John William “Johnny” Carson (October 23, 1925 – January 23, 2005) was an American television host, comedian, and musician known for thirty years as host of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (1962-1992). Carson received six Emmy Awards, the Governor’s Award, and a 1985 Peabody Award. He was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1987. Johnny Carson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1992 and received a Kennedy Center Honor in 1993.
Although his show was already successful by the end of the 1960s, during the 1970s Carson became an American icon and remained so until his retirement in 1992. He adopted a casual, conversational approach with extensive interaction with guests, an approach pioneered by Arthur Godfrey and previous Tonight Show hosts Steve Allen and Jack Paar. Late-night hosts David Letterman, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, Craig Ferguson, Jimmy Kimmel, and current Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon have all cited Carson’s influence on their late-night talk shows, which resemble his in format and tone.
Early life and career
Carson was born in Corning, Iowa, in 1925, to Homer Lloyd “Kit” Carson, a power company manager, and Ruth (Hook) Carson, who was of Irish descent. He grew up in the nearby towns of Avoca, Clarinda, and Red Oak in southwest Iowa before moving to Norfolk, Nebraska, at the age of eight. At the age of twelve, Carson found a book on magic at a friend’s house and immediately purchased a mail-order magician’s kit. He debuted as “The Great Carsoni” at age 14 and he was paid $3; many other performances at local picnics and country fairs followed.
Carson joined the U.S. Navy on June 8, 1943, received V-12 officer training at Columbia University and Millsaps College, and continued to perform magic. Commissioned an ensign late in the war, Carson was assigned to the USS Pennsylvania in the Pacific. While in the Navy, Carson posted a 10-0 amateur boxing record, with most of his bouts fought on board the USS Pennsylvania. He was en route to the combat zone aboard a troop ship when the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war. Carson served as a communications officer in charge of decoding encrypted messages and he said that the high point of his military career was performing a magic trick for United States Secretary of the Navy James V. Forrestal.
Carson attended the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, where he joined The Fraternity of Phi Gamma Delta, continued performing magic (now paid $25 per appearance), wrote a thesis on the structure of Jack Benny’s comedy routines, and graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in radio and speech with a minor in physics in 1949.
He began his broadcasting career in 1950 at WOW radio and television in Omaha, Nebraska. Carson soon hosted a morning television program called The Squirrel’s Nest. One of his routines involved interviewing pigeons on the roof of the local courthouse that would allegedly report on the political corruption they had seen. Carson supplemented his income by serving as master of ceremonies at local church dinners, attended by some of the same politicians and civic leaders that he had lampooned on the radio.
In 1951 Carson visited California and unsuccessfully sought work. The wife of one of the Omaha political figures he spoofed owned stock in a radio station in Los Angeles and referred Carson to her brother, who was influential in the emerging television market in southern California. Later that year Carson went to work at CBS-owned Los Angeles television station KNXT. He would later joke that he owed his success to the birds of Omaha. In 1953 comic Red Skelton–a fan of Carson’s “cult success” low-budget sketch comedy show, Carson’s Cellar (1951 to 1953) on KNXT–asked Carson to join his show as a writer. In 1954 Skelton during rehearsal accidentally knocked himself unconscious an hour before his live show began, and Carson successfully filled in for him. In 1955, Jack Benny invited Carson to appear on one of his programs during the opening and closing segments. Carson imitated Benny and claimed that Benny had copied his gestures. Benny, however, predicted that Carson would have a successful career as a comedian.
Carson hosted several shows besides Carson’s Cellar, including the game show Earn Your Vacation (1954) and the variety show The Johnny Carson Show (1955-1956). He was a regular panelist on the original To Tell the Truth until 1962. After the prime time The Johnny Carson Show failed, he moved to New York City to host Who Do You Trust? (1957-1962), formerly known as Do You Trust Your Wife?. In 1958 he appeared as a guest star in an episode entitled “Do You Trust Your Wife” on NBC’s short-lived variety show, The Polly Bergen Show. It was on Who Do You Trust? that Carson met his future sidekick, Ed McMahon. Although he believed moving to daytime would hurt his career, Who Do You Trust? was a success. It was the first show where he could ad lib and interview guests, and because of Carson’s on-camera wit, the show became “the hottest item on daytime television” during his five years there.
