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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The Most Private Public Man Who Ever Lived

By Tom Morrow

For four decades, America’s most recognizable and popular entertainer was Johnny Carson. From 1962 until 1992, Carson’s talk-show, known as The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, was unsurpassed.

Carson was an Emmy-Award winner 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.

Despite his jovial and humorous on-camera demeanor, Carson was extremely shy off-camera. He was known for avoiding large parties and was referred to by a friend as “the most private public man who ever lived.” Writer-comedian Dick Cavett once said, “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.” George Axelrod once said, “Socially, he (Carson) doesn’t exist. The reason is 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.”

John William Carson was born on Oct. 23, 1925, in Corning, Ia. Later the family moved to Norfolk, Neb. At the age of 12, Carson found a book on magic at a friend’s house and immediately purchased a mail-order magician’s kit. Carson practiced his entertainment skills on family members with card tricks. He debuted as “The Great Carsoni” at age 14 and he was paid $3 a show.

Carson joined the Navy in 1943, and was commissioned an ensign. He was assigned to the battleship USS Pennsylvania. While in the Navy, Carson posted a 10-0 amateur boxing record. He was en route to the Pacific combat zone when the war ended.

After the Navy, Carson graduated from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Carson began his broadcasting career in 1950 at WOW radio and television in Omaha. Carson hosted a morning television program called The Squirrel’s Nest, where he would lampoon local political figures. He joined CBS-owned Los Angeles, station KNXT, and was hired by comic Red Skelton, who asked him to join his writing staff. In 1955, he was a guest on Jack Benny’s show during the opening and closing segments.

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 which starred Jerry Lester and Dagmar. Tonight was successful, and when Allen moved on to primetime comedy-variety shows in 1956, Jack Paar replaced him as host of Tonight. Paar left the show in 1962. NBC to invited Carson to take over Tonight.

On “Who Do You Trust?” Carson met his future straight man and sidekick, Ed McMahon. The former Marine colonel followed Carson as his announcer and sidekick. His famous introduction, “Heeeeere’s Johnny!!!” was followed by a brief Carson monologue. He and McMahon were friends for 46 years. Paul Anka wrote the famed Tonight Show song, Johnny’s Theme, played every night’s opening.

Carson’s show launched the careers of many performers. For a comedian appearing on the show, getting Carson to laugh and being invited to the guest chair were considered the highest honor. Most notable were David Letterman, Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, Jeff Foxworthy, Robin Williams, Joan Rivers, David Brenner, and Tim Allen.

Carson didn’t tolerate disloyalty. In 1966, he became furious when his guest host Joan Rivers got her own talk show on Fox Network, directly competing with The Tonight Show. According to Rivers, Carson never spoke to her again. A friend of Carson’s said it was because “… Rivers didn’t bother to tell Johnny ahead of time about her show.

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. In tribute to Carson and his enormous influence, several networks that had late-night variety talk shows “went dark” for the entire hour he did the last Tonight Show, which featured Johnny’s final two guests, Robin Williams and Bette Midler.

Carson was married four times, had three sons with his first wife. On June 20, 1987, Carson married Alexis Maas. The marriage lasted until his death.

On Jan. 23, 2005, Carson died of respiratory failure arising from emphysema. He was 79. Carson also is survived by his younger brother, Dick, who is an Emmy Award-winning director of the competing Merv Griffin Show and Wheel of Fortune.

Johnny Carson Tonight Show re-runs can be seen every night on the Antenna cable network, (Cox Channel 813) at 7 p.m., and again at 11 p.m., seven days a week.


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