Thursday, May 17, 2012

The King of Late Night: The Life of Johnny Carson

Photos, from top to bottom: 1. Johnny with David Letterman, in 1994, which was his final appearance on TV. 2. A very young Johnny as "The Great Carsoni", his magician alter ego. 3. Johnny from 1966, four years into his Tonight Show stint. 4. Johnny with his sidekick, Ed McMahon, and his trumpet player/bandleader, Doc Severinsen. 5. Johnny reacts to the song by his final guest, Bette Midler, singing "One For My Baby (and One More for the Road)".

Forty seven stories below ground in a Kansas salt mine lies some of the most precious treasures in the history of American television. This is where you would find 4,000 hours worth of episodes of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. I have always been a fan of Johnny's work, and being an avid student of entertainment, I was excited to watch the PBS special "American Masters: Johnny Carson", narrated by Kevin Spacey. 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of Johnny's debut as The Tonight Show host in 1962. Most of the information in this article comes from that special, with some personal anecdotes thrown in by myself. Johnny Carson's humor transcended generations. Through watching his show and others with my father, it was a way for us to connect. Often times we are enthralled by the same comedians that bring our parents joy and an escape from every day life. My dad idolized Carson, as well as other comedians from his generation such as Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason, George Burns and Don Rickles. Many who watched Carson host his show for 30 years never realized that behind that confident aura was a man who battled alcoholism, social anxiety, womanizing which contributed to the end of three marriages, and all he really wanted was acceptance from his mother.

Johnny Carson was born in Iowa on October 23, 1925, but spent his formative years in the small community of Norfolk, Nebraska, where his family moved when he was 8 years old. At age 12 or 13 he knew he wanted to entertain others. He became obsessed with learning magic tricks. He said that performing magic gave him confidence. He said it allowed him to "be the center of attention without being yourself". He mentioned how the most basic need that people have is to be accepted, liked, and even loved. His dad had Midwestern values and integrity. His mother had the sense of humor but never seemed impressed with Johnny's talents. Like many middle children, Johnny felt like he did not get the attention of his older and younger siblings. He wanted to carve out his own identity and magic was the first step in doing that.

In 1943, Carson started his stint in the Navy where he was a communications officer and also had a record of 10-0 as a boxer. He was assigned to the USS Pennsylvania in the Pacific Ocean. A highlight of his military career was performing magic tricks for the Secretary of the Navy.

Carson idolized Jack Benny, and he was a dedicated listener to his radio program. Carson was a student at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln where he majored in radio and speech and minored in physics. Johnny got a job after college as an announcer at WOW radio in Omaha, Nebraska. Johnny was getting into show business at the dawn of a new age, the age of television. In 1949, only 1500 people in Omaha had TV sets. The following year, he entertained them on his first TV show, called The Squirrel's Nest. By 1951, Johnny figured it was time to make the move to Los Angeles to seek out opportunities in the entertainment field. He worked as an announcer and became a writer for comedian Red Skelton. He also hosted a show called Carson's Cellar (1951-1953). In 1954 his big break happened when he was able to fill in for Skelton. Around this time, The Tonight Show with Steve Allen appeared on NBC. In 1955, Johnny got his own show on CBS, The Johnny Carson Show, but it did not last. After 39 weeks on the air, the network pulled the plug. One bright spot from that year was Johnny's chance to appear on a TV show with one of his idols, Jack Benny, who predicted success for the young comedian. Depressed, with 3 kids and a stressful marriage, the Carson family moved to New York City. ABC hired him to host a game show from 1957-1962 called Who Do You Trust? He teamed up with an announcer who would be with him for the rest of his career, Ed McMahon. Steve Allen left his post as Tonight Show host after a few years (1954-1956), and he was followed by Jack Paar, who hosted from 1957 to 1962. By 1962, Johnny had divorced his first wife, Jody (married from 1949 to 1962), and had married Joanne Carson, who managed many of his career choices. She was the one who lobbied for him to replace Jack Paar. Johnny was not confident he could fill those shoes, but Joanne had faith. The Tonight Show job had been rejected by Bob Newhart, Jackie Gleason and Groucho Marx.

