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December 30, 2015

Johnny Carson: The King Reclaims His Late-night Throne

The iconic late night host returns on AntennaTV.

Herbie J Pilato
  • Fritz Coleman on The Tonight Show

Johnny Carson, once crowned the “King of Late Night Television,” is returning to his loyal viewing subjects.

On January 1st, Antenna TV will begin televising select episodes of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

Johnny’s historic edition of The Tonight Show (which was first hosted by Steve Allen and Jack Paar), originally aired on NBC from October 1, 1962 to Carson’s retirement on May 22, 1992 (and was initially broadcast from New York before he relocated to Burbank in 1972).

In the realm of talk show hosts, male or female, late night, daytime or otherwise, Carson stood out from the pack.  Following a four-year stint as the initial host of the game show, Who Do You Trust? (ABC, 1957-1963 - Woody Woodbury took over as after Johnny left in 1962), Carson went on to commandeer The Tonight Show with his trademark sense of style, sophistication and humor like no other before or since. 

The pencil-tapping, the Johnny Carson coffee mugs, and the Johnny Carson mugging, the double-takes into the camera, all of it and more became the stuff of legends, along with the reverence for his guests.

Each show opened with the rousing musical rendition of The Tonight Show theme (composed by Paul Anka and performed by Doc Severinson and The Tonight Show Orchestra), followed by equally famous “Here’s Johnny” introduction by Ed McMahon, Carson’s right-hand man, loyal friend, and former co-host of Who Do You Trust?

With shoulders back, a stoic stance, bravado, and confidence extraordinaire, the talk-fest icon then took over with his one-of-a-kind monologue (“Attention: K-Mart shoppers!”), then periodically appeared in legendary skits featuring character creations, including Art Fern (the “Tea Time” movie announcer), Carnac the Magnificent (the flippant psychic who answered questions before they were asked), and Aunt Blabby (a crusty female senior), each of whom interacted with or played off of McMahon.

After that, however, it was all about the guests, be they celebrities, comedians, everyday folks, or animals, the latter of which were gathered from the San Diego Zoo for what became some of the most popular segments in Tonight Show history.

A key component of Carson's appeal as a host - to his guests, the studio audience and the viewers at home - was his charming ability to make all feel welcome. He consistently displayed a measure of decorum and veneration for all parties concerned, even during jovial trademark skits like “Stump the Band” with the studio audience, McMahon, and Severinson and his elite musical ensemble.

Johnny never verbally abused, attacked or insulted anyone for a laugh, nor attempted to detract, or top their general humor, anecdote or specific joke. 

He presented satirical interpretations of musical guests and their most popular songs (such as Willie Nelson’s “To All the Girls I Loved Before”), but refrained from joining them on stage for a song or dance refrain. 

Instead, he was determined to deflect the spotlight, granting his guests their moment to shine, whether they were fellow icons like Bob Hope - or an aspiring young comedian on the show for the first time.  He was particularly encouraging to new comics just starting out, or who he deemed particularly talented.  Carson would joke and laugh with his guests but, as the old adage goes, never at them.  He was a true master of ceremonies in every sense of the term.

Fritz Coleman, comedian, and LA’s iconic TV weatherman from KNBC Channel 4, which taped in the famous NBC Burbank Studios that also housed Carson Tonight Show, and later The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, was a frequent guest on Johnny’s show. 

As he recalls, “Everything about Johnny was as smooth as expensive scotch…his smile…his baritone timber…Nebraska twinkle…his lightning speed reacting to a guest or a moment. When I was a teenager…I realized that being that fast and funny did two things: It made people like you. It gave you power over a group. Very intoxicating.”

“I think Johnny was the best audience a comedian could have,” Coleman continues. “The greats of all eras would agree. Buddy Hackett. Jerry Seinfeld. Don Rickles. Shecky Greene. Even…the late Sam Kinison. As out there as Sam was…he convulsed Johnny a few times. His ability to be a great audience came from his ability as a great comedian. He sensed the moments. He freely admitted that he learned from Jack Benny. If he laughs…the audience laughs, and if the audience laughs, he looks good.”

Coleman, in fact, has several fond memories of working with Carson and company, one of which transpired in the pre-high-tech-mobile-devices-‘80s, while walking with a home video recorder down the Tonight studio hallway.  At one point, Coleman approached Severinson, and asked if he would wish his parents a Happy 50th Anniversary into his video camera.  Without skipping a beat, the band-leader replied, “Bring your camera to rehearsal at 2 o’clock!”

Coleman did so and, as he recalls, “The entire Tonight Show Orchestra played ‘Happy Anniversary Dorothy and Fred’” – a magical occurrence that transpired only with Johnny’s approval, further confirming his class act grace and dignity.

Years later, during Carson’s final week on the air, Coleman again “wandered down” to the Tonight Show studio to coordinate a “chance run-in” with Johnny before his final sign-off.  Coleman walked up the stairway to Johnny’s make-up room, just as the talk-show icon was descending.  At that moment, Coleman “just blurted out the truth of my whole comic existence,” speaking words to the late-night royalty that went something like this:

“Johnny!  I wanted to be on television because of you. You’ve been a hero. Being a guest on your show was the greatest experience of my life.  Thank you!”

According to Coleman, Carson was extremely shy about chance encounters, “pathologically shy,” he muses, “with weathermen who had wondered into a restricted area of the building.”

While Carson did not slow down that day in passing the now-veteran comedian and then-novice TV personality, he did reply with a cordial, simple, “Thanks, Fritz!”, and continued walking.

That was Carson, affable – but elusive. 

His was not a perfect life. He married several times, and lost one of his three sons in a tragic car accident in 1991. His career mishaps included the breaking of his bond with Monday-night guest host Joan Rivers, after she left to do her own late-night show for Fox; his friend and colleague David Letterman was displeased when Leno won the Tