0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson
NBC | Season Premiere Date: January 1, 1969
Summary: 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
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 TV," and to miss a night was leave one's self less than "in the know" at the water cooler the following day. On one occasion, a Carson joke about toilet paper shortage actually led to hoarding of the product by thousands of consumers. Following the monologue, viewers saw either a "desk bit" between Carson and McMahon, or a more elaborate, produced skit. Then, interviews and performances by a wide range of celebrities followed (some reports have Johnny's guest list at more than 20,000). Carson was often at his best while interviewing the "everyday" person, especially young children.

Some of the notable skits and features:

• Carnac the Magnificent – Debuting in 1964, Carson (wearing a jeweled and feathered turban) would "divine" answers to questions from "hermetically sealed" envelopes, a standard gag from Vaudeville. Example: "The answer is...Chicken teriyaki! The question..."What is the name of the last surviving Japanese kamikaze pilot?"

• The Mighty Carson Art Players – Starting in 1967, this catch-all title featured parodies of movies, TV shows and commercials. Classic skits included a tongue-twisting take-off on Dragnet (1968, with Jack Webb); commercial parodies of E.F. Hutton (with a deceased Carson rising from a casket to "my broker is E.F. Hutton..."), American Express (with Carson as Karl Malden), Energizer Batteries (Carson as Robert Conrad), and various diarrhea commercial take-offs. Also under the "Mighty Carson" umbrella was the Tea Time Movie sketch, with Carson playing Art Fern, an oily afternoon movie host and commercial huckster. These sketches were full of double entendre humor, first featuring busty Carol Wayne as the straight foil, "the Matinee Lady." Following Wayne's drowning death in 1985, Teresa Ganzel was added. Other classic moments included Carson as President Reagan (and actor Fred Holliday) in a hilarious "Who's On First?"-style routine, and a duet with Julio Iglesias ("To All The Girls I've Loved Before"), with Carson giving a convincing Willie Nelson impersonation.
• Floyd R. Turbo – The super-patriot who gave over-the-top editorials.
Other memorable moments:
• Falsetto-singer and ukulele player Tiny Tim on-air marriage to Miss Vicki (Vicki Budinger) on December 17, 1969.
• Ed Ames infamous tomahawk throw demo, striking the outlined target squarely in the crotch.
• The marmoset who relieved itself while poking around at Carson's head; plus other animals (brought on by frequent guests Joan Embery and Jim Fowler) who refused to behave or were just being themselves.

• Potato chip collector Myrtle Young, who momentarily thinks Johnny has eaten one of her prized chips.

Among the performers who owe (at least part) of the beginning of their careers to Carson: Joan Rivers, Roseanne Barr, Drew Carey, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Eddie Murphy, Jerry Seinfeld and Garry Shandling, plus many others.

Ironically, Letterman (a frequent "Tonight" guest host in the late 1970's) was Carson's first choice as his successor. Leno, however, had already been given the seat as "permanent guest host," following Carson's professional breakup with Joan Rivers (who had joined the up and coming FOX Network to do her own late night show in 1986.) Leno, though seen by some at NBC as "too ethnic looking," had the favor of NBC's West Coast executives, and was chosen over Letterman, whom NBC West saw as "too cranky and edgy" to replace the mild-mannered Carson. This was perceived as a final snub to Carson, and prompted Letterman to defect to CBS, and compete head to head against the show he'd always wanted to host. The entire "Tonight" endgame saga would be the subject of Bill Carter's book The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno & the Network Battle for the Night (later turned into an HBO film, with Rich Little as Johnny).

Carson's 30-year ride was hardly without its more tenuous moments, thanks to several contract disputes and his well-publicized failed marriages (he was thrice divorced during his run on the show). Carson's "alimony payment" jokes would become a staple of the show. Following much protracted negotiation (including talk of his leaving "Tonight"), Carson signed a new contract with NBC in 1980. Three stipulations in the deal: 1) "Tonight" was reduced from 90 minutes to 60; 2) Carson would dictate what kind of show NBC could run at 12:30 am ET. This meant replacing Tom Snyder's Tomorrow show with from Carson's stable. 3) Carson Productions was formed. Among its most heralded works was the show that followed "Tonight" -- Late Night with David Letterman. Carson Productions' other gift to NBC was a series of specials called Television's Greatest Commercials, hosted by Ed McMahon. McMahon was also a victim of a one-shot deal called Johnny Carson's Greatest Practical Jokes, in which Johnny had loaded the trunk of Ed's car with office equipment and taped Ed failing to get past NBC Security (and a guard named Carson). Both of these specials would merge with Dick Clark's running TV Censored Bloopers in January 1984, becoming TV's Bloopers & Practical Jokes. In 1983, Carson Productions produced and distributed "Carson's Comedy Classics," a somewhat low-budget, 30 minute repackaging of "Tonight" clips, culled mainly from the years 1972-1982.
Carson's lock on late night came into question in the late 1980's, likely precipitated by two events: the debut of The Arsenio Hall Show in 1989, and Dana Carvey doing a less-than-loving portrayal (with Phil Hartman as a one-note Ed McMahon) of Carson on Saturday Night Live. Carvey's "Johnny" was basically a dinosaur -- a relic clueless of pop culture and mired in "unhipness." In one of the more scathing takes, Carvey presented Carson as "Carsenio," giving his Johnny a wedge cut and Arsenio-styled suit. These less-than-flattening portrayals of Carson on SNL were seen by some as NBC giving tacit approval to the move to push Johnny out. Carson, during his last show, in thanking Doc and the band, would lament TV's loss of the "last big swing band," saying, "To say that this band is not 'hip' is to not know the meaning of the word."

In 1991, as Carson was starting his 29th year, the "King of Late Night" announced in his usual no-big-deal style that he was retiring, expressing a desire to leave the show while still in his prime. His second-to-last show on May 21, 1992 featured just two guests: Robin Williams and Bette Midler, with Midler serenading Carson with "One for My Baby," a teary-eyed Carson taking in the moment. The final show on May 22, 1992 was a quiet and contemplative retrospective, featuring "a day in the life" on the Tonight Show set, and a tribute to his late son, Rick (who was killed in a car crash the previous June). Alone on a stool, in front of the familiar curtain, a tearful Carson bade his audience "a heartfelt good night," thus ending not only a show, but an era of television.

With very few exceptions, Carson's "Tonight" departure was the last most people saw of their beloved late-night TV comic. Most notably: a voice appearance as himself on The Simpsons episode, 'Krusty Gets Kancelled,' and a pair of appearances on Late Show with David Letterman. Just prior to Carson's death, it was revealed that Johnny would occasionally give Dave an idea or two for his monologue, thus cementing the notion that Carson saw Letterman as his true late night heir.

When Johnny Carson died on January 23, 2005, America mourned the passing of a late-night legend. Jay Leno devoted his January 24, 2005 show to his predecessor (though it should be noted, Leno read a prepared "tribute" from cue cards). On the show were Ed McMahon, Drew Carey and Carson's close friends Bob Newhart and Don Rickles, all providing their remembrances. Letterman's first new show following Carson's death featured longtime "Tonight" executive producer Peter Lassally and a performance of "Here's That Rainy Day" -- one of Johnny's favorites -- by bandleader Doc Severinsen, with NBC Orchestra mates Tommy Newsom and Ed Shaughnessy.

Thanks to TV Tome contributors Brian Rathjen & doppelgänger.
Genre(s): Variety Shows, Reality, Talk & Interview

Season 7 Episodes

Seasons & Episodes