The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson

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The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson
Tonightshowtitlecard1980s.jpg
Also known asThe Tonight Show (franchise brand)
GenreTalk/Variety
Created bySteve Allen
William O. Harbach
Dwight Hemion
Sylvester L. Weaver, Jr.
Written byHead writer:
Raymond Siller (1974–89)
StarringJohnny Carson
Ed McMahon (announcer)
Theme music composerPaul Anka
Country of originUnited States
No. of seasons30
No. of episodes4531 (List of episodes)
Production
Producer(s)Fred de Cordova
Location(s)NBC Studios
New York, New York (1962–72)
NBC Studios
Burbank, California (1972–92)
Running time47–105 minutes
Broadcast
Original channelNBC
Picture formatColor
Original runOctober 1, 1962 – May 22, 1992
Chronology
Preceded byTonight Starring Jack Paar
Followed byThe Tonight Show with Jay Leno
 
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For the entire Tonight Show franchise, see The Tonight Show. For the 1955–56 CBS variety show hosted by Carson, see The Johnny Carson Show.
The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson
Tonightshowtitlecard1980s.jpg
Also known asThe Tonight Show (franchise brand)
GenreTalk/Variety
Created bySteve Allen
William O. Harbach
Dwight Hemion
Sylvester L. Weaver, Jr.
Written byHead writer:
Raymond Siller (1974–89)
StarringJohnny Carson
Ed McMahon (announcer)
Theme music composerPaul Anka
Country of originUnited States
No. of seasons30
No. of episodes4531 (List of episodes)
Production
Producer(s)Fred de Cordova
Location(s)NBC Studios
New York, New York (1962–72)
NBC Studios
Burbank, California (1972–92)
Running time47–105 minutes
Broadcast
Original channelNBC
Picture formatColor
Original runOctober 1, 1962 – May 22, 1992
Chronology
Preceded byTonight Starring Jack Paar
Followed byThe Tonight Show with Jay Leno

The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson is a talk show hosted by Johnny Carson under The Tonight Show franchise from 1962 to 1992.[1] It originally aired during late-night. For its first decade, Carson's Tonight Show was based in New York City, with some episodes recorded at NBC's West Coast studios in Burbank, California; in May 1972, the show moved to Burbank, California.[2]

In 2002, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson was ranked #12 on TV Guide's 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time.[3]

Format[edit]

Carson's show established the modern format of a late-night talk show: beginning with a monologue sprinkled with a rapid-fire series of 16 to 22 one-liners; Carson had a rule of no more than two on the same subject. This was followed by sketch comedy, then moving on to guest interviews. While his early guests included politicians such as Robert F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, Carson mainly had as guests people that had a book, movie, television show, or stage performance to promote. Other regulars were selected for their entertainment or information value, in contrast to those who offered more cerebral conversation;[4] Carson was very uncomfortable with discussing politics on air out of fear it might alienate his audience,[5] and it was Carson's preference for access to Hollywood stars that caused the show's move to the West Coast in 1972.[6] When asked about intellectual conversation on Tonight, Carson and his staff invariably cited "Carl Sagan, Paul Ehrlich, Margaret Mead, Gore Vidal, Shana Alexander, Madalyn Murray O'Hair" as guests;[4] one television critic stated, however, "he always presented them as if they were spinach for your diet when he did [feature such names]".[7] Psychologist Joyce Brothers was also one of Carson's most frequent guests.

