Johnny Carson

Johnny Carson

Courtesy of NBC/Photofest
Ed McMahon and Johnny Carson

Ed McMahon and Johnny Carson in the recurring bit Carnac the Magnificent

Courtesy of NBC/Photofest
Johnny Carson

Johnny Carson on the June 1992 cover of emmy magazine

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Fill 1
September 30, 2022
Emmy Rewind

Emmy Rewind: The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson

To commemorate the 60th anniversary of the landmark talk show, revisit this emmy magazine tribute to Johnny Carson from 1992, the year the comedian retired from late night.

Before Jimmy and before Jay, there was Johnny.

Johnny Carson, the Tonight Show host who reigned on late night for nearly thirty years, became the gold standard for entertainers everywhere. Preceded by Tonight Show hosts Steve Allen and Jack Paar, Carson forged his own path with memorable recurring bits and characters, like his most enduring, Carnac the Magnificent, a psychic who divined the answer to a question contained in a sealed envelope.

Over the course of his career, Carson won five Emmy Awards, the Television Academy's 1980 Governors Award and was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1987. He also won a Peabody and was the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and a Kennedy Center Honor.

His casual, conversational style was a defining characteristic that remained to the final episode, which saw the host perched atop a stool, delivering his last "good night" to an estimated 55 million viewers.

"And so it has come to this," Carson said. "I 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 gentlemen 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 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."

It had to have been the best gig in town — no matter which side of the camera you were on.

If you had a project to pitch, book to sell, or story to share, a seat across the desk from Johnny Carson was the place to do it.

And if you worked behind the scenes, a job with Carson meant steady work, steady pay, steady audience — unusual, to say the least, for TV.

But that has been the history of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Until now, of course. Because after thirty years of swing­ing that imaginary golf club at monologue's end, the king of late night will tee off for the last time May 22, signaling the end of an era for eager guests, loyal colleagues, and faithful fans alike.

The program has been a hit, it seems, since Carson first wielded that club. Earning three Emmy Awards and fourteen nominations during his reign, the show also established itself as the premier platform for burgeoning young tal­ent. Stars like David Letterman, Roseanne Arnold, Bill Cosby, Joan Rivers, George Carlin, Jerry Sein­feld, and certainly Tonight Show heir Jay Leno all credit Carson with providing their major break.

"Johnny Carson is a remarkable star and a leader," says Tonight Show coproducer Jim McCawley, who has been with the program since 1977. "There will never be another Johnny Carson."

Yet Leno, familiar to viewers as Carson's exclusive guest host since September 1987, has accepted the enviable and formidable task of trying to fill that chair. His sincere delivery, amiable manner, and fam­ily humor have proved him a win­ning pinch hitter — time will tell the rest. As star of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, he will gather his own ensemble of supporting players to replace the departing faces — among others, familiar sidekick Ed McMahon, flamboyant bandleader Doc Sever­insen, and longtime coexecutive producer Fred de Cordova.

While it is true that these veterans — along with Tommy Newsom, second-in-command of the Tonight Show Orchestra — have become almost as well-known as their boss, producer Mccawley understands why Leno is trying to make his own mark. "[Jack] Paar did a different show before Johnny," he says. "The Tonight Show as we know it today is Johnny."

Ever since Steve Allen first tickled the ivories on what was then called Tonight! (1954-57), the talk/variety program eased Americans into bed with gags, guests, and musical interludes. Each host — from Allen to Paar and all those short-termers in between — brought a unique aura along with the inevitable question, Can the new guy com­pare with the last?

Allen's show was live, informal, and marked by his easy ad-libbing, skillful impromptu sketches, and famous man-on-the-street inter­views. One routine that nearly got out of hand was a staged landing of U.S. Marines on Miami Beach that panicked tourists, who were sure the country was being invaded.

Paar succeeded Allen with The Jack Paar Tonight Show (1957-62). He proved to be a sometimes emo­tional interviewer, setting him apart from Allen, and his irrever­ent comments on news and news­makers stirred controversy. He even walked off the show for a month after network censors found a water-closet joke too offensive, and NBC, without both­ering to advise Paar, axed it.

When the mercurial host left the show, a variety of talent — including Art Linkletter, Joey Bishop, Merv Griffin, Groucho Marx, and Mort Sahl — filled the chair until Carson debuted on October 1, 1962, sending the Tonight Show into a new era.

Compared with the volatile Paar, Carson was calm and unflappable, bent on amusing rather than incit­ing. No one does a better job of saving a bad joke, and his nightly monologues, always right from the day's headlines, played well. Car­son was Everyman, and viewers eagerly invited him into their lives.

He brought to life the omniscient Carnac the Magnificent; testy Aunt Blabby; sleazy Art Fern, host of "The Art Fern Tea Time Movies"; and he also loaned his comic flair to the Mighty Carson Art Players, the group who spoofed everything from politics to TV and movies.

According to NBC, Carson has hosted nearly 8,000 hours of shows, introduced more than 21,000 guests, and reached an esti­ mated 35 million viewers per night on 212 stations.