NBC’s Tonight was the late-night counterpart to its early-morning show Today. Originating in 1953 with host Steve Allen, Tonight was somewhat experimental at the time, as the only previous network late-night program was NBC’s “Broadway Open House”. Tonight was successful, and when Allen moved on to prime-time comedy-variety shows in 1956, Jack Paar replaced him as host of Tonight. Paar left the show in 1962.
Johnny Carson’s success on Who Do You Trust? led NBC to invite him to take over Tonight a few months before Paar’s departure. Carson declined the offer because he feared the difficulty of interviewing celebrities for 1 3/4 hours (105 minutes) daily, but NBC asked him again after Bob Newhart, Jackie Gleason, Groucho Marx, and Joey Bishop all declined. Carson accepted in March 1962, but had six months left on his ABC contract, during which NBC used multiple guest hosts, including Merv Griffin.
Although he continued to have doubts about his new job, Carson became host of Tonight (later becoming The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson) on October 1, 1962, and, after a difficult first year, overcame his fears. While Tonight under its previous hosts had been successful, especially under Paar, Carson’s version eventually did very well in the ratings. Billy Wilder said of Carson:
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.
McMahon followed Carson from Who Do You Trust? as his announcer and sidekick. McMahon’s opening line, “Heeeere’s Johnny” was followed by a brief monologue by Carson. This was often followed by comedy sketches, interviews, and music. Carson’s trademark was a phantom golf swing at the end of his monologues, aimed stage left toward the studio orchestra. (Guest hosts sometimes parodied that gesture. Bob Newhart rolled an imaginary bowling ball toward the audience.) Johnny enjoyed what he called the “Carson Kits,” or beautiful girls, to adorn his show. Theona Bryant, a favorite, was a model. The other “Carson Cuties” were Phyllis Applegate, Norma Brooks, and Sally Todd.
Paul Anka wrote the theme song, (“Johnny’s Theme”), a reworking of his “Toot Sweet”; given lyrics, it was renamed, “It’s Really Love,” and recorded by Annette Funicello in 1959. Before taking over The Tonight Show, Carson wrote lyrics for the song and thus claimed 50% of the song’s performance royalties (even though the lyrics were never used). The theme is heard being played on sound recordings of Carson’s first Tonight Show and it was used without interruption through to his very last broadcast in 1992.
The show was originally produced in New York City, with occasional stints in California. It was not live in its early years, although during the 1970s, NBC fed the live taping from Burbank to New York via satellite for editing (see below). The program had been done “live on tape” (uninterrupted unless a problem occurred) since the Jack Paar days. Carson had a talent for quick quips to deal with problems. If the opening monologue fared poorly, the band would start playing “Tea for Two” and Carson danced, to laughs from the studio audience. Alternatively, Carson might pull the boom mic close to his face and announce “Attention K-Mart shoppers!”
Move to Burbank
In May 1972, the show moved from New York to Burbank, California. Carson often joked about “beautiful downtown Burbank” and referred to “beautiful downtown Bakersfield,” which prompted Bakersfield Mayor Mary K. Shell to chide Carson and invite him to her city to see improvements made during the early 1980s.
After July 1971, Carson stopped hosting shows five days a week. Instead, on Monday nights there was a guest host, leaving Carson to host the other four each week. Shows were taped in Burbank at 5:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m. Eastern time) to be shown that evening at 11:30 p.m. Eastern time. On September 8, 1980, at Carson’s request, the show cut its 90-minute format to 60 minutes; Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow added a half hour to fill the vacant time. Joan Rivers became the “permanent” guest host from September 1983 until 1986. The Tonight Show returned to using rotating guest hosts, including comic George Carlin. Jay Leno then became the exclusive guest host in fall 1987. Leno joked that although other guest hosts had upped their fees, he had kept his low, assuring himself more bookings. Eventually, Monday night was for Leno, Tuesday for The Best of Carson–rebroadcasts usually dating from a year earlier but occasionally from the 1970s.