Carson almost never socialized with guests before or after the show; frequent interviewee Orson Welles recalled that Tonight employees were astonished when Carson visited Welles's dressing room to say hello before a show. Unlike his avuncular counterparts Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, and Dick Cavett, Carson was a comparatively "cool" host who only laughed when genuinely amused and abruptly cut short monotonous or embarrassingly inept interviewees. Mort Sahl recalled, "The producer crouches just off camera and holds up a card that says, ‘Go to commercial.’ So Carson goes to a commercial and the whole team rushes up to his desk to discuss what had gone wrong, like a pit stop at Le Mans." Actor Robert Blake once compared being interviewed by Carson to "facing the death squad" or "Broadway on opening night." The publicity value of appearing on Tonight was so great, however, that most guests were willing to subject themselves to the risk.[4]

Show regulars[edit]

Ed McMahon[edit]

The show's announcer and Carson's sidekick was Ed McMahon, who from the very first show would introduce Carson with a drawn-out "Heeeeeeeeere's Johnny!" (something McMahon was inspired to do by the overemphasized way he had introduced reporter Robert Pierpoint on the NBC Radio show Monitor). McMahon, who held the same role in Carson's ABC game show Who Do You Trust? for five years previously, would remain standing to the side as Carson did his monologue, laughing (sometimes obsequiously) at his jokes, then join him at the guest chair when Carson moved to his desk. The two would usually interact in a comic spot for a short while before the first guest was introduced.

McMahon stated in a 1978 profile of Carson in The New Yorker that "the ‘Tonight Show’ is my staple diet, my meat and potatoes—I’m realistic enough to know that everything else stems from that". After a 1965 incident in which he ruined Carson's joke on the air McMahon was careful to, as he said, "never to go where [Carson]'s going".[4] He wrote in his 1998 autobiography:

My role on the show never was strictly defined. I did what had to be done when it had to be done. I was there when he needed me, and when he didn't I moved down the couch and kept quiet. ... I did the audience warm-up, I did commercials, for a brief period I co-hosted the first fifteen minutes of the show..., and I performed in many sketches. On our thirteenth-anniversary show Johnny and I were talking at his desk and he said, "Thirteen years is a long time." He paused long enough for me to recognize my cue, so I asked, "How long is it?" "That's why you're here," he said, probably summing up my primary role on the show perfectly... I had to support him, I had to help him get to the punch line, but while doing it I had to make it look as if I wasn't doing anything at all. The better I did it, the less it appeared as if I was doing it....If I was going to play second fiddle, I wanted to be the Heifetz of second fiddlers....The most difficult thing for me to learn how to do was just sit there with my mouth closed. Many nights I'd be listening to Johnny and in my mind I'd reach the same ad lib just as he said it. I'd have to bite my tongue not to say it out loud. I had to make sure I wasn't too funny—although critics who saw some of my other performances will claim I needn't have worried. If I got too many laughs, I wasn't doing my job; my job was to be part of a team that generated the laughs.[8]

Bandleaders and others[edit]

The Tonight Show had a live band for nearly all of its existence. The NBC Orchestra during Carson's reign was originally led by Skitch Henderson (who had previously led the band during Tonight Starring Steve Allen), followed briefly by Milton DeLugg. Starting in 1967 and continuing until Jay Leno took over, the band was led by Doc Severinsen, with Tommy Newsom filling in for him when he was absent or filling in for McMahon as the announcer (this usually happened when a guest host substituted for Carson, which generally gave McMahon the night off as well). The show's instrumental theme music, "Johnny's Theme", was a re-arrangement of a Paul Anka composition called "Toot Sweet".

Behind the scenes, Fred de Cordova joined The Tonight Show in 1970 as producer, graduating to executive producer in 1984. Unlike many people of his position, de Cordova often appeared on the show, bantering with Carson from his chair off-camera (though occasionally a camera would be pointed in his direction).

Recurring segments and skits[edit]

Characters[edit]

If the laughter fell short for a too-lame pun (as it often did), "Carnac" would face the audience with mock seriousness and bestow a comic curse: "May a diseased yak befriend your sister!" or "May a rabid holy man bless your nether regions with a power tool!"

Bits[edit]

Guest's request: My Dead Dog Rover
Doc Severinsen, singing: "My dead dog Rover / lay under the sun / and stayed there all summer / until he was done!"
David Letterman has revived this bit in recent years along with the CBS Orchestra on his Late Show.
Example: Johnny, dressed as a doctor, starting to talk about some intimate topic (just as in the real ad) and then being hit by cream pies from several directions at once.

