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Heeeere’s Johnny: Remembering the King of Late Night

Updated on May 7, 2014
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While Jimmy Fallon replaced Jay Leno on The Tonight Show, many TV viewers believe the late night signature franchise is still the domain of Johnny Carson, who retired in 1992.

To gray haired TV viewers, like myself, Johnny is the model against whom all talk show hosts are measured.

Many of us supported NBC's choice of Fallon as The Tonight Show's 6th host. Lorne Michaels told Variety the switch to Fallon is a return to the days of Carson.

Michaels contends Fallon is "the closest thing" this generation has to Johnny Carson. Michaels should know. He has a long relationship with Fallon. He's the creator/producer of Saturday Night Live, where Jimmy was first introduced to TV viewers. Lorne also currently produces Late Night and is executive produce of The Tonight Show’s starring Jimmy Fallon..

Jay seems cold when compared with Johnny and Jimmy. Although he’s a fine comedian, Leno lacks the charm and affability that would put him in the same league as Carson.

Johnny Carson was chosen the greatest TV icon in a 2007 poll.

I agree with Micheals' assessment of Fallon. Like Carson, Jimmy has so much likability, most Americans would gladly invite this multitalented comedian into their homes. Despite this, Fallon still has some big shoes to fill.

For those of you 20-Somethings, who didn't spend your weeknights watching Carson, let me tell you about him and the American institution he reigned over for three decades.

The times were different then. (Don’t old people always tell you that? But it was different!) When Carson started out as Tonight Show host in 1962 there wasn’t the Comedy Channel, TBS, USA or even HBO or ESPN. It wasn’t until the end of the 70s before Cable TV’s proliferation of channels impacted the television industry and our culture.

Carson in NYC during the early years
Carson in NYC during the early years | Source

Thirty years ago, most Americans could only pick up three or four TV stations on their 17-inch black and white TVs, while city dwellers might tune in seven television stations. During Carson’s early years, the medium was dominated by three networks and only NBC had a late night talk show.

Carson developed into one of TV’s greatest stars and viewers crowned him “King of Late Night.”

Carson made millions but few knew he was a philanthropist

As a mega star, Johnny was the highest paid entertainer of his time. He also was one of Hollywood’s top contributors to charitable causes. He donated millions and he did it without fanfare.

By the mid 70s, Carson’s annual salary was a record $4 million ($17 million today) and by the end of his career it rose to $25 million ($40 million today).

Carson lived well and so did his former wives. Johnny was married four times and he pay the woman millions in divorce settlements.

His charitable donations were largely made quietly through Carson’s foundation. In 2004, he donated $5.3 million to his alma-mater, the University of Nebraska, and the institution named a building after him. Johnny also contributed millions to the hospital, library and high school in his hometown of Norfolk, Nebraska.

When he died his foundation received $156 million in a trust from the Carson estate. Johnny also willed $4 million to the Los Angeles Children's Hospital. The only star to donate more than Carson is Paul Newman, who has contributed over $370 million through his food company.

Carson graced many a TV Guide cover
Carson graced many a TV Guide cover | Source

Carson: Nielsen ratings king

With Johnny appearing in millions of homes each weeknight, most Americans felt he was a close friend. “Affable, accessible, charming and amusing,” is how Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales described Carson.

With these qualities Carson totally dominated late-night TV during his 30 years. No one has come close to his Nielsen ratings during his era and since. But many have tried.

Other networks and syndicators wanted some of the late night gold and competitors continually popped up like ducks in a shooting gallery. Armed with his quick wit and Midwestern charm, Johnny routinely shot down the likes of Joey Bishop, Dick Cavett, Merv Griffin, Arsenio Hall, Joan Rivers and others.

In Carson's three decades on Tonight viewership averaged about 11 million per night. His star power made him and his network rich.

By 1975, Tonight was the most profitable show on television earning NBC $50-60 million annually ($210-$260 million in today's dollars). That was about 17 percent of NBC’s profit. “His show was the biggest single money-maker in television history,” according to The New York Times.

(See sidebar story for Carson's salary.)

As the number of TV outlets expanded over the years, The Tonight Show’s ratings clout diminished. For example, the last Tonight Show with Johnny Carson was seen by 50 million people, while only 9 million viewers tuned into Jay Leno’s (supposedly) last Tonight Show before Conan O’Brien took over in 2009, according to TV Buzz.

