Johnny Carson shakes hands with the show's announcer Ed McMahon during the final taping of "The Tonight Show" in Burbank, Ca., Friday, May 22, 1992,
20 years ago, May 22, 1992, Johnny Carson, age 66, after serving as the Tonight Show host for 30 years, including 4,531 shows, while interviewing approximately 24,000 guests, tapes his final show at the NBC studios in Burbank Calif.
``I bid you a very heartfelt goodnight’’ was Carson’s final words before fading deep into the night.
He was succeeded by Jay Leno on May 25, 1992.
The crowned ``King of Late Night’’, except for a brief appearance celebrating Bob Hope’s 90th birthday in 1993 and hand delivering a top 10 list to David Letterman in 1994, never again popped up on any television show either as a guest or host of a special presentation.
Carson, not quite 37, a shy Midwesterner and known only to a modest television audience as host of the ABC quiz game show, ``Who Do You Trust’’, began his miraculous run on October 1, 1962 with guests Tony Bennett, Rudy Vallee, Joan Crawford, Groucho Marx, and a rising comedy writer, Mel Brooks,
A Footnote: Among the personalities, who turned down offers by NBC to replace Jack Paar, included: Bob Newhart, Jackie Gleason, Joey Bishop, and Groucho Marx.
Carson lived up to the grand billing he was given in the 26 weeks between Jack Paar’s last show and his debut on the Tonight show, which paid him just a shade over $100,000 a year. During Carson’s first week, fan mail reportedly flew in at a rate of 12,000 letters a week, a rate never witnessed before in NBC’s entire television history. During its first six months, the program averaged over seven million viewers; and by the time he passed the baton to Leno, the Tonight Show audience had leaped to 15 million, generating approximately 17 percent of the network's total profit, making it one of the biggest money makers in network history.
A Footnote: Carson’s single biggest audience came on Dec. 17, 1969, when Tiny Tim, an American singer and ukulele player, married 17 year-old Vicki Budinger or ``Miss Vicki’’ before an estimated 58 million viewers.
Jack Paar, Carson’s predecessor, told the Saturday Evening Post in a December 1962 interview that ``Carson is a natural wit. He’ll do well. I recommended him personally to the network.’’
But not all greeted this tall skinny comedian’s entry into late night television with such enthusiasm. “He [Carson] exhibits all the charm of a snickering small boy scribbling graffiti on a public wall’’ wrote John Horn of the New York Herald Tribune, demonstrating “no apparent gift for the performing arts.”
From the outset, Carson wanted no part of his predecessor’s signature combativeness and emotional tension which he brought to the Tonight Show from 1957 through 1962, opting instead for a more good natured genial approach without lobbing hand grenades to his guests. ``I have no intention of being Mike Wallace’’ Carson told the Saturday Evening Post in 1962.
Under his 30-year supremacy, Carson earned six Emmy Awards, was the recipient of the Friar's Club Entertainer of the Year (1965, 1969), the Harvard Hasty Pudding Club Man of the Year in 1977, a Peabody award winner in 1985, winner of People's Choice Awards in 1987, inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1987, received the American Comedy Lifetime Achievement Award (1992), the same year he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President H.W. Bush, along with the 1993 Kennedy Center Lifetime Achievement Award, while hosting the Academy Awards five times (1979, 1980, 1981, 1982 and 1984).
No one was more surprised of America’s national treasure announcing his retirement in May, 1991 than his long time friend and second banana, Ed McMahon. Big Ed said in his book: `` For Laughing Out Loud: My Life and Good Times’’ that he had no warning Johnny was planning on shutting it down for good. ``I don’t think he told anyone except his wife Alex, that he had decided to quit’’ McMahon wrote. So unprepared was the network for the retirement bombshell that NBC asked Carson’s sidekick to remain on the show for six additional months after the host departed. McMahon respectfully declined.
According to a Gallup poll, 10 years after Carson stepped down, four out of 10 or 39 percent of Americans considered Carson to be their favorite late-night talk show host of all time, well ahead of David Letterman with 20 percent followed by Jay Leno with 16 percent.
