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Johnny Carson

A Short Biography of the Legendary Late Night Talk Show Host

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Vital Statistics

Full Name: John William Carson

Born: October 23, 1925

Died: January 23, 2005

Birthplace: Corning, Iowa

Primarily Raised in: Norfolk, Nebraska

College: University of Nebraska

Spouse(s): Joan Wolcott, October 1949 to 1963; Joanne Copeland, August 1963 to 1972; Joanna Holland, 1972 to 1983; Alexis Maas, 1987 until his death.

Awards: Six Emmy Awards, the Peabody Award (1975), Presidential Medal of Freedom (1992), Kennedy Center Honors (1993), member of the Television Academy Hall of Fame (1987)

Career

Johnny Carson will be known forever as the king of late night television for his 30 years as host of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Nearly every major talk show host of the last 20 years includes Carson as both an inspiration and an influence, including David Letterman, current Tonight Show host Jay Leno and incoming host Conan O'Brien.

His entertainment career began shortly afer his stint with the U.S. Navy. Carson worked at WOW, a radio and television station in Omaha, where he eventually hosted a morning program called The Squirrel’s Nest. It’s here he started honing his comedic talent with a number of sketches and bits. His success there led to a gig with the CBS station in Los Angeles, where he hosted a comedy show, Carson’s Cellar. Comedian Red Skelton was a fan and eventually hired Carson away to write on Skelton’s program.

Other shows Carson starred in or hosted before landing on Tonight included The Johnny Carson Show, and game shows Earn Your Vacation, To Tell The Truth, and Who Do You Trust?. During the Trust, Carson met Ed McMahon and the two struck up a partnership that would last throughout the rest of Carson’s career.

Carson took over The Tonight Show from Jack Paar in October 1962. It began first in New York and moved to Burbank, Calif., in 1972. After the move, Carson started hosting the show four days a week, leaving Mondays open for a guest host. It also ran for 90 minutes from its inception until 1980, when it was shortened to an hour, at Carson’s request.

For a number of years, comedianne Joan Rivers was the permanent guest host. But after she accepted a gig to host a talk show on Fox, she stopped guest hosting Tonight. A number of guest hosts followed, until Jay Leno became the permanent guest host, beginning in 1987.

Carson retired from The Tonight Show on May 22, 1992. The program was highly rated and well-received. Final guests included Bette Midler, who sang a sweet song to Carson, making him tear-up.

His retirement was a quiet one, though he did eventually turn up on late night TV once again. This time it was on the Late Show with David Letterman in 1994, when that show was in Los Angeles. He “delivered” the Top Ten list by stepping out and handing the list to Letterman. He then sat behind Letterman’s desk, receiving a standing ovation, and left shortly thereafter without saying a word (he had laryngitis).

This gesture is often seen as Carson’s “crowning” Letterman his heir apparent. And it was eventually revealed that over the years Carson was routinely supplying Letterman with jokes for his monologue.

Tradmarks, Hallmarks and Other Marks

  • Ed McMahon’s classic introduction: Heeeeeeeeeeeere’s Johnny!.
  • The launch pad of a number of comedians’ careers, inlcuding Jay Leno, Ellen DeGeneres, Jerry Seinfeld, Steven Wright and others.
  • Brian Wilson’s song “Johnny Carson” is a tribute to the late night legend, but Carson wasn’t a fan of the song.
  • A famous feud broke out between Carson and singer Wayne Newton that eventually led to this statement by Newton on Larry King Live in 2007: "I'm going to say something I've never said on television, Mr. King. Johnny Carson was a mean-spirited human being. And there are people that he has hurt that people will never know about. And for some reason at some point, he decided to turn that kind of negative attention toward me. And I refused to have it."
  • Carson made famous a number of comic characters, including Art Fern, the "Tea Time Movie" announcer; Carnac the Magnificent, known for answering questions before the questions were read; Floyd R. Turbo American; and El Mouldo.
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