In 1962, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson premiered on NBC, originating from studio 6B at Rockefeller Center. It was a grueling job, filling one hour and 45 minutes of time, five days per week. His mother was his toughest critic. She did not think he was funny. By 1969, Johnny's audience was enormous. 85% of the country, 45 million people viewed the episode which married singer Tiny Tim to Miss Vicki. Competitors such as Dick Cavett and Merv Griffin tried going head-to-head against Johnny in late night, but Carson and NBC remained on top.

By 1972, Johnny decided the show needed to move to a Los Angeles suburb of Burbank, which would enable them to get better guests. Johnny was married to his job (he divorced Joanne in 1972 and married Joanna later that year), so he was distant as a father. One of his kids said to bandleader Doc Severinsen "I wish I could be as comfortable with my dad as I am with you". By this point, Carson was a show business icon, trusted as much as Walter Cronkite. Away from the cameras, Johnny was socially awkward and found that drinking did not help him to relax, but it only made him belligerent. He admitted this in a 1979 60 Minutes interview. On The Tonight Show he joked that Ed had the drinking problem, but it was more of an issue for Johnny. In 1982 Johnny was arrested for driving under the influence. He was driving a DeLorean, and he was a major investor in that company. Carson had a love-hate relationship with his sidekick. David Letterman compared the pair to Laurel and Hardy. Ed was almost fired from the show for upstaging Johnny. Ed needed to play the second banana role, and not attract too much attention.

By the late 1970s, NBC was struggling in the ratings, but The Tonight Show was strong, providing NBC with 20% of its income. Johnny had a turbulent relationship with NBC executive Fred Silverman and contemplated leaving the show. A contract was drawn up which would pay Johnny $5 million per year and he only had to work 4 nights per week. Starting in 1980, the show was cut down from 90 minutes per night to 60 minutes.

The 1980s provided many ups and downs for Johnny. In 1983 he had to pay a $20 million divorce segment to his 3rd wife Joanna, which provided fodder for many of his jokes. Johnny would have guest comedians host his shows the night he was off and one of his favorites was Joan Rivers. In 1983 she became his first permanent guest host. In 1986 Joan Rivers accepted a job as a late night host on Fox. Johnny felt betrayed and never spoke to her again. In 1985 his mother died. In 1987 he married his 4th wife, Alexis Maas, who he met as she walked on the beach behind his Malibu home.

Johnny could make or break the careers of young comedians. Drew Carey, David Letterman, Jay Leno, Ray Romano, Roseanne, Jerry Seinfeld, Garry Shandling, Ellen Degeneres and many more entertainers felt like Johnny was the reason they became successful. He let them be the star when they did his show. He enjoyed few things more than discovering new talent. Ray Romano said that once you got the approval of Johnny, your income tripled immediately. Drew Carey broke down and cried when he thought of how Johnny gave him his big break. Television hosts these days do not wield that kind of power. After a stand up performed, Johnny would often say "good stuff, funny stuff". If he was really impressed, he would invite them over to sit with himself and Ed and chat for a bit. If that happened, the comic would receive many job offers the next day from what I have heard. Even a comedic icon like Don Rickles credited Carson for giving him his big break, back in 1965. Recently Rickles was presented with the 2nd annual Johnny Carson award for comedy. The inaugural winner last year was David Letterman.

Billy Wilder said this about Carson, summing up his brilliance:

"By the simple law of survival, Carson is the best. He enchants the invalids and the insomniacs as well as the people who have to get up at dawn. He is the Valium and the Nembutal of a nation. No matter what kind of dead-asses are on the show, he has to make them funny and exciting. He has to be their nurse and their surgeon. He has no conceit. He does his work and he comes prepared. If he’s talking to an author, he has read the book. Even his rehearsed routines sound improvised. He’s the cream of middle-class elegance, yet he’s not a mannequin. He has captivated the American bourgeoisie without ever offending the highbrows, and he has never said anything that wasn’t liberal or progressive. Every night, in front of millions of people, he has to do the salto mortale [a circus parlance for an aerial somersault performed on the tightrope]. What’s more, he does it without a net. No rewrites. No retakes. The jokes must work tonight."