Despite the decline in the Nielsen ratings, The Tonight Show remains a solid profit generator for NBC. The Times reports the program currently makes $25 million to $40 million annually for the Peacock Network.

Carson looks back and within

Magic led him to show biz

Enough numbers. Let’s briefly examine Carson’s show business bio. He was a shy boy who broke out of his shell by performing magic tricks using his mail-order magic kit. At 14, he began performing as magician “The Great Carsoni” for civic groups in his Nebraska neighborhood.

In the 1940s, after serving in the Navy during World War II, Johnny worked at Nebraska radio stations performing comedy bits between playing records. Then, he switched to that new medium – television – and he soon left the Midwest.

In the 50s, Johnny moved to Los Angeles and performed on a local TV show, Carson's Cellar. That show caught the attention of Red Skelton, who offered him a comedy writing position on his live TV show. Just before one of the shows, Red was injured practicing a stunt. Carson was called on to pitch-hit and delivered his first monologue before a national TV audience.

In the mid-50s he moved to New York City and hosted a TV quiz show that showcased his sense of humor and class. For five years, Johnny was the M.C. of Who Do You Trust? The show featured Carson interacting with the contestants and showcased his easy going style and clever ad libs.

In 1958, the second year of the ABC quiz show, the producers decided to change announcers and hired Ed McMahon. Ed and Johnny hit it off during their four years on Who Do You Trust? – both on camera and after hours.

Johnny phones his babysitter

Carson's telling of a nightly "bedtime story" began in '62

In 1962, McMahon and Carson both quit Trust after Johnny landed The Tonight Show gig and he brought Ed along with him. On The Tonight Show, Ed served as Johnny’s on-screen sidekick and off-screen announcer. Each night McMahon introduced Carson to TV viewers with his rousing opening: “Heeeeere’s Johnny!”

Then Carson stepped through the curtain impeccably dressed and began his nightly monologue – skewing politicians and celebrities along the way. One critic said Carson’s monologue was “America's bedtime story.” The show’s initial stand-up routine is a format still used today by Jay Leno, David Letterman, the Jimmies and other late night hosts.

One of Carson's charms was how he handled a joke that caused groans, rather than guffaws. When a joke bombed Carson was ready with a quip, a silly face or other shtick, such as tapping the boom microphone and asking, “Is this on?” Usually his response to a groaner was as funny, or funnier than his other jokes.

Space, saddles and Scotch

Comedians who got their start on Carson's Tonight Show:

  • Roseanne Barr
  • Drew Carey
  • Jim Carrey
  • Ellen DeGeneres
  • Robert Klein
  • Jay Leno
  • David Letterman
  • Joan Rivers
  • Jerry Seinfeld
  • Steven Wright

Click for more info.

“Virtually every American with a television set saw and heard a Carson monologue at some point,” according to The New York Times in Carson’s Jan. 24, 2005 obituary.

“In his monologue and in his time,” The Times obit continued, “Mr. Carson impaled the foibles of seven presidents and their aides as well as the doings of assorted nabobs and stuffed shirts from the private sector: corporate footpads and secret polluters, tax evaders, preening lawyers, idiosyncratic doctors, oily accountants, defendants who got off too easily and celebrities who talked too much. All these oddments were sliced and diced neatly (and) politely.”

The jokes were crafted by a group of talented writers. Carson also contributed to some of the two dozen jokes in a typical monologue. The jokes never would have received the kind of reaction they did without Carson’s skillful delivery.

When the six-time Emmy winner finished his monologue the band would play him off as Johnny practiced his golf swing.

While comedy came easy, Carson had to learn the art of interviewing people. It was his lack of interviewing skills that prompted Johnny to initially turn down NBC’s Tonight Show offer. The network executives persisted and signed the comedian to host the then 1 hour and 45 minute show.

No matter who sat in the chair next to him, Carson always showcased him/her in a good light. His ego didn’t stop him from playing straight man so his guests could shine.

“No matter what kind of dead-asses are on the show, he has to make them funny and exciting,” remarked Billy Wilder, Academy Award winning producer, director.

“He has to be their nurse and their surgeon. He has no conceit,” Wilder continued. “He does his work and he comes prepared. If he's talking to an author, he has read the book. He's the cream of middle-class elegance.”

