Johnny Carson signed off as the host of NBC’s “The Tonight Show” on May 22, 1992 after being the King of Late Night for nearly three decades. But Carson has never left thanks to DVDs and repeats on such nostalgia channels as Antenna TV and streaming services like Peacock, as well as YouTube. And even with such late-night hosts as Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher, Trevor Noah, Jimmy Fallon, who is the current host of “The Tonight Show,” and Jimmy Kimmel, none of them hold a candle to Carson.
While I was working at the Los Angeles Times, I talked to experts, filmmakers and even his nephew about what made Carson so unique.
“The thing about Carson is 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 that has followed has skills, but they don’t have every skill. Probably the most difficult skill is the ability to interview someone and be passionate about it and elicit responses you haven’t heard before. Carson was the master of that.” He made little Drew Barrymore feel so comfortable in a 1982 interview that removed her bridge revealing her missing front tooth. Kirk Douglas talked about his extramarital affairs when he sat on the couch in 1998.
Peter Jones, who produced the 2012 “American Masters” documentary “Johnny Carson; The King of Late Night,” added “what came out of Johnny’s mouth was truly a reaction to what he had just heard. He was absolutely in the moment with the person he was talking to. Over and over, people told me when I interviewed them, they did forget about the camera, the audience of 500 and the audience of 15 million on TV when they were talking to this guy who made them feel so comfortable.”
Carson, who died in 2005 at the age of 79, has a timeless quality-save for his cringeworthy striped and checked suits which were considered “natty’ in its day. He would talk politics and addressed 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 part and parcel of that special type of television interaction between entertainer and viewer,” Simon said. “I think one reason his humor seems relevant is it really goes back to Mark Twain or a Will Rogers. We certainly feel the humanity in his remarks. You can see he’s taking the underdog side, he’s always making fun of political power.”
Carson, said his nephew Jeff Sotzing and president of Carson Entertainment, was never nasty. “When he did some jokes about Nixon at one point, he heard that Nixon was upset and walking around the White House in the middle of the night fun. And Johnny said, ‘We’re not doing that anymore.'” Sotzing worried that when repeats began airing on Antenna TV that fans of the show would be disappointed. “I was concerned that people would say ‘You know, I remember the show as really being good and it’s not.” Thankfully, he noted, “it holds up. It’s simple, clever, classy conversation with not a lot of bells and whistles because the technology at that time just did not exist. It’s adult, clever, wonderful conversation.”
Carson, noted Simon, had to appeal to a diverse audience. “Obviously, everything is so different today where you look for your own little clan and you appeal to them first, your fan base. Whereas Carson had to appeal to everyone.” And he slayed all comers including Joey Bishop, Dick Cavett, Merv Griffin, Joan Rivers, Pat Sajak, Chevy Chase, Alan Thicke and Arsenio Hall. ”Carson was the dominant presence on American television in the three-network universe,” said Simon. “He began in ’62 when television was in more than 90 percent of the homes. He concluded when cable and new digital technology was just beginning to challenge the three-network universe.”
“One of the things you have to remember about Carson was that he was trained in comedy,” Simon told me. Before getting “The Tonight Show” gig, he cut his comedic teeth hosting such game shows as ABC’s “Who Do You Trust?,” which aired from 1957-62. McMahon joined that series in 1958 as the announcer. “I think ‘Who Do You Trust?” was really important because he was able to communicate with everyone and developing interviewing skills that would really pay off in the 1960s,” said Simon.
Carson was married four times and was most often described as aloof. But not when he was doing the series. “He was haunted by demons, but in that 90 minutes or an hour he was himself,” Simon explained. “The rest of his life was a little difficult for him. His show was his laboratory. He created this idealized version of himself that he saved only for his show.”
The series also changed the lives of numerous comics and actors. Back in 1991, I had the opportunity to talk to many whose careers were changed because of Carson.
Like the late comic David Brenner, who had just $3 in his pocket and borrowed $100 to buy a suit for his first appearance on the show on Jan. 8, 1971. “I only did it as a lark,” he noted. “I wanted to get on television once…In 18 months as a comic, I made only $8,000. By the end of the business day after I did Carson, I had $10,000 in jobs. I took them all.”
“No one could come near me,” admitted the late great insult comic Don Rickles. “I was considered Adolf Hitler’s son.” But Carson wanted him. “It must have been 25 years ago,” Rickles recalled of his first appearance. “He had seen me at Basin Street East and was a fan from the beginning. He said, ‘let’s take a chance on Don Rickles.’ He opened doors for me, which gave me the opportunity for my TV series and some movies. He was very influential.”
Joan Embry of the San Diego Zoo made about 70 guest shots with various creatures. She recalled 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’s always in control of the situation. Working with Johnny has always been great. It’s funny. I have done all the game shows, sitcoms, series and yet I have never gotten away from this statement; ‘Joan Embrey of ‘The Tonight Show’ and the San Diego Zoo.”
One of Carson’s favorite guests was the late Burt Reynolds, who seemed to bring out the host’s crazy comedic side. During one visit, Reynolds and Carson have fun with a can of whipped cream. Carson requested him for “The Tonight Show” after seeing Reynolds’ demonstrate his comedic chops as a guest on “The Merv Griffin Show.”
“You have to remember in the 1960s if you went on the Carson show and really scored, the next morning you were hotter than a burning tree,” Reynolds noted. “This was back when I was in New York and I was 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 heard, as everybody does, all these stories that he doesn’t talk to you when the commercial comes on. So, I was prepared to talk to Ed and then the first commercial comes up and he said ‘Hey, do you want to host the show?’”
After he hosted the show, Reynolds received a call from filmmaker John Boorman who was casting the classic 1992 drama “Deliverance.” Boorman, it seems, was taken back by the way he handled the guests. “He said, you were in control of three people on the show and this character must be in control of three people.” And Carson had Reynolds on every year as a guest “whether I was No. 1 at the box office or No. 83. At the lowest ebb of my career, I heard from about four people and one of them was Johnny.”
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