In 1991, Johnny's son Rick was killed in a car accident when his car went off a California cliff side. Friends said that Johnny was never the same after that happened. In 1992, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson came to an end after 30 years. His final guests were Robin Williams and Bette Midler. He ended his final show (May 22, 1992) with the following statements:

"And so it has come to this... I, one of the lucky people in the world; I found something I always wanted to do, and I have enjoyed every single minute of it. I want to thank the people who've shared this stage with me for thirty years, Mr. Ed McMahon... Mr. Doc Severinsen... and the people watching. I can only tell you that it has been an honor and a privilege to come into your homes all these years and entertain you... And I hope when I find something that I want to do, and I think you would like, and come back, that you'll be as gracious in inviting me into your home as you have been. I bid you a very heartfelt good night."

That same year he was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George Bush. The following year he was given the Kennedy Center Honor. Johnny's final TV appearance was in 1994, when he delivered a top ten list to David Letterman. He recieved a 90 second standing ovation. Whether Johnny wanted Leno or Letterman to be his successor is up for discussion. All I know is that Johnny would fax jokes to David Letterman that he would use in his monologue. Letterman admitted that after Johnny died. Carson did not send jokes to Leno. That says a lot. On Leno's first show as Tonight Show host he did not acknowledge Johnny, and most of Johnny's staff was let go. I think that NBC went with Leno since they saw Letterman as too controversial and Leno would do whatever the NBC executives said to do. The PBS special pointed out that in 1991, Leno's manager, Helen Kushnick, planted a story in the L.A. newspapers saying that NBC had plans to oust Carson and replace him with Leno. The book and film The Late Shift chronicled this period where Leno and Letterman battled to take over the show. I am not a fan of Jay Leno. He does not listen to his guests when they are talking and he seems like a phony with his nice guy, down-to-earth image.I don't think that his show is that funny, and Letterman would have been a better replacement. To replace Carson with Leno is a mistake and it has tainted the image of a great franchise which had been hosted by Steve Allen, Jack Paar and Johnny Carson. The debacle a few years ago with Conan O'Brien taking over and not working out and then Leno moving to 10pm, only to move back to the 11:35pm slot, hurt the show even more. I think that Conan would have made a great host but he was not given enough of a chance to let his new format catch on with viewers. Also it hurt matters that Leno was moved to 10:00pm, so by the time that 11:35pm arrived, the audience was significantly smaller, since they felt like they had already watched The Tonight Show. I felt bad for Conan in that situation, since he is truly a brilliant comedian and a much better interviewer than Leno.

In retirement, Johnny enjoyed his hobbies such as playing tennis, reading, drumming (Buddy Rich once gave him a drum set) and spending time on his yacht, the Serengeti. He actually learned Swahili and traveled to Africa to joke with the people there. One of the people interviewed in the show said that Johnny was the most well-read people he ever met. He loved astronomy, and I recall that Carl Sagan was one of his favorite guests.

In 1999, Carson had a heart attack, which was followed by a quadruple bypass surgery. Johnny Carson died on January 23, 2005 at age 79 due to emphysema, brought on by years of smoking. He left $156 million to his charitable fund. The charity was originally created in 1981 to benefit children, education and health services. David Letterman said "Johnny Carson gave me something to emulate". To this day, hosts like Letterman, Conan, Leno, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and others still use the same format that Carson perfected.

Television, music and movies are my passions, and they have provided me with more enjoyment in my life than almost anything else. I loved Johnny's show because of his top notch guests, the outstanding big band music of Doc Severinsen and his band, and especially the wit and charm of the host, who personified class. I liked when he did his various characters such as Carnac, Art Fern, Aunt Blabby, Floyd Turbo, Ronald Reagan, and others for his Mighty Carson Art Players segments. Some may disagree, but in my opinion, Johnny Carson was the greatest entertainer in the history of television.

* Material from this article is from the PBS special "American Masters: Johnny Carson" and
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