announced commercials. Not long after the first TV station in the area signed on in 1949, Carson started to host a 15-minute TV show, “Squirrel’s Nest.”
The comic moved to Los Angeles in 1950, becoming a staff announcer at the local CBS station, KTSL-TV (now KCBS-TV Channel 2), which led to his own program, “Carson’s Cellar.” He subsequently wrote for Red Skelton’s TV show.
Carson ascended to network television at the age of 29, headlining a daytime show and substituting on CBS’ “The Morning Show.” In 1957, he became host of what became a popular ABC daytime show, “Who Do You Trust?” which first paired him with McMahon.
When Paar decided to leave “The Tonight Show,” NBC saw Carson as the obvious replacement. Desperate to have him, the network used guest hosts for six months until Carson — who initially turned down the job — was free of his ABC contract.
His starting salary, $100,000 a year, eventually blossomed into millions (his earnings reportedly exceeded $20 million a year by 1990). Carson owned the sketches on his show as well, which were packaged and sold separately to TV stations under the name “Carson’s Comedy Classics.”
Carson moved “The Tonight Show” from New York to Burbank — which became another regular target for jokes — in 1972. He also pressed to cut the show from 90 minutes (it originally ran 1 hour and 45 minutes) to an hour in 1980 and threatened to quit to get the network to do so.
NBC resisted, resulting in a public and protracted contract negotiation. The network eventually caved in, however, giving Carson ownership of the show itself in the process. This was not surprising since “The Tonight Show” accounted for nearly a fifth of the network’s total profit from advertising revenue.
Carson was equally successful as a headliner in Las Vegas, and he negotiated extended vacation time (as well as Mondays off) that allowed him to perform there frequently.
If Carson was a king in the entertainment world, his personal life was thornier. He remained an inordinately private person for such a public figure, but the facts that came out often seemed at odds with his genial on-screen image.
Carson married four times, was said to be a chain smoker and wrestled with alcoholism. He endured the death of one of his three sons, Rick, in a 1991 car accident at the age of 39.
Carson usually allowed his personal life to invade the show only in jest, but after that incident he fought back tears while eulogizing his son. After a much-publicized arrest for drunken driving in 1982, Carson had a policeman escort him onstage.
One of Carson’s wives, Joanne, said the comic had focused on his career “because instinctively he knew the career would never let him down. He felt it would never betray him, and it never has betrayed him.”
Although his first divorce became final in 1963, that relationship became an issue in 1990 when his wife (Jody “Joan” Wolcott, the mother of all three children and his college sweetheart) demanded a ninefold increase in her alimony payments, to $120,000 per year. Carson’s attorneys called the request “a baldfaced holdup.”
Carson was married to his fourth wife, Alexis, in 1987. The two met on the beach a few years earlier and wed in a private ceremony at his Malibu home. His passions included astronomy and tennis, both as a player and fan, evidenced by his regular trips to the Wimbledon tournament in England.
“If I had given as much to marriage as I gave to ‘The Tonight Show,’ I’d probably have a hell of a marriage,” Carson told The Times in 1986. “But the fact is, I haven’t given that, and there you have the simple reason for the failure of my marriages: I put the energy into the show.”
For all the plaudits heaped on him, Carson’s influence within Hollywood was equally legendary. Laurence Leamer claimed that no other talk show would book him when he wrote “King of the Night,” an unflattering 1989 biography of Carson, whom he called “the most powerful person in Los Angeles.” In the book, Leamer characterized him as a cold and ruthless individual, a womanizer who was abusive with his wives and petty in his business dealings.
Carson freely admitted that he “never was a social animal.” He didn’t like being surrounded by people, drove himself to work and was extremely selective about his friends, spending lots of time in his sprawling hilltop estate, so large as to prompt comic Bob Newhart to quip on a visit, “Where’s the gift shop?”
The build-up to Carson’s final episode in 1992 became a national event. The Comedy Central network went dark during that hour, and Arsenio Hall aired reruns of his late-night series the last week out of deference to Carson.
Ratings swelled, with millions tuning in to see final guests Robin Williams and Bette Midler, the latter singing a memorable duet with Carson. His family attended the final “Tonight” taping, and Carson addressed his sons, Chris and Cory, in signing off.
