Six months after Jack Paar made a stormy departure from "The Tonight Show" (over jokes about Communism, among other issues) and viewers enduring a succession of "substitute" hosts (and an ill-fated attempt at a magazine-type show), NBC (and middle America) finally got the comedian they were waiting for.
Johnny Carson – who had honed his craft on radio and daytime television, and to that point was best known as host of Who Do You Trust – made his debut as host of "The Tonight Show" on October 1, 1962. Thus began a love affair with America that lasted 30 years, not only making Carson wealthy and powerful, but earning him the title, "King of Late Night."
It started out shaky. NBC built Carson a cheap set on the sixth floor of 30 Rockefeller Center, not thinking the show would last. Ed McMahon was less confident; he still lived in Philadelphia and commuted for the next three years.
In 1962, "Tonight" began at 11:15 pm ET and lasted 105 minutes. By then, most NBC affiliates had inflated their late-evening newscasts to half an hour. It meant that, unless viewers tuned in on the NBC owned-and-operated stations in New York, Washington, DC, Chicago, Philadelphia, or Los Angeles, chances are they missed Carson's monologue. NBC quickly moved the start time of Johnny's show to 11:30 pm ET to ensure everyone could see the best part of his domain. In 1972, the show moved from New York to NBC's West Coast headquarters, thus setting up countless gags about "beautiful downtown Burbank."
For a number of years, NBC reran "Tonight" on weekends at 11:30 pm ET. These reruns, of course, didn't score nearly the ratings as the originals maintained. By the end of 1974, Carson told NBC to turn their late weekends to another program. NBC hired a young Canadian performer and writer named Lorne Michaels to develop (what would quickly become) the "Tonight" antithesis -- Saturday Night Live.
Carson became the man with whom millions of Americans ended their day with a relatively simple formula: an opening monologue of topical (sometimes corny) humor. Johnny's stock in trade became his down-home, glib sense of humor and his natural wit. He possessed the knack of being equal parts L.A. hip and Midwest backward. However, he never mocked people or resorted to mean-spirited or cheap, off-color jokes; instead, he often poked fun at human nature and events of the day in such a way that made America know it was OK to laugh at themselves. The Carson Monologue became "must see...