The most-watched Tonight Show ran on December 17, 1969, when singer Tiny "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" Tim married Victoria May Budinger (a.k.a. Miss Vicki), and received a 36.5 rating with an 85 share.

Elizabeth Taylor repeatedly turned down Tonight Show invita­tions until this past February, finally appearing just one week before her sixtieth birthday.

"We've been trying for twenty­-nine years and now, with only three months to go, we've finally got you here," Carson remarked. Taylor explained that she had always been too nervous to go on the show.

"I'm not plugging anything. I have nothing to sell," she said. "I just wanted to thank you for thirty years of brilliant entertainment."

Carson's other guest that evening, Michael Douglas, admitted that he, too, had been terrified when first booked on the show in 1971. "You came into the green room and said, 'Hi, I'm Johnny Carson,'" Douglas remembered. "I was shaking. When you ran out of time [on the show] for me, I was so relieved."

Through the years Carson, long NBC's best rainmaker, has taken on all comers in the late-night spot — Merv Griffin, Joey Bishop, Pat Sajak, Mike Douglas, and Alan Thicke fell by the wayside. Left to face Leno are Arsenio Hall and Dennis Miller.

For years Carson has been asked when he would leave the show, and he usually answered, "When it wasn't fun anymore." Just about one year ago, at a network conven­tion, he finally set a quitting date that would fall four months shy of his thirtieth anniversary.

Ask anyone why the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson survived and thrived for nearly three decades and you get one answer: Johnny.

"It all starts with Johnny," explains de Cordova. The Emmy­-winning producer-director, whose credits include Burns and Allen, The George Gobel Show, and My Three Sons, recalls that it was while he was producing The Jack Benny Program that he first noticed Carson.

"Jack and I both thought he was enormously talented and would be very good as a guest star for several Benny episodes and spe­cials. He had a boyish quality, a twinkle in the eye that is still there. He has the ability to make conver­sation with a guest and to take sordid and dreary news and turn it into a humorous monologue."

De Cordova jumped aboard the Tonight Show in 1970 and, like many others, stayed with a good thing. "The show was a success, almost immediately," he says, "and you basked in the sun." When the program moved from New York to Burbank, California, in May 1972 everyone who could, followed.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime propo­sition to have a job like this," offers McCawley. "Where else would we go? We're at the top of the moun­tain. We have a product that we're proud of, a boss we respect. We knew that it's the show that mattered."

"The very fact that you're on the Tonight Show is a reflected glory," adds Newsom, who came to the program just before Carson took over, when the band was directed by Skitch Henderson.

"It was heaven for me," says Newsom, though his first stint as bandleader had its awkward moments. "I think it was just as much a shock to me as to Johnny to see me there. I think he blanched a little when he saw me wearing my old gray suit, compared to Doc's flamingo outfits.

"Then one day he found out I could talk," Newsom continues, remembering how he tried to spruce up his wardrobe with some new jackets, including a yellow sports coat. "Johnny said I looked like a big, dumb canary. I told him, 'When I fly over you, you'll know what kind of bird I am.'"

Producer Jeff Sotzing, Carson's nephew, joined the Tonight Show staff in 1978, doing a variety of jobs. He worked as receptionist, assisted McMahon with his com­mercials, and helped coexecutive producer Peter Lassally coordinate the anniversary shows.

"It's a great job," enthuses Sotz­ing. "It's a consistent, nine-to-five job, Monday through Friday, with no postproduction. You can't top it. And at the end of the day, you get to go down and listen to Doc and the guys and see a live show. That's a great way to finish a day."

Members of the departing staff look to the future with varying degrees of anticipation and horror.

Lassally, who came aboard in January 1970, says he is too busy worrying about the next show to think about the last one. "All I have on my mind right now is to make the remaining Carson shows as good as we possibly can."

McCawley, for one, knows what his future holds. He'll pursue a long-held dream to open a comedy club in Hawaii. Still, he admits, "it's terrifying to be leaving."

Severinsen acknowledges "a cer­tain sadness in leaving," but adds, "it seems everyone is ready." He plans to continue his tours with the Tonight Show band and his regular gig as conductor of the Phoenix Symphony. And there's his new appointment as main pops conduc­tor for the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.

McMahon, of course, will be con­tinuing some of the many activities he's pursued during the Tonight Show years. He remains host of the syndicated Star Search, the talent show that's aired since 1983, and will be loaning his familiar face for commercial endorsements.

"For a lot of people, it's going to be a major departure to leave this nice umbrella," says de Cordova, who plans to "sleep late, play golf, and have an early martini." Consulting for TV shows and motion pictures will keep him busy, he says, adding that he is considering offering that service to The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. He concludes thoughtfully, "One is not as upset at retiring when one is eighty-one as one would be at thirty-two."

As for Sotzing, he says he's been much too busy collecting old tape segments to use on the last Carson show to entertain any thoughts about the future. "I get one shot at this," he says, "and I hope to hell it's good."

And the boss? According to his attorney, Ed Hookstratten, Carson plans to take the summer off and think about the future in the fall. In the meantime don't dare mention the words retirement and Carson in the same breath.

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #3, 1992, under the title, "Heeeere's to Johnny!"

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