Although Carson’s work schedule became more attenuated, Tonight remained so successful that his compensation from NBC continued to rise; by the mid-1970s he had become the highest-paid personality on television, earning about $4 million a year ($14,463,000 today), not including nightclub appearances and his other businesses. He refused many offers to appear in films, including title roles in The Thomas Crown Affair and Gene Wilder’s role in Blazing Saddles.
In recognition of his 25th anniversary on The Tonight Show, Carson received a personal Peabody Award, the Board saying he had “become an American institution, a household word, [and] the most widely quoted American”; they also said they “felt the time had come to recognize the contributions that Johnny has made to television, to humor, and to America.”
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Carson played several continuing characters on sketches during the show, including
- Art Fern, the “Tea Time Movie” announcer, whose theme song was “Hooray for Hollywood”. Carson once admitted on camera that this was his favorite character, based on late-afternoon TV hosts who would deliver commercials throughout the movie. Each sketch usually featured three long commercials interrupted by silent, four-second clips from antique films. When the camera returned from each clip, Art was always caught off-guard and immediately reminded viewers that they were watching a film favorite. The movies always had unlikely casts and even less likely titles: “Slim Pickens, Patti Page, Duke Wayne, and Charlton Heston in another classic Western: ‘Kiss My Saddle Horn’!” Carson originally played the fast-talking huckster in his own voice (as Honest Bernie Schlock or Ralph Willie), and finally settled on a nasal, high-pitched, smarmy drone, reminiscent of Jackie Gleason’s “Reginald Van Gleason III” character. The character, now permanently known as Art Fern, wore a lavish toupee, loud jackets, and a pencil mustache. Actress Carol Wayne became famous for her 100-plus appearances (1971-1982) as Art’s buxom assistant, the Matinée Lady. While Art gave his spiel, she would enter the stage behind him. Art would react to her attractive body, wincing loudly: “Ho — leeeee!” After Carol Wayne’s death in 1985, Carson kept Art Fern off the air for most of the next year, and finally hired Danuta Wesley and then Teresa Ganzel to play the Matinée Lady. Carson also used these sketches to poke fun at the intricate Los Angeles interstate system, using a pointer and map to give confusing directions to shoppers, often including points where he would unfold the cardboard map to point out, via the appropriate picture, when the shopper would arrive at “the fork in the road”. Another freeway routine in the same theme centered around the “Slauson Cutoff”, a slang term Carson popularized to describe the truncated Marina Freeway (which ended abrubtly at Slauson Avenue in Culver City). Art Fern would advise drivers to take a series of freeways until they reached the Slauson Cutoff, and would then advise them to “Get out of your car, cut off your slauson, get back in your car,” often followed by peals of laughter from the audience, led by McMahon.
- Carnac the Magnificent, a turbaned psychic who could answer questions before seeing them. (This same routine had been done by Carson’s predecessor, Steve Allen, as “The Answer Man”. The Carnac character and routine also closely resembled Ernie Kovacs’ character “Mr. Question Man”.) Carnac had a trademark entrance in which he always turned the wrong direction when coming onto stage and then “tripped” on the step up to Carson’s desk. (In one episode, technicians rigged Carson’s desk to fall apart when Carnac fell into it.) These comedic missteps were an indication of Carnac’s true prescient abilities. Ed McMahon would hand Carnac a series of envelopes containing questions, said to have been “hermetically sealed in a mayonnaise jar and left on Funk & Wagnall’s porch since noon today”. Carnac would place each envelope against his forehead and predict the answer, such as “Gatorade”. Then he would read the question: “What does an alligator get on welfare?” Some of the jokes were feeble, and McMahon used pauses after terrible puns and audience groans to make light of Carnac’s lack of comic success (“Carnac must be used to quiet surroundings”), prompting Carson to return an equal insult. Pat McCormick wrote some of the zaniest Carnac material. The one that had Ed and Carnac nearly rolling on the floor with sustained laughter was “Siss, boom, bah” Answer – “Describe the sound made when a sheep explodes”. McMahon would always announce near the end, “I hold in my hand the last envelope,” at which the audience would applaud wildly, prompting Carnac to pronounce a comedic “curse” on the audience, such as “May your sister elope with a camel!”, “May a diseased yak take a liking to your sister”, or the most famous: “May the bird of paradise fly up your nose!”