Programming history[edit]

Carson's first Tonight Show New Year's Eve, 1962. Also pictured are Skitch Henderson and Ed McMahon.

Jack Paar's last appearance was on March 29, 1962, and due to Carson's previous contracts, Carson did not take over until October 1. His first guests were Rudy Vallée, Tony Bennett, Mel Brooks, and Joan Crawford. Carson inherited from Paar a show that was 1 3/4 hours (105 minutes) long.[4] The show filmed two openings, one starting at 11:15 p.m. and including the monologue, the other that listed the guests and re-announced the host, starting at 11:30. The two openings gave affiliates the option of screening either a fifteen-minute or thirty-minute local newscast preceding Carson. Since 1959, the show had been videotaped earlier the same broadcast day.

As more affiliates introduced thirty minutes of local news, Carson's monologue was being seen by fewer people. To rectify this situation, Ed McMahon and Skitch Henderson co-hosted the first fifteen minutes of the show between February 1965 and December 1966 without Carson, who then took over at 11:30. Finally, because he wanted the show to start when he came on, at the beginning of January 1967 Carson insisted the 11:15 segment be eliminated (which, he claimed in a monologue at the time, "no one actually watched except the Armed Forces and four Native Americans in Gallup, New Mexico").

Doc Severinsen, who became the leader of The Tonight Show Orchestra in 1967, was known for his flashy outfits.

By the mid-1970s Tonight was the most profitable show on television, making NBC $50 to $60 million ($180,791,000 to $216,949,000 today) each year.[4] Carson influenced the scheduling of reruns (which typically aired under the title The Best of Carson) in the mid-1970s and, in 1980, the length of each evening's broadcast, by threatening NBC with, in the first case, moving to another network, and in the latter, retiring altogether. In order to work fewer days each week Carson began to petition network executives in 1974 that reruns on the weekends be discontinued, in favor of showing them on one or more nights during the week. In response to his demands, NBC began planning a new comedy/variety series to feed to affiliates on Saturday nights that debuted in October 1975 and is still airing today: Saturday Night Live. Five years later, Carson renewed his contract with the stipulation that the show lose its last half hour; Tom Snyder's Tomorrow expanded to 90 minutes in order to fill the resulting schedule gap. Although a year and a half later, Tomorrow gave way to the hour-long Late Night with David Letterman (1982–1993), The Tonight Show remains one hour in length.

The show's start time was delayed by five minutes to allow NBC affiliates to include more commercials during their local newscasts.

In an onscreen eulogy to Carson in 2005, David Letterman said that every talk show host owes his livelihood to Johnny Carson during his Tonight Show run.[9]

1979–1980 contract battle[edit]

In 1979, when Fred Silverman was the head of NBC, Carson took the network to court, claiming that he had been a free-agent since April of that year because his most recent contract had been signed in 1972. Carson cited a California law barring certain contracts from lasting more than seven years. NBC claimed that they had signed three agreements since then, and Carson was therefore bound to the network until April 1981.[10] While the case was settled out of court,[11] the friction between Carson and the network remained. Eventually, Carson reached an agreement to appear four nights a week but cut the show from 90 to 60 minutes.[12] In September 1980, Carson's eponymous production company regained ownership of the show[13][14] after owning it from 1969 to the early 1970s.[4]

Tape archives[edit]

Some memorable moments. Top left: Carson's first show with Groucho, 1962. Top right: Carson pitches at Yankee Stadium, 1962. Bottom left: Tiny Tim's wedding, 1969. Bottom right: Carson does a skydiving demonstration, 1968.