Johnny Carson was one of the highest paid entertainers in television history, earning an estimated $2, 380 per minute of airtime.
Carson died with his family at his side at 7:00 a.m. on January 23, 2005 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles of complications from emphysema. He was 79.
48 hours after his death, the $49.99 DVD set, ``The Ultimate Johnny Carson Collection: His Favorite Moments from The Tonight Show’’ was the bestselling DVD on Amazon.com.
John William Carson, the second of three children, was born on October 23, 1923 in Corning, Iowa. The family moved to Norfolk Nebraska in 1933 when Carson was eight years-old. After serving three years in the navy beginning in 1943 during World War II and earning a B.A. degree in English at the University of Nebraska (1949), he launched his radio career in Lincoln Nebraska at KFAB (later in Omaha at WOW); in 1951, he moved to Los Angeles, where landed a job as a staff announcer at KNXT-TV, a year later in 1952, he segued into a Sunday afternoon comedy show ``Carson’s Cellar’’ with a budget of $25.
So impressive was this young Nebraskan in his television debut that a number of high profile comedians landed on his show, including Fred Allen, Groucho Marx, Jack Benny, Red Skelton and Jerry Lewis.
The clear game changer in Carson’s career came in August, 1954, when he filled in for Red Skelton on his CBS show, delivering a hilarious opening monologue on the economics of television, resulting in rave reviews from television critics, which also caught the eye of CBS executives who offered him a half hour show in prime time, ``The Johnny Carson Show.’’ The show, which tore through seven directors and eight writers, never took hold, running for only 39 weeks in 1955.
Beginning November 18, 1957 and up until he was tapped as Paar’s successor, he hosted an ABC game show, (along with announcer Ed McMahon), ``Who Do You Trust’’, which was based on a interview game show ``Do You Trust Your Wife’’? with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, which ran on CBS from January 3, 1956 through March 26, 1957.
A Footnote: Carson filled in briefly for Jack Paar as a guest host on "The Tonight Show" in 1958; he also performed in nightclubs and in the Broadway comedy "'Tunnel of Love" before succeeding Paar permanently.
Except for entertaining a select group of friends on occasion, after the Tonight Show, Carson lived his remaining years in seclusion in his $12 million Malibu home while making occasional excursions on his 125-ft. yacht.
Outside of the NBC studios, Carson often made news with his stormy marriages, first with Joan Wolcott Carson (1949-63), then Joanne Copeland Carson ( 1963-72), followed by Joanna Holland Carson (1972-83). The fact that his first three wives had such similar first names, led to a running joke within the industry that the only reason the Tonight Show host married these particular women was so that this shameless penny pincher wouldn’t have to change the initials on his monogrammed bath towels. Carson married a fourth time on June 20, 1987 to Alexis Maas Carson.
Upon his death, Carson was survived by his wife, Alexis ; two sons, Chris and Corey; his brother, Richard; and his sister, Catherine. Another son, Richard Wolcott Carson, known as `` Ricky’’, died in a car accident in 1991 after his car plunged 100 feet down an embankment in Cayucos, Calif. He was 39.
Beginning in August, 1971 with Carson taking Monday’s off, along with taking frequent vacations, the popular host had his share of guest hosts over the years. According to JohnnyCarson.com, Joey Bishop hosted a record 177 times, followed by Joan Rivers with 93.
The papers of Johnny Carson, which were acquired by the Library of Congress in 1996 from the Carson Production Company , includes approximately 47, 600 items consisting exclusively of the records of "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson," arranged chronologically by date as aired from October 1970 to May 1992, with a gap in the 1976 files.
Records for each show include cue cards, chronologies, outline, scripts, and broadcast standards acceptability reports, an assortment of correspondence and other materials.
In addition, The Library's Motion Picture Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division archives NBC and other broadcasting materials and recordings, including approximately 30 Jack Paar shows; 1,500 David Letterman shows, from NBC and CBS; 1,000 Jay Leno shows; and 750 Conan O'Brien shows, as well as a sound recording of excerpts from the early years of Carson's reign.
May 22, 2012