- Floyd R. Turbo, American (with no pause between words). A stereotypical common working man, wearing a plaid hunting coat and cap, who offered “editorial responses” to left-leaning causes or news events. Railing against women’s rights in the workplace, for example, Turbo would shout: “This raises the question: kiss my Dictaphone!”
- Aunt Blabby, a cantankerous and sometimes amorous old lady, invariably being interviewed by straight man Ed McMahon about elder affairs. McMahon would innocently use a common expression like “check out”, only to have Aunt Blabby warn him: “Don’t say ‘check out’ to an old person!” Aunt Blabby was an obvious copy of Jonathan Winters’ most famous creation, Maude Frickert, including her black spinster dress and wig.
- El Mouldo, a mentalist, who would attempt to perform mind-reading and mind-over-matter feats, all of which failed. Often his tricks would include an attempt to bilk money from Ed McMahon or would end with him begging the audience for a dollar, or at least bus fare.
- The Maharishi, whose theme song was “Song of India”. This frizzy-haired “holy man” spoke in a high-pitched, tranquil tone, greeted announcer McMahon with a flower, and answered philosophical questions.
Carson uncensored on satellite
Even though Carson’s program was based in Burbank beginning in 1972, NBC’s editing and production services for the program were located in New York, resulting in the requirement that Carson’s program be transmitted from Burbank to New York. In 1976, NBC used the Satcom 2 satellite to do this, feeding the live taping (which usually took place in the early evening) directly to New York, where it would be edited prior to the normal broadcast. This live feed lasted usually from two to two-and-a-half hours a night, and was uncensored and commercial-free. During the commercial breaks the audio and picture would be left on, capturing at times risque language and other events that would certainly be edited out later going out over the feed.
At the same time, satellite ground stations owned by individuals began appearing, and some found the live feed. Satellite dish owners began to document their sightings in technical journals, giving viewers knowledge of things they were not meant to see. Carson and his production staff grew concerned about this, and pressured NBC into ceasing the satellite transmissions of the live taping in the early 1980s. The satellite link was replaced by microwave landline transmission until the show’s editing facilities were moved to Burbank.
Effect on popular culture
Carson’s show launched the careers of many performers, especially comedians. For a comedian appearing on the show, getting him to laugh and being invited to the guest chair was considered the highest honor. Most notable among these were David Letterman, Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, Jeff Foxworthy, Ellen DeGeneres, Joan Rivers, David Brenner, Tim Allen, Drew Carey, and Roseanne Barr. Carson was successor to The Ed Sullivan Show as a showcase for all kinds of talent, as well as continuing a vaudeville-style variety show.
In 1966, Carson popularized Milton Bradley’s game Twister when he played it with actress Eva Gabor. Not widely known at the time, the game skyrocketed in popularity after the broadcast.
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Controversies and feuds
Carson often made jokes at the expense of other celebrities. In 1980, Carson backed out of a deal to acquire the Aladdin Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, and a competing group led by Wayne Newton successfully bought the property. According to lawyer Henry Bushkin, Carson became annoyed that he was often portrayed as having “lost” the deal and started telling “lame [and] stupid” jokes about Newton on his show. This created somewhat of a high-profile feud between Carson and Wayne Newton, the latter appeared on Larry King Live, declaring that “Johnny Carson is 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.” Newton has often told of confronting Carson directly, after which the jokes stopped.