Virtually all of the original pre-1970 video recordings, including Carson's debut as host, are now considered lost because of wiping.[4] Following the standard procedure for most television production companies of that era, NBC reused The Tonight Show videotapes for recording other programs. Carson himself encouraged the erasure of his archives, once humorously quipping that NBC should "make guitar picks" out of them, and did not believe they were of any value.[15] It was rumored that many other episodes were lost in a fire, but NBC has denied this.[citation needed] Other surviving material from the era has been found on kinescopes held in the archives of the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service, or in the personal collections of guests of the program, while a few moments such as Tiny Tim's wedding, were preserved. New York meteorologist Dr. Frank Field, an occasional guest during the years he was weather forecaster for WNBC-TV, showed several clips of his appearances with Carson in a 2002 career retrospective on WWOR-TV; Field had maintained the clips in his own personal archives.[citation needed]

The program archive is virtually complete from 1973 to 1992.[16] The New York Post reported in May 2011 that 250 of Carson's monologues and sketches spanning a 20-year period are on the Memory Lane website.[17] Carson Productions has also made clips available on YouTube.[18]

A large amount of material from Carson's first two decades of The Tonight Show (1962–1982), much of it not seen since it had first aired, appeared in a half hour "clip/compilation" syndicated program known as Carson's Comedy Classics that aired in 1983. Audio clips from the show were featured nightly on WHO-AM in Des Moines, Iowa in the mid-2000s. Thirty years later, Turner Classic Movies would begin rerunning select interviews from the program for a new series called "Carson on TCM" presented by Conan O'Brien, who himself hosted The Tonight Show briefly.[19]

Although no footage is known to remain of Carson's first broadcast as host of The Tonight Show on October 1, 1962, photographs taken that night do survive, including Carson being introduced by Groucho Marx, as does an audio recording of Marx's introduction and Carson's first monologue. One of his first jokes upon starting the show (after receiving a few words of encouragement from Marx, one of which was, "Don't go to Hollywood!") was to pretend to panic and say, "I want my nana!". (This recording was played at the start of Carson's final broadcast on May 22, 1992.) The oldest surviving video recording of the show is dated November 1962, while the oldest surviving color recording is from 1963, when Carson interviewed Jake Ehrlich, Sr., as his guest.[20]

Thirty-minute audio recordings of many of the "missing" episodes are contained in the Library of Congress in the Armed Forces Radio collection. Many 1970s-era episodes have been licensed to distributors that advertise mail order offers on late-night TV.[citation needed] The later shows are stored in an underground salt mine outside Hutchinson, Kansas.[21]

Guest hosts[edit]

The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson had guest hosts each Monday for most of the show's run and sometimes for entire weeks during Johnny's frequent vacations. The following is a list of those who guest-hosted at least fifty times during the first 21 years of the show's run. Episodes hosted by the three "permanent guest hosts" are not included: Joan Rivers (1983–1986),[22] Garry Shandling (1986–1987), and Jay Leno (1987–1992).[22]

Jack Paar had often asked Carson to guest-host Tonight in its earliest years and repeatedly claimed he had been responsible for NBC's selection of Carson in 1962 as his replacement.

On April 2, 1979, Kermit the Frog was guest host.[24] In addition, many other Muppets appeared for skits and regular segments: Frank Oz voiced Fozzie Bear and Animal, while Jerry Nelson performed Uncle Deadly, a Vincent Price-inspired Muppet during a segment with the real Price.

Joan Rivers[edit]

In September 1983, Joan Rivers was designated Carson's permanent guest host, a role she had been essentially filling for the previous year. In 1986, she left the show for her own show on the then-new Fox Network. According to Carson, Rivers never personally informed him of the existence of her show. Rivers, on the other hand, disagrees.[25] Nevertheless, Rivers' new show was quickly canceled, and she never again appeared on The Tonight Show with Carson. She also never appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, a ban instigated by Leno out of respect for Carson,[26] She also never appeared during Conan O'Brien's seven month run. After Carson's death in 2005, Rivers told CNN that Carson never forgave her for leaving, and never spoke to her again, even after she wrote him a note following the accidental death of Carson's son Ricky in June 1991.[23] On February 17, 2014, Rivers returned to the Tonight Show as part of a skit in which numerous celebrities paid new host, Jimmy Fallon, after having lost the bet that he would never become the host of the program. Rivers appeared for a full-length interview segment on March 27, 2014.[citation needed]