“I realize that being an offspring of someone who is constantly in the public eye is not easy,” Carson said. “So guys, I want you to know that I love you. I hope that your old man has not caused you too much discomfort.”
Despite staying out of the public eye after leaving, Carson continued to maintain offices in Santa Monica, going in a few days a week. Company affairs — including the sale of “Tonight Show” videos that continued to sell briskly, marketed via TV “infomercials” — have been run by his nephew, Sotzing.
Carson also indulged his passion for the sea in his later years, sailing extensively on a specially equipped 130-foot yacht, the Serengeti — named, he said, for the region in Africa that captivated him on a trip there in the 1990s.
Although Carson appeared in the 1964 movie “Looking for Love,” which starred Connie Francis, he ultimately decided to focus his career almost exclusively on “The Tonight Show.” Carson admitted that he had “thought about movies for years” but felt that they didn’t offer a terribly viable option because he was so well-known as himself. "[Robert] Redford can play a baseball player, but I’m playing me. Every night,” he said.
Among the film offers Carson turned down was the chance to play a character modeled after him, opposite Robert DeNiro, in “The King of Comedy,” a role that went to Jerry Lewis.
Although he generally avoided acting, Carson did host the Academy Awards on five occasions from 1979 to 1984 (the exception being in 1983). His own list of honors included six Emmys and the prestigious George Foster Peabody Award. He also was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George H.W. Bush in 1992, and was celebrated by the Kennedy Center for career achievement the next year.
During a 1979 interview with Mike Wallace for CBS’ “60 Minutes,” the journalist asked Carson: “What would you like your epitaph to be?”
Without missing a beat, Carson quipped: “I’ll be right back.”
Key moments on Carson
Johnny Carson’s legacy is not one of catchphrases or famous one-line jokes. It was his physical shtick — his trademark golf swing at the end of every monologue or the stumble onstage when he made his entrance as the bumbling Carnac the Magnificent. It was his perfectly timed deadpans and slow-burn reactions — who could ever forget the look on his face when a little marmoset relieved himself on Carson’s head? It was his gallery of zany characters whom audiences never tired of during his three-decade tenure on NBC.
1964: Carson introduces two of his most popular characters: the all-knowing, all-seeing, all-silly mind reader, Carnac the Magnificent, and the gossipy, wisecracking Aunt Blabby. But the biggest laugh of the year — perhaps the biggest one in the history of “The Tonight Show” — came when singer-actor Ed Ames demonstrated how to throw a tomahawk, only to hit a cardboard dummy in the crotch.
1966: Carson begins “The Mighty Carson Art Players,” a sketch format that over the years saw him parody famous figures, including President Reagan and actor Karl Malden hawking the American Express card.
1969: More than 40 million viewers tune in to see the wedding of the falsetto singer Tiny Tim and his teenage bride, Miss Vicki. Copies of this episode, and the premiere episode of Carson’s “The Tonight Show,” have been lost.
1971: Carson debuts as the lascivious character Art Fern, host of the “Tea Time Movie.” With his pencil-thin mustache, slicked-back hair and tacky suits, Fern would peddle products, seduce his buxom co-host and give nonsensical, forever-changing directions to the Slauson freeway cut-off.
1977: Carson introduces the last of his great characters, the super-patriotic but dimwitted Floyd R. Turbo, who would deliver bombastic editorials dressed in a checked buffalo jacket and a hat with earflaps.
1992: On the next-to-last show on May 21 — the final installment that featured guest stars — Bette Midler brings Carson to tears when she serenades him with the standard “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road).”
And on the last broadcast, after sharing memories with sidekick Ed McMahon and band leader Doc Severinsen, Carson took the stage alone and delivered one of TV’s classiest farewells:
“You people watching, I can only tell you that it’s been an honor and a privilege coming into your homes all these years to entertain you. And I hope when I find something I want to do and think you would like, I can come back and [you will be] as gracious in inviting me into your homes as you have been. I bid you a very heartfelt goodnight.”
Compiled by Times staff writer Susan King
Lowry, now a columnist and television critic for Daily Variety, wrote much of this obituary while a Times staff writer. Collins is a Times staff writer. Times staff writer Susan King also contributed to this report.
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