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The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson
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The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson

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 10 years Carson's Tonight Show was based in New York City with occasional trips to Burbank, California; in May 1972 the show moved permanently to Burbank.[2]

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



Carson's show established the modern structure of a late-night talk show: A monologue peppered with a rapid-fire series of 16 to 22 one-liner jokes never more than two consecutively on the same subject regular use of sketch comedy, and guest interviews. While his early guests included John F. and Robert F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, Carson turned Tonight guest chair into a place for people who had a book, movie, television show, or stage performance to promote. While some regular guests like Don Rickles would not come on solely to promote something, these regulars were usually selected for their comedic value, in contrast to predecessor Jack Paar's preference for more cerebral conversation. (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.)

Carson almost never socialized with guests before or after the show; frequent interviewee Orson Welles recalled that Tonight employees were amazed when Carson once visited his dressing room to say hello before a show. Unlike his more avuncular competitors Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, and Dick Cavett, Carson was a precise, "chill[y]" host who only laughed when genuinely amused and quickly ended interviews with uninteresting guests. Mort Sahl recalled, "The producer is crouching just off camera, and he 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 went wrong. It s like a pit stop at Le Mans." Robert Blake compared being interviewed by Carson to "facing death" and "Broadway on opening night." The publicity value of appearing on Tonight was so great, however, that most guests were willing to take the risk; David Brenner was one of many celebrities who credited Carson for his success.[4]

Show regulars

Ed McMahon

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 commented on his role in his 1998 autobiography:

Bandleaders and others

The Tonight Show had a live band for nearly all of its existence. The NBC Orchestra during Carson's reign was 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 (which usually happened when a guest host substituted for Carson, which usually 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


  • Carnac the Magnificent, in which Carson played a psychic who clairvoyantly divined the answer to a question contained in a sealed envelope. This was to some degree a variation on Steve Allen's recurring "The Question Man" sketch. The answer was always an outrageous pun. "Carnac" examples:
    • "Billy Graham, Virginia Graham and Lester Maddox" ... "Name two Grahams and a Cracker!"
    • "Over 105 in Los Angeles" ... "Under the Reagan plan, how old do you have to be to collect Social Security?"
    • "V-8" ... "What kind of social disease can you get from an octopus?"
    • "Debate" ... "What do you use to catch de fish?"
    • "Camelot" ... "Where do Arabians park their camels?"
    • "Ben-Gay" ... "Why didn't Mrs. Franklin have any kids?"
    • "Ghotbzadeh" ... "What do Iranian men do when their wives refuse them by night?"
    • "S. I. Hayakawa!" ... "Describe the sound made by a man getting his zipper caught in a Waring blender."
    • "Pass the hat" ... "What does a cannibal do after eating Minnie Pearl?"
    • "Dippity-Do!" ... "What forms on your Dippity early in the morning?"
    • "A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou" ... "Name three things that have yeast."
    • "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" ... "How do you tell Marcello Mastroianni his doo-dah is open?"
    • "Three Dog Night" ... "What's a bad night for a tree?"
    • "McIntosh, Dolly Parton and the Ford Pinto" ... "Name an apple, a pear (play on "pair" of breasts) and a lemon!"
    • "Goodyear, Tuck and Andrei Gromyko" ... "Name a tire, a friar and a liar!"
    • "Sis boom bah" ... "Describe the sound made when a sheep explodes."

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!"