One veteran NBC actor, Raymond Burr, became riled over Carson’s continuing fat jokes and refused to appear on “The Tonight Show”.
Carson reportedly loathed what appeared to represent disloyalty among friends and was displeased when former Tonight Show guest hosts John Davidson and Joan Rivers got their own talk shows. Rivers’s show on the Fox Network directly competed with Carson during the 1986-1987 season and then ended. On June 24, 2009, following Ed McMahon’s death, Rivers lauded McMahon on Larry King Live but said that after she got her own show Carson never spoke to her again.
In December 1973, Carson joked on Tonight about an alleged shortage of toilet paper. Panic buying and hoarding ensued across the United States as consumers emptied stores, causing a real shortage that lasted for weeks. Stores and toilet paper manufacturers had to ration supplies until the panic ended. Carson apologized in January 1974 for the incident, which became what The New York Times called a “classic study” of how rumors spread.
Carson successfully sued a manufacturer of portable toilets who wanted to call its product “Here’s Johnny”.
Carson did a send-up of the “Mr. Rogers” character, where he played an evil Mr. Rogers who wanted children to steal money from their parents so that his show could continue. Fred Rogers was not impressed with the skit. Carson later apologized to Rogers for making fun of him.
Carson was a major investor in the ultimately failed DeLorean Motor Company.
Carson was head of a group of investors who purchased and operated two television stations. The first was KVVU-TV in Henderson, Nevada, an independent station serving Las Vegas, acquired by the Carson group in 1979. Shortly after buying the station, KVVU was rumored to be acquiring an NBC affiliation as then long-time affiliate KORK-TV was in the process of being replaced by KVBC, but it never happened. Carson’s second station, independent KNAT-TV in Albuquerque, New Mexico was purchased in 1982. Unlike the Las Vegas operation, KNAT faced stiffer competition for top-quality syndicated programming. Carson sold both of his stations between 1985 and 1986, with KVVU going to Meredith Corporation and KNAT being sold to Trinity Broadcasting Network.
Carson’s other business ventures included the successful Johnny Carson Apparel, Inc.–his turtlenecks became a fashion trend–and a failed restaurant franchise.
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Carson retired from show business on May 22, 1992, at age 66, when he stepped down as host of The Tonight Show. His farewell was a major media event, often emotional for Carson, his colleagues, and the audiences, and stretched over several nights.
NBC gave the role of host to the show’s then-current permanent guest host, Jay Leno. Leno and David Letterman were soon competing on separate networks.
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At the end of his final Tonight Show appearance, Carson indicated that he might, if so inspired, return with a new project. Instead he chose to go into full retirement, rarely giving interviews and declining to participate in NBC’s 75th anniversary celebrations. He made an occasional cameo appearance, including voicing himself on the May 13, 1993 episode of The Simpsons (“Krusty Gets Kancelled”), telephoning David Letterman on a November 1993 episode of Late Show with David Letterman, and appearing in the 1993 NBC Special Bob Hope: The First 90 Years. On May 13, 1994, Carson appeared on Late Show with David Letterman. During a week of shows from Los Angeles, Letterman was having Larry “Bud” Melman (Calvert DeForest) deliver his “Top Ten Lists” under the guise that a famous personality would be delivering the list instead. On the last show of the week, Letterman indicated that Carson would be delivering the list. Instead, DeForest delivered the list, insulted the audience (in keeping with the gag), and walked off to polite applause. Letterman then indicated that the card he was given did not have the proper list on it and asked that the “real” list be brought out. On that cue, the real Carson emerged from behind the curtain (as Letterman’s band played “Johnny’s Theme”), an appearance that prompted a standing ovation from the audience. Carson then requested to sit behind Letterman’s desk; Letterman obliged, as the audience continued to cheer and applaud. After some moments, Carson departed from the show without having spoken to the audience. He later cited acute laryngitis as the reason for his silence. This turned out to be Carson’s last television appearance.