The program of July 26, 1984, with guest host Joan Rivers, was the first MTS stereo broadcast in U.S. television history,[27] though not the first television broadcast with stereophonic sound. Only NBC's flagship local station in New York City, WNBC, had stereo broadcast capability at that time.[28] NBC transmitted The Tonight Show in stereo sporadically through 1984, and on a regular basis beginning in 1985.[citation needed]

Carson's last shows[edit]

As his retirement approached, Carson tried to avoid sentimentality but would periodically show clips of some of his favorite moments and again invited some of his favorite guests. He told his crew, "Everything comes to an end; nothing lasts forever. Thirty years is enough. It's time to get out while you're still working on top of your game, while you're still working well."[29]

Carson hosted his penultimate show, featuring guests Robin Williams and Bette Midler, on May 21, 1992.[30] Once underway, the atmosphere was electric and Carson was greeted with a sustained, two-minute ovation.[31] Williams was especially uninhibited with his trademark manic energy and stream-of-consciousness lunacy.[29][32] Midler was more emotional.[32] When the conversation turned to Johnny's favorite songs, "I'll Be Seeing You" and "Here's That Rainy Day", Midler mentioned that she knew a chorus of the latter. She began singing the song, and after the first line, Carson joined in and turned it into an impromptu duet. Midler finished her appearance from center stage, where she slowly sang the pop standard "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)". Carson became unexpectedly tearful, and a shot of the two of them was captured by a camera angle from across the set that had never been used before.[33] The audience became tearful as well and called the three performers out for a second bow after the taping was completed.[31] This show was immediately recognized as a television classic that Midler considered one of the most emotional moments of her life and eventually won an Emmy for her role in it.[32][33][34]

Carson had no guests on his final episode of The Tonight Show on May 22, 1992, which was instead a retrospective show taped before an invitation-only studio audience of family, friends, and crew.[29][30] More than fifty million people tuned in for this finale, which ended with Carson sitting on a stool alone at center stage, similar to Jack Paar's last show. He said these final words in conclusion:

And so it has come to this: I, uh... am 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 you 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.

A few weeks after the final show aired, it was announced that NBC and Carson had struck a deal to develop a new series. Ultimately, however, Carson chose not to return to television. He gave only two major interviews after his retirement: one to the Washington Post in 1993, and the other to Esquire magazine in 2002. Carson hinted in his 1993 interview that he did not think he could top what he had already accomplished. He rarely appeared elsewhere after retiring, providing only a guest voice on an episode of The Simpsons, which included him performing feats of strength, and a silent cameo on Late Show with David Letterman where he delivered a Top 10 List and sat in Dave's chair for a minute.

In 2005, after Carson's death, it was revealed that he had made a habit of sending jokes to Dave Letterman which Letterman would then sometimes incorporate into his monologues. The January 31, 2005, episode of the Late Show with David Letterman, which featured a tribute to Carson, began with a monologue by Letterman made up entirely of jokes written by Carson himself after his retirement.[35][36]

