Johnny Carson signed on as host of NBC’s “The Tonight Show” on May 22, 1992 after being the king of Late Night for nearly three decades. But Carson never left thanks to DVDs and repeats on nostalgic channels such as Antenna TV and streaming services like Peacock, as well as YouTube. And even with nocturnal hosts such as Stephane Colbert, Bill Maher, Trevor Noah, jimmy fallonwho is the current host of “The Tonight Show,” and jimmy kimmelnone of them hold a candle to Carson.
While working at the Los Angeles Times, I spoke to pundits, filmmakers, and even his nephew about what made Carson so unique.
“The thing about Carson was that he had all the exemplary skills needed for a late night host,” Ron Simon, curator of the Paley Center for Media in New York. “Everyone who followed has skills, but they don’t have all the skills. Probably the hardest skill is the ability to interview someone and be passionate about it and get answers you’ve never heard before. Carson was the master of this. He put little Drew Barrymore at ease in a 1982 interview that removed his bridge revealing his missing front tooth. Kirk Douglas opened up about his extramarital affairs when he sat on the couch in 1998.
Peter Joneswho produced the 2012 “American Masters” documentary “Johnny Carson; The King of Late Night,” added “what came out of Johnny’s mouth was really a reaction to what he had just heard. He was absolutely in the moment with whoever he was talking to. Time and time again people have told me that when I interviewed them they forgot about the camera, the audience of 500 and the TV audience of 15 million when they were talking to this guy who made them so comfortable.
Carson, who died in 2005 at the age of 79, has a timeless quality to his noteworthy striped and plaid suits that were considered “chic” at the time. He talked politics and touched on concerns that are still in the news today, including inflation and even problems at the gas pump. “There was so much of Carson that was integral to this special kind of television interaction between performer and viewer,” Simon said. “I think one of the reasons his humor seems relevant is that it really goes back to Mark Twain or a Will Rogers. You definitely feel the humanity in his words. You can see he takes sides with the outsiders, he always makes fun of political power.
Carson, said his nephew Jeff Sotzing and president of Carson Entertainment, has never been mean. “When he made jokes about Nixon at one point, he heard that Nixon was upset and walking around the White House in the middle of the night. And Johnny said, “We don’t do that anymore. “I was worried people would say ‘You know, I remember the show was really good and it’s not. Fortunately, he noted, “it holds up. It’s simple, smart, and elegant conversation with not a lot of bells and whistles because the technology back then just didn’t exist. It’s a mature, intelligent and wonderful conversation.
Carson, Simon noted, had to appeal to a diverse audience. “Obviously everything is so different today where you’re looking for your own little clan and you go to them first, your fan base. Whereas Carson was supposed to please everyone. And he killed everyone comers, including understood Joey Bishop, Dick Cavett, Merv Griffin, Joan Rivers, Pat Sajak, Chevy-Chase, Alan Thicke and Arsene room. “Carson was the dominant presence on American television in the tri-network universe,” Simon said. “It started in 1962 when television was present in more than 90% of homes. He concluded that cable and new digital technologies were just beginning to challenge the universe of the three networks.
“One of the things you have to remember about Carson is that he was trained in acting,” Simon told me. Before getting the “The Tonight Show” gig, he cut his teeth by hosting game shows such as “Who Do You Trust?” from ABC, which aired from 1957 to 1962. McMahon joined this series in 1958 as an announcer. “I’m thinking ‘Who do you trust?’ was really important because he was able to communicate with everyone and develop interview skills that would really pay off in the 1960s,” Simon said.
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Carson has been married four times and has most often been described as aloof. But not when he was on the show. “He was haunted by demons, but for those 90 minutes or an hour he was himself,” Simon explained. “The rest of his life was a bit difficult for him. His show was his laboratory. He created this idealized version of himself that he kept only for his show.
The series has also changed the lives of many comedians and actors. In 1991, I had the opportunity to talk to many people whose careers changed because of Carson.
Like the dead comic David Brenner, who had only $3 in his pocket and borrowed $100 to buy a costume for his first appearance on the show on January 8, 1971. “I only did it as a lark,” said- he noted. “I wanted to get on TV once… In 18 months as a comedian, I only made $8,000. By the end of the working day after doing Carson, I had $10,000 in jobs. I took them all.
‘No one could come near me,’ admitted the late big insult comedian Don Rickles. “I was considered the son of Adolf Hitler.” But Carson wanted it. “That must have been 25 years ago,” Rickles recalled of his first appearance. “He had seen me at Basin Street East and had been a fan from the start. He said, ‘Let’s take a chance on Don Rickles.’ He opened doors for me, which gave me the opportunity for my TV shows and a few movies. He was very influential.”
Joan Embry from the San Diego Zoo took about 70 photos of guests with various creatures. She remembers making her first appearance with Carson in the early 1970s with an elephant named Carol. “I had no intention of working in television,” she said. “Over the years he’s had a marmoset on his head and an aardvark in front of his desk. He is still in control. Working with Johnny has always been great. It’s funny. I’ve done every game show, sitcom, series and yet I’ve never strayed from that statement; “Joan Embrey from ‘The Tonight Show’ and the San Diego Zoo.”
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One of Carson’s favorite guests was the late Burt Reynolds, which seemed to bring out the quirky comedic side of the host. While visiting, Reynolds and Carson fool around with a box of whipped cream. Carson requested it for “The Tonight Show” after seeing Reynolds demonstrate his comedic chops as a guest on “The Merv Griffin Show.”
“You have to remember that in the 1960s, if you went on the Carson show and you really scored, the next morning you were hotter than a burning tree,” Reynolds noted. “That was when I was in New York and playing Indians, gangsters, detectives – not a lot of funny lines there.” He thought he had done his homework for his first appearance in 1971. “I’ve heard, like everyone else, all these stories that he doesn’t tell you when the commercial is on. So, I was ready to talk to Ed, and then the first ad came up and he said, “Hey, do you want to host the show?”
After hosting the show, Reynolds got a call from filmmaker John Boorman who was playing the classic 1992 drama “Deliverance.” Boorman, it seems, was taken aback by the way he treated the guests. “He said, you were controlling three people on the show and this character has to control three people.” And Carson had Reynolds every year as a guest “whether I was No. 1 at the box office or No. 83. At the low point of my career, I heard about four people and one of ‘they were Johnny.”
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