Just days before Carson’s death, The New York Times published a story revealing that he occasionally sent jokes to Letterman. Letterman would then use these jokes in the monologue of his show, which Carson got “a big kick out of,” according to Worldwide Pants Inc. Senior Vice-President Peter Lassally, who formerly produced both men’s programs. He also claimed that Carson had always believed Letterman, not Leno, to be his “rightful successor.”
Despite his on-camera demeanor, Carson was extremely shy off-camera. He was known for avoiding most large parties, and was referred to as “the most private public man who ever lived”. Dick Cavett recalled, “I felt sorry for Johnny in that he was so socially uncomfortable. I’ve hardly ever met anybody who had as hard a time as he did.” In addition, George Axelrod once said of Carson “Socially, he doesn’t exist. The reason is that there are no television cameras in living rooms. If human beings had little red lights in the middle of their foreheads, Carson would be the greatest conversationalist on Earth.”
He normally refused to discuss politics, social controversies, his childhood, or his private life with interviewers, and offered the following list of pre-written answers to journalists who wanted to ask him questions:
- Yes, I did.
- Not a bit of truth in that rumor.
- Only twice in my life, both times on Saturday.
- I can do either, but I prefer the first.
- No. Kumquats.
- I can’t answer that question.
- Toads and tarantulas.
- Turkestan, Denmark, Chile, and the Komandorski Islands.
- As often as possible, but I’m not very good at it yet. I need much more practice.
- It happened to some old friends of mine, and it’s a story I’ll never forget.
Carson opposed the Vietnam War, and capital punishment, favored racial equality, and was against criminalizing extramarital sex and pornography. He avoided explicitly mentioning his views on The Tonight Show, saying he “hates to be pinned down”, as that would “hurt me as an entertainer, which is what I am”. As he explained in 1970, “In my living room I would argue for liberalization of abortion laws, divorce laws, and there are times when I would like to express a view on the air. I would love to have taken on Billy Graham. But I’m on TV five nights a week; I have nothing to gain by it and everything to lose.” He also seldomly invited political figures onto the Tonight Show because he “didn’t want it to become a political forum” and didn’t want to the show used, by himself or others, to influence the opinions of his viewers.
In his book, Carson’s former lawyer Henry Bushkin stated that he “was by instinct and upbringing definitely Republican, but of an Eisenhower sort that we don’t see much of anymore…Overall, you’d have to say he was anti-big: anti-big government, anti-big money, anti-big bullies, anti-big blowhards.” Carson served as emcee for Ronald Reagan’s inauguration in 1981 at the request of Frank Sinatra.
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In 1948, Carson married Jody Wolcott. The marriage was volatile, with infidelities committed by both parties, and ended in divorce in 1963. Carson got a “quickie” Mexican divorce from Wolcott that year and married Joanne Copeland on August 17, 1963. After a second protracted divorce proceeding in 1972, Copeland received a settlement of $6000 per month in alimony until she remarried or until Johnny’s death (she received it until he died in 2005). She also received “a pretty nice little art collection.”
At the Carson Tonight Show‘s 10th anniversary party on September 30, 1972, Carson announced that he and former model Joanna Holland had been secretly married that afternoon, shocking his friends and associates. Carson kidded that he had married three similarly named women to avoid “having to change the monogram on the towels.” On March 8, 1983, Holland filed for divorce. Under California’s community property laws, she was entitled to 50% of all the assets accumulated during the marriage, even though Carson earned virtually all of the couple’s income. During this period, he joked on The Tonight Show, “my producer, Freddie de Cordova, really gave me something I needed for Christmas. He gave me a gift certificate to the law offices of Jacoby & Meyers.” The divorce case finally ended in 1985 with an eighty-page settlement, Holland receiving $20 million in cash and property.
On June 20, 1987, Carson married Alexis Maas. The marriage lasted until his death in 2005.