In 2011, the last Carson Tonight show was ranked #10 on the TV Guide Network special, TV's Most Unforgettable Finales.[37]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Bill Zehme (June 2002). "The Man Who Retired". Esquire. Retrieved 2010-06-09. 
  2. ^ (Carson, however, brought the show back to Manhattan in November 1972, and again in May 1973).
  3. ^ "TV Guide Names Top 50 Shows". Cbsnews.com. Retrieved 2011-10-26. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Tynan, Kenneth (1978-02-20). "Fifteen Years of the Salto Mortale". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2011-03-16. 
  5. ^ http://www.anb.org/articles/18/18-03822-print.html
  6. ^ Carter, Bill (March 20, 2013). ‘Tonight’ Show Expected to Return to New York, With Fallon. The New York Times. Retrieved March 20, 2013.
  7. ^ Simon, Jeff (July 9, 2013). The return of Johnny Carson — on TCM. The Buffalo News. Retrieved July 9, 2013.
  8. ^ McMahon, Ed. For Laughing Out Loud: My Life and Good Times. p. 154. ISBN 0-446-52370-4. 
  9. ^ Letterman delivers Carson-penned monologue February 1, 2005 CBC.ca
  10. ^ "Family Feud". Time Magazine. 1979-09-24. Retrieved 2007-08-07. 
  11. ^ "Rent-a-Judge". Time Magazine. 1981-04-20. Retrieved 2007-08-07. 
  12. ^ "People". Time Magazine. 1980-05-19. Retrieved 2007-08-07. 
  13. ^ Carter, Bill (1994). The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for the Night. New York, NY: Hyperion. p. 27. ISBN 0-7868-8907-1. 
  14. ^ "Johnny Carson Calls This Man 'Bombastic' All the Way to Bank." The Wall Street Journal, June 8, 1980, p. 14.
  15. ^ Carson on TCM shows why Johnny was the king. The Washington Post. Retrieved July 9, 2013.
  16. ^ Johnny Carson: The Official Tonight Show Website, Clip Licensing.
  17. ^ Starr, Michael (May 13, 2011). "Starr report". New York Post. 
  18. ^ Johnny Carson - YouTube
  19. ^ 'Carson on TCM' review: Heeere's Johnny
  20. ^ Watch Jake Ehrlich Sr. on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson on Google Video.
  21. ^ Hank Stuever, "A Heartfelt Doc Deconstructs The King of Late Night," Washington Post, May 13, 2012.
  22. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "History of The Tonight Show". JohnnyCarson.com. Retrieved January 22, 2010. 
  23. ^ a b "Johnny Carson, 79, Dies". Live Event/Special rush transcript (CNN). January 23, 2005. Retrieved 2009-05-12. "[D]uring our 17 years together, which were wonderful years, and he was the one that discovered me and he was the one that said, "You're going to be a star" the first night I worked. He was an amazing man and an amazing mentor. And then when I left the show to do my own show on Fox, he never forgave me, and that made me terribly sad. We never spoke again." 
  24. ^ Barry Gordemer (Producer) (2005-05-09). Happy 50th Birthday, Kermit! (audio recording). National Public Radio. Event occurs at 1:20–1:25. Retrieved 2009-04-24. "...Kermit hosted The Tonight Show." 
  25. ^ "Joan Rivers on Johnny Carson's reaction to the start of her late show on Fox". Youtube.com. Retrieved 2012-02-22. 
  26. ^ Hinckley, David (August 6, 2009). "Two more football seasons for 'Friday Night Lights,' and other news from the TV Critics Press Tour". Daily News. Retrieved 2009-08-07. "We didn't feel it was right to invite her while Johnny was alive," said Leno. "It was a respect thing for Johnny." 
  27. ^ Lyons, James. Miami Vice. Wiley Publishing, 2010, p. 22
  28. ^ Peter W. Kaplan, "TV Notes", New York Times, July 28, 1984, sec. 1, p. 46.
  29. ^ a b c Bernard Weinraub (May 23, 1992). "Fade Out for Johnny Carson, His Dignity and Privacy Intact". The New York Times. 
  30. ^ a b "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson Season 30 Episode Guide". TV.com. Retrieved 2011-10-26. 
  31. ^ a b Deborah Seibel (May 22, 1992). "Fans Put Johnny On The Spot". Chicago Tribune. 
  32. ^ a b c Matt Roush (January 30, 2005). "Life After Johnny". Broadcasting & Cable. 
  33. ^ a b Marc Shaiman (January 24, 2005). "Someone in a Tree: My view of Johnny Carson's last night". The Film Music Society. 
  34. ^ "Carson: He left 'Tonight Show' with popularity still running high". The Register-Guard (Eugene, Oregon). January 24, 2005. p. A1. 
  35. ^ Carson Feeds Jokes To Letterman
  36. ^ Letterman Pays Special Tribute to Carson - General News - redOrbit
  37. ^ TV's Most Unforgettable Finales – Aired May 22, 2011 on TV Guide Network

External links[edit]