  • "Floyd R. Turbo", a dimwitted yokel responding to a TV station editorial. Floyd always spoke haltingly, as though reading from cue cards, and railed against some newsworthy topic, like Secretaries' Day: "This raises the question: Kiss my Dictaphone!"
  • "Art Fern", the fast-talking host of a "Tea Time Movie" program, who advertised inane products, assisted by the attractive Matinee Lady, played by Paula Prentiss (late 1960s), Carol Wayne (the most familiar Matinee Lady, 1971 82), Danuta Wesley (1984), and Teresa Ganzel (1985 92). The fake movies Art would introduce usually had eclectic casts ("Ben Blue, Red Buttons, Jesse White, and Karen Black") and nonsensical titles ("Rin-Tin-Tin Gets Fixed Fixed Fixed"). This would be followed by a four-second stock film clip before coming back for another commercial, usually catching Art and the Matinee Lady in a very compromising position. On giving directions to a fake store he was touting, Fern would show a spaghetti-like road map, sometimes with a literal "fork in the road", other times making the joke, "Go to the Slauson Cutoff...", and the audience would recite with him, "...cut off your Slauson!" The character was previously named "Honest Bernie Schlock" and then "Ralph Willie" when the Tea Time sketches first aired in the mid-to-late 1960s. At least one surviving pre-1972 Art Fern sketch that originated from New York had its movie show title as "The Big Flick", an amalgam of two movie show titles in use at the time by New York station WOR-TV, The Big Preview and The Flick. On that sketch Lee Meredith was the Matinee Lady. Carson's Comedy Classics features an episode where Juliet Prowse is in the role of Mantinee Lady, from 20 August 1971.
  • "Aunt Blabby", an old woman whose appearance and speech pattern bore more than a passing resemblance to comedian Jonathan Winters' character "Maude Frickert". A frequent theme would be McMahon happening to mention a word or phrase that could suggest death, as in "What tourist attractions did you check out?," to which Aunt Blabby would respond, "Never say check out to an old person!"
  • "El Mouldo", mysterious mentalist. He would announce some mind-over-matter feat and always fail, although triumphantly shouting "El Mouldo has done it again!" Ed McMahon would take exception, noting El Mouldo's failure. "Did I fail before?" asked El Mouldo. "Yes!," replied McMahon, to which El Mouldo said, "Well, I've done it again!" El Mouldo was in large part a continuation of Carson's mentalist character Dillinger, which he had performed on The Johnny Carson Show in 1955 over CBS-TV; Dillinger was an obvious spoof of Dunninger, leading to complaints and threats of lawsuits against Carson and CBS.
  • "Ronald Reagan". During Reagan's term in office, Carson developed an accurate impersonation of the president that was featured regularly in Mighty Carson Art Players skits. Carson also did a less memorable impersonation of Jimmy Carter during his term as President.


  • "Stump the Band", where studio audience members ask the band to try to play obscure songs given only the title. Unlike when this routine was done during the Jack Paar years with the Jose Melis band, Doc's band almost never knew the song, but that did not stop them from inventing one on the spot. Example:
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.
  • "The Mighty Carson Art Players" (depending on one's point of view, the name was an obvious tribute to or ripoff of radio legend Fred Allen's Mighty Allen Art Players). While Carson's show was primarily a talk show, with performances by guests, periodically Carson and a group of stock performers would perform skits that spoofed news, movies, television shows, and commercials.
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.
  • "The Edge of Wetness", in which Johnny would read humorous plot summaries of a fictional soap opera (such as The Edge of Night) while the camera randomly chose an unsuspecting audience member who Carson claimed was, for example, the butler from the soap.
  • "Headlines", seen only during nights when Jay Leno guest-hosted beginning in 1987, featured humorous stories and typos from newspaper clippings. This carried over when Leno became permanent host in 1992.

Programming history

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

  • October 1962 December 1966: Monday-Friday 11:15 p.m.-1:00 a.m.

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. The first guests were Rudy Vall e, Tony Bennett, Mel Brooks, and Joan Crawford. Carson inherited from Paar a show that was 105 minutes long. The show was structured to have what appeared to be two openings, with one starting at 11:15 p.m. and including the monologue, and another which listed the guests and announced the host again, starting at 11:30. The two openings gave affiliates the option of having 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, from February 1965 to December 1966, Ed McMahon and Skitch Henderson began to co-host the first fifteen minutes of the show without Carson, who then took over at 11:30. Finally, because he wanted the show to start when he came on, Carson insisted on eliminating the 11:15 segment at the beginning of January 1967 (which, he once claimed in a monologue at the time, no one actually watched "except the Armed Forces and four Indians in Gallup, New Mexico").

  • January 1965 September 1966: Saturday or Sunday 11:15 1:00 a.m. (reruns, initially billed as The Saturday Tonight Show)
  • September 1966 September 1975: Saturday or Sunday 11:30 1:00 a.m. (reruns, now identified as The Saturday/Sunday Tonight Show; The Weekend Tonight Show by 1973)
  • January 1967 September 1980: Monday-Friday 11:30 p.m.-1:00 a.m.

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 television show, making NBC $50 to $60 million ($}} to $}} today) each year. Carson influenced the scheduling of reruns (which typically aired under the title The Best of Carson) in the mid-1970s and, later 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 enable a shorter work week for himself, 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 a 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), an hour remains the length of Tonight.

