Cover Story

The Great Carsoni

In an age of segmentation, late-night television remains one of America's few shared cultural experiences, and it all began with Johnny Carson

Issue: "Johnny Carson: In memoriam," Feb. 5, 2005

Johnny Carson dominated late-night television for an astonishing 30 years, from 1962 to 1992. In that span, LBJ, the '60s, Watergate, the Reagan years, and the pre-presidential Clinton were fodder for his good-natured satire. On Jan. 23, Mr. Carson died of emphysema at the age of 79. But late-night television still follows the format he perfected. And as late-night TV has become one of the nation's few unifying cultural experiences-and the prime source of political information for nearly a fourth of young adults-Mr. Carson's cultural influence lives on.

John William Carson was born on Oct. 23, 1925, in Corning, Iowa, and his family moved to Norfolk, Neb., when he was 8. When he was 12 years old, he sent off for a mail-order magic kit and started performing at the local Rotary Club and at church socials, calling himself "the Great Carsoni." Young Johnny would also spend hours listening to Jack Benny on the radio, whose droll humor, sense of timing, and comical reactions would become the model for his own comic style.

After a stint in the Navy during World War II and college at the University of Nebraska, Mr. Carson went into radio, working at local stations in Lincoln and Omaha. In 1951 he got a job at a fledgling TV station in Los Angeles. He hosted a little-watched daytime show called "Carson's Cellar," in which he once joked that Red Skelton-then a big star-was in the studio but that there wasn't time for him to perform. Mr. Skelton was watching, thought the bit was funny, and hired Mr. Carson to be a writer on "The Red Skelton Show." One day in 1954, Mr. Skelton got hurt doing one of his notorious stunts and could not go on the air. Mr. Carson filled in, his big break on national TV that led to a move to New York and his hosting a series of programs, including the quiz show "Who Do You Trust?" with its announcer Ed McMahon. Then, in 1962, came his gig with "The Tonight Show."

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With his droll wit, dapper dress, and down-to-earth Midwestern personality, Mr. Carson clicked with the American people. "No one could second-guess [the jokes]," commented comedienne Joan Rivers, "because if he got it, everyone in Iowa would get it." The ratings soared. Millions of Americans, across all demographics, made "The Tonight Show" part of their nightly ritual before going to bed. Despite cultural changes, national divisions, and changes in fashion, "The Tonight Show" held its audience of young and old, liberal and conservative, for three decades, until Mr. Carson-his ratings still huge-stepped down in 1992.

His show became the biggest moneymaker in the history of television, at one point generating 17 percent of NBC's total profit. When he decided to move his show from New York City to Burbank, Calif., the whole TV industry shifted to the West Coast. When he decided to tape his show rather than present it live, other shows followed suit, and the age of live TV was over.

Mr. Carson's humor was zany but, for the most part, tasteful. He approached the boundaries rarely, and usually with self-deprecating comments like this one about his own show: "We're more effective than birth-control pills." Most moments of crudeness were accidents. One night, his frequent guests from the San Diego Zoo brought a marmoset that climbed on his head, whereupon it urinated. Although this was hilarious in itself, it was made more so by the expression on Mr. Carson's face. Then there was the time Ed Ames, who played the faithful TV Indian companion of Daniel Boone, did a demonstration of tomahawk throwing that struck the target, a drawing of a cowboy, in an embarrassing place, sparking one of the longest laughs in television history. But in general, Mr. Carson did not approve of dirty jokes on his show. He refused to have on British comedians, considering their humor "lavatorial."

He did, however, shape the art form of stand-up comedy. By giving up-and-comers national exposure, Mr. Carson launched the careers of Bill Cosby, Jerry Seinfeld, Steve Martin, Robin Williams, and his late-night successors Jay Leno and David Letterman. A spot on "The Tonight Show" was a coup for every novice, but Mr. Carson also always made room on his couch for older performers, such as Jimmy Stewart. His genius as an interviewer, according to Bob Newhart, was "always making the guest look good."

Mr. Carson's political humor was remarkably fair and balanced, lampooning liberals and conservatives alike. His Watergate jokes reportedly made Richard Nixon realize that he was going to have to resign, while his Dan Quayle jokes forever stuck to the former vice president. After Bill Clinton, then governor of Arkansas, introduced Michael Dukakis at the 1988 Democratic Convention, Mr. Carson lampooned his long, dull, rambling speech. But he then invited Mr. Clinton on his show, where the governor played the saxophone and perhaps repaired the damage to his image.

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