The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson
|The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson|
|Also known as||The Tonight Show (franchise brand)|
|Created by||Steve Allen
William O. Harbach
Sylvester L. Weaver, Jr.
|Written by||Head writer:
Raymond Siller (1974–89)
Ed McMahon (announcer)
|Theme music composer||Paul Anka|
|Country of origin||United States|
|No. of seasons||30|
|No. of episodes||4531 (List of episodes)|
|Producer(s)||Fred de Cordova|
New York, New York (1962–72)
Burbank, California (1972–92)
|Running time||47–105 minutes|
|Original run||October 1, 1962 – May 22, 1992|
|Preceded by||Tonight Starring Jack Paar|
|Followed by||The 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. 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.
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; Carson was very uncomfortable with discussing politics on air out of fear it might alienate his audience, and it was Carson's preference for access to Hollywood stars that caused the show's move to the West Coast in 1972. 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; one television critic stated, however, "he always presented them as if they were spinach for your diet when he did [feature such names]". 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.
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". 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.
Bandleaders and others
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
- 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?"
- "Baja" ... "What sound does a sheep make when it laughs?"
- "Camelot" ... "Where do Arabians park their camels?"
- "Ben-Gay" ... "Why didn't Mrs. Franklin have any kids?"
- "20,000 Leagues Under The Sea" ... "How deep is Orson Welles' belly button?"
- "Mr. Coffee" ... "Name the father of Mrs. Olson's illegitimate baby."
- "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."
- "Senta Berger" ... "I ordered a corned beef on rye from the NBC commissary, and guess what they did!"
- "Walla Walla" ..."Hey......Tony (Italian accent) What kind uva carpets you got atta you houseah?"
- "Inky dinky doo" ... "What do sanitation workers have to sweep up after a parade of Inky dinkies?"
- "Black Beauty" ... "What do you call a polar bear walking next to the Alaskan Pipeline?"
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 Matinee 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 on 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. A Mighty Carson Art Players appearance would usually be announced along with that night's guests during McMahon's introduction.
- 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 whom 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.
- "How ___ was it?", a recurring call-and-response during Carson's monologues. Carson would set up the joke with a passing comment about, for instance, the weather with the phrase "It was so hot..." prompting the audience to respond "HOW HOT WAS IT?" Carson would then follow with several punch lines (e.g. "I heard Burger King singing, 'If you want it made your way, cook it yourself!'"). Carson would occasionally throw the audience off with an anti-joke (such as "it was worth the trip in, wasn't it?").
- 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. 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. 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").
- 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.
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. 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.
- 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.
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. While the case was settled out of court, 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. In September 1980, Carson's eponymous production company regained ownership of the show after owning it from 1969 to the early 1970s.
Virtually all of the original pre-1970 video recordings, including Carson's debut as host, are now considered lost because of wiping. 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. 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. 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. Carson Productions has also made clips available on YouTube.
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.
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.
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. The later shows are stored in an underground salt mine outside Hutchinson, Kansas.
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), Garry Shandling (1986–1987), and Jay Leno (1987–1992).
- Joey Bishop (177 times, mostly in the 1960s)
- Joan Rivers (93, during the 1970s and 1980s)
- John Davidson (87)
- Bob Newhart (87)
- David Brenner (70)
- McLean Stevenson (58)
- Jerry Lewis (52, mostly in the 1960s)
- David Letterman (51)
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. 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.
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, disagreed. 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. 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. 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.
The program of July 26, 1984, with guest host Joan Rivers, was the first MTS stereo broadcast in U.S. television history, 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. 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 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."
Carson hosted his penultimate show, featuring guests Robin Williams and Bette Midler, on May 21, 1992. Once underway, the atmosphere was electric and Carson was greeted with a sustained, two-minute ovation. Williams was especially uninhibited with his trademark manic energy and stream-of-consciousness lunacy. Midler was more emotional. 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. The audience became tearful as well and called the three performers out for a second bow after the taping was completed. 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.
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. 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.
- Bill Zehme (June 2002). "The Man Who Retired". Esquire. Retrieved 2010-06-09.
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- 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."
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