  • September 1980 August 1991: Monday-Friday 11:30 p.m.-12:30 a.m.
  • September 1991 May 1992: Monday-Friday 11:35 p.m.-12:35 a.m.

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

In his tribute episode after Carson's death, David Letterman revealed that because of the great success of the Tonight Show, every talk show host since then himself included is secretly emulating Carson during his Tonight Show days.[5]

1979 1980 contract battle

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.[6] While the case was settled out of court,[7] 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.[8] In September 1980, Carson's eponymous production company regained ownership of the show[9][10] after owning it from 1969 to the early 1970s.

Tape archives

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. Following the standard procedure for most television production companies of that era, NBC reused the Tonight Show videotapes for recording other programs. It was rumored that many other episodes were lost in a fire, but NBC has denied this. 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.

The program archive is virtually complete from 1973 to 1992.[11] 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.[12]

A large amount of material from Carson's first two decades of the Tonight Show (1962 1982), (much of it not seen since its original airings) appeared in a half hour "clip/compilation" syndicated program known as Carson's Comedy Classics which aired in 1983.

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 Na-Na!". (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 had Jake Ehrlich Sr. as guest.[13]

Thirty-minute audio recordings of many of these "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. The later shows are stored in an underground salt mine in Kansas.

Guest hosts

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 list is of those who guest hosted at least 50 times during the first 21 years of the show's run; it does not count the episodes hosted by the three "permanent guest hosts": Joan Rivers (1983 1986),[14] Garry Shandling (1986 1987), and Jay Leno (1987 1992).[14]

Carson had been an occasional guest host during the years when Jack Paar was the regular host, and Paar repeatedly claimed he had been the one to suggest to NBC that Carson replace him when he left the show in 1962.

On April 2, 1979, Kermit the Frog was guest-host.[16] Additionally, many other Muppets appeared for skits and regular segments: Frank Oz voiced Fozzie Bear and Animal, while Jerry Nelson performed Uncle Deadly, Vincent Price-based Muppet during a segment with the real Price.

Joan Rivers

In September 1983, Joan Rivers was designated Carson's permanent guest host, a role she had been essentially filling for more than a year before then. 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 her show. Rivers, on the other hand, has always remained ardent about the fact that she did inform Carson of her new career venture by telephone. [17] Nevertheless, Rivers' new show was quickly canceled, and she never appeared on The Tonight Show with Carson again. She never appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno either, a ban instigated by Leno out of respect for Carson.[18] After Carson's death, 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 [June 1991] accidental death of Carson's son Ricky.[15]

The program of July 26, 1984, with guest host Joan Rivers, was the first MTS stereo broadcast in U.S. television history,[19] though not the first television broadcast with stereophonic sound. Only the New York City affiliate of NBC had stereo broadcast capability at that time.[20] NBC transmitted The Tonight Show in stereo sporadically through 1984, and on a regular basis beginning in 1985.

Carson's last shows

As his retirement approached, Carson tried to avoid sentimentality, but would periodically show clips of some of his favorite moments and host again 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."[21]

On May 21, 1992, the eve of Carson's last show, he hosted his final guests, Robin Williams and Bette Midler.[22] It was also the final show before a regular studio audience; fans, who had been camping out to get into the final shows, waited up to 35 hours to get into this one.[21][23] Once underway, the atmosphere was electric and Carson was greeted with a sustained, two-minute ovation at the start.[23] Williams displayed an especially uninhibited take on his trademark manic energy and stream-of-consciousness lunacy.[21][24] Midler, in contrast, found the emotional vein of the farewell.[24] When the conversation turned to Johnny's favorite songs "I'll Be Seeing You" and "Here's That Rainy Day" Midler mentioned 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 which had never been used before.[25] The audience became tearful as well, and called the three performers out for a second bow after the show completed.[23] This penultimate show was immediately recognized as a television classic, and Midler would consider it one of the most emotional moments of her life and would win an Emmy Award for her role in it.[24][25][26]

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.[21][22] An estimated 50 million people tuned in for the finale, which ended with Carson sitting on a stool alone on the stage, similar to Jack Paar's last show. He gave these final words of goodbye:

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, he chose never to return to television with another show of his own. He gave only two major interviews after retiring: 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 also made only a couple of on-screen appearances after retiring, including providing a guest voice on an episode of The Simpsons and making a silent cameo appearance on Late Show with David Letterman.

In 2011, the last show was ranked #10 on the TV Guide Network special, TV's Most Unforgettable Finales.[27]


External links

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