Carnac's fun with Ed McMahon

Mighty Carson Art Players

In addition to guests, Carson’s Tonight Show was filled with comedy skits. He invented and played a repertoire of characters that Johnny called the Mighty Carson Art Players. Among them:

Art Fern – a fast-talking pitchman and host of the "Tea Time Movie," usually assisted by a buxom blond.

Aunt Blabby – Johnny in drag portraying a cranky old woman who tosses out one-liners in response to Ed’s questions.

Carnac the Magnificent a clairvoyant who intuitively determines the answers to questions sealed in envelopes and kept in a mayonnaise jar on Funk and Wagnall’s porch.

Here are a few of Carnac answers followed by the questions:

Dippity Do — What forms on your Dippity early in the morning?

Debate — What do you use to catch de fish?

Sis Boom Bah — Describe the sound made when a sheep explodes.

The Carnac bit wouldn't have worked as well without audience participation. The routine was sprinkled with puns that were met with groans. When a dud caused loud grumbles in the audience Carnac would curse them in his unique way: “May a love-starved fruit fly molest your sister’s nectarines.”

Off stage he was a shy loner

Despite his star power Carson remained the same shy, withdrawn guy who grew up in Nebraska. He shunned most Hollywood parties and only enjoyed the company of a few close friends. Off camera he lived like a recluse.

He let his audience inside only once when he admitted to a Tonight Show guest he decided to be an entertainer because “you can be the center of attention without being yourself.”

Most interviewers never learned the truth from Johnny Carson, as he deflected their questions with humor. When one scribe asked how he became a star, Carson replied, “I started in a gaseous state and then I cooled.”

The King retires on top

When Carson announced his retirement it became an event. Numerous stars lined up to be guests on his last shows. The most memorable was Bette Midler, who sang some special songs on Johnny’s next to last show. (The last one to include guests.)

Bette sang three songs that night. She started off with a witty ditty written especially for the occasion and followed that with one of Johnny's favorites, “Here's That Rainy Day.” As she began singing "Rainy Day,” Carson softly joined in and it turned into an impromptu duet. Midler concluded her musical tribute by slowly singing the pop standard “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road).” As she sang Johnny shed a tear and so did many viewers.

At the conclusion of Johnny’s last show, which featured taped highlights of his 30 years on The Tonight Show, Carson promised to return to TV “when I find something that I want to do and I think you would like.” But he never did, except for providing the voice on a 1993 episode of The Simpsons and a brief, silent appearance on Letterman’s Late Show on May 13, 1994. (See last video.)

Carson quietly spent the last dozen years of his life in his $25 million Malibu beachside estate. Following Carson’s death, Letterman, who had been handpicked by Johnny to take over The Tonight Show, revealed that Carson had periodically sent him jokes for his monologue.

Following the vaudeville comedian’s practice to always leave them laughing, The Times’ concluded Carson’s lengthy obituary with what he’d like as his epitaph. In response to the epitaph question, Johnny silently “thought for a moment and reached for the traditional line of a talk-show host: ‘I'll be right back.’ ” –TDowling

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Looking for more on this and related topics? Check out:

• Expect Jimmy Fallon to be great: Jay Leno will be replaced on The Tonight Show in February by the likeable and talented Jimmy Fallon. After the Leno years, the show will finally be in good hands. Read more

• Lorne Michaels- Set to rule late night: When Jimmy Fallon moves to The Tonight Show, Lorne Michaels will be the producer of a late night trifecta: Saturday Night Live, The Late Show and Tonight. Read more

© 2014 Thomas Dowling

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    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E. Franklin 3 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      I was only an occasional Carson viewer, but I found this quite interesting. I never knew Carson's show was such a revenue powerhouse. And you have to admire someone who has the self discipline to go out while they're still on top. I enjoyed reading this.

    • TDowling profile image
      Author

      Thomas Dowling 3 years ago from Florida

      Thanks, Ron. While at the time I was sorry he never appeared on a TV special after he retired, today I understand why he did it that way.

      It was fun putting this Hub together, especially culling through numerous videos of Johnny on The Tonight Show. I sat in my office with ear buds on, laughing my arse off. My wife kept coming in and asking what was so funny?

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