Carson had three sons, Christopher, Cory and Richard. All three sons were from his first marriage. Richard Carson died on June 21, 1991, when his car plunged down a steep embankment along a paved service road off Highway 1 near Cayucos, California. Apparently, Richard had been taking photographs when the accident occurred. On the first Tonight Show after Ricky’s death, Carson paid tribute to his son’s photographic work, and showed portraits of Ricky accompanied by Stevie Ray Vaughan on blues guitar playing Riviera Paradise. In addition, the final image of the show, as well as some “More to Come” bumpers, of Carson’s last show on May 22, 1992, featured a photo Richard had taken.
In 1981, Carson created the John W. Carson Foundation, dedicated to supporting children, education and health services. The foundation continues to support charitable causes.
In November 2004, Carson announced a $5.3 million gift to the University of Nebraska Foundation to support the Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts Department of Theater Arts, which created the Johnny Carson School of Theater and Film. Another $5 million donation was announced by the estate of Carson to the University of Nebraska following his death., while a $1 million donation was announced on November 4, 2011, creating the “Johnny Carson Opportunity Scholarship Fund”.
Carson also donated to causes in his hometown of Norfolk, including the Carson Cancer Center at Faith Regional Health Services, the Elkhorn Valley Museum, and the Johnny Carson Theater at Norfolk Senior High School.
In August 2010, the charitable foundation created by Johnny Carson reported receiving $156 million from a personal trust established by the entertainer years prior to his January 2005 death. Carson’s foundation was now by far the largest of the Hollywood charities.
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Carson, an amateur astronomer, was a close friend of astronomer Carl Sagan, who often appeared on The Tonight Show. The unique way Sagan had of saying certain words, like “billions” of galaxies, would lead Carson to ribbing his friend, saying “BILL-ions and BILL-ions“. Carson was the first person to contact Sagan’s wife Ann Druyan with condolences when the scientist died in 1996. He owned several telescopes, including a Questar, considered at the time a top-of-the-line instrument.
Carson was shown on a 1978 segment of 60 Minutes practicing at home on a drum set given to him by close friend Buddy Rich, who was the jazz musician with the most appearances on The Tonight Show. Gore Vidal, another frequent Tonight Show guest and friend, wrote about Carson’s personality in his 2006 memoir.
In 1982, Carson was found to be driving his DeLorean while under the influence of alcohol. He pleaded nolo contendere to a misdemeanor charge and received a sentence of three years’ probation. Carson was required to attend an alcohol program for drivers and was permitted to use his car only to drive to work and back, without transporting any persons or animals in his vehicle.
Carson was an avid tennis player. When he sold a Malibu house to John McEnroe and Tatum O’Neal, the escrow terms required McEnroe to give Johnny six tennis lessons.
Death and tributes
On March 19, 1999, Carson, then 73, suffered a severe heart attack at his home in Malibu, California. At the time, he was sleeping when he suddenly awoke with severe chest pains, and was hospitalized in nearby Santa Monica where he underwent quadruple-bypass surgery.
Carson was a heavy smoker for decades and, in the early days of his tenure on Tonight, often smoked on-camera. It was reported that as early as the mid-1970s, he would repeatedly say, “These things are killing me.” His younger brother recalled that during their last conversation, Carson kept saying, “Those damn cigarettes.”
At 6:50 AM PST on January 23, 2005, Carson died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in West Hollywood of respiratory failure arising from emphysema. He was 79, and had revealed his terminal illness to the public in September 2002. His body was cremated and the ashes were given to his wife, Alexis Maas Carson. In accordance with his family’s wishes, no public memorial service was held.
Numerous tributes were paid to Carson upon his death including a statement by then-President George W. Bush, all recognizing the deep and enduring affection held for him.
The day after his death, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno paid tribute to Carson with guests Ed McMahon, Bob Newhart, Don Rickles, Drew Carey and k.d. lang. Letterman followed suit on January 31 with former Tonight Show executive producer Peter Lassally and bandleader Doc Severinsen. At the beginning of this show, Letterman said that for thirty years no matter what was going on in the world, whether people had a good or bad day, they wanted to end it being “tucked in by Johnny.” He also told his viewers that the monologue he had just spoken, which was very well received by the studio audience, consisted entirely of jokes sent to him by Carson in the last few months of his life. Doc Severinsen ended the Letterman show that night by playing, along with Tommy Newsom, one of Carson’s two favorite songs, “Here’s That Rainy Day” (the other was “I’ll Be Seeing You”).
On his final Tonight Show appearance, Carson himself said that while sometimes people who work together for long stretches of time on television don’t necessarily like each other, this was not the case with him and McMahon; they were good friends who would have drinks and dinner together, and the camaraderie that they had on the show could not be faked. Carson and McMahon were friends for 46 years.
The 2005 film The Aristocrats was dedicated to Carson.
At the 1st Annual Comedy Awards on Comedy Central, the Johnny Carson Award was given to David Letterman. At the 2nd Annual Comedy Awards on Comedy Central, the Johnny Carson Award was given to Don Rickles.
A two-hour documentary about his life, Johnny Carson: King of Late Night, aired on PBS on May 14, 2012, as part of their American Masters series. It is narrated by Kevin Spacey and features interviews with many of Carson’s family, fellow comedians and protégés.
Accounts on work and life
- Bart, Peter (1992-05-18). We Hardly Knew Ye. Los Angeles: Variety.
- Bushkin, Henry (2013). Johnny Carson. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 978-0544217621.
- Corkery, Paul (August 1987). Carson: The Unauthorized Biography. Randt & Co. ISBN 0-942101-00-6.
- Cox, Stephen (2002-08-15). Here’s Johnny: Thirty Years of Americas Favorite Late Night Entertainer. Cumberland House Publishing. ISBN 1-58182-265-0.
- De Cordova, Fred (1988-03-15). Johnny Came Lately. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-671-55849-8.
- Ephron, Nora (1968). and now…Here’s Johnny!. Avon Books.
- Hise, James Van (1992). 40 Years at Night: the Story of the Tonight Show. Movie Publisher Services. ISBN 1-55698-308-5.
- Knutzen, Erik (1992-05-21). Celebs Say Thanks, Johnny. Herald.
- Leamer, Laurence (2005-03-29). King of the Night: The Life of Johnny Carson. Avon. ISBN 0-06-084099-4.
- McMahon, Ed (2005-10-18). Here’s Johnny!: My Memories of Johnny Carson, The Tonight Show, and 46 Years of Friendship. Thomas Nelson. ISBN 1-4016-0236-3.
- Smith, Ronald L. (October 1987). Johnny Carson: An Unauthorized Biography. St. Martin’s Press. ISBN 0-312-01051-6.
- Sweeney, Don (2005). Backstage at the Tonight Show, from Johnny Carson to Jay Leno. Taylor Trade Publishing. ISBN 978-1-58979-303-3.
- Tennis, Craig (1980). Johnny Tonight: A Behind the Scenes Closeup of Johnny Carson & the Tonight Show. Pocket Books. ISBN 0-671-41451-8.
- Zoglin, Richard (1992-03-16). And What A Reign It Was: In His 30 Years, Carson Was The Best. Time.
- Johnny Carson at the Internet Movie Database
- Johnny Carson at the Internet Broadway Database
- Official website for The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson
- “Article on Johnny Carson”. Archived from the original on 2007-10-13. at Salon
- “On Carson’s contribution to Late Night”. Archived from the original on 2007-10-14. at The New Republic
- Tynan, Kenneth. 1978 profile, The New Yorker
- The Johnny Carson Show, USA Today
- Martin, Steve. Posthumous Letter to Carson, The New York Times
- Watch on line either clips from or entire program Johnny Carson King of Late Night – Watch The Full Documentary pbs.org Includes a page on the making of the documentary.
- Episodes and highlights of the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson are available on DVD at http://JohnnyCarson.com, on iTunes at http://itunes.com/JohnnyCarson, and on YouTube at http://youtube.com/JohnnyCarson
- Follow Johnny Carson on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JohnnyCarson and Facebook at http://facebook.com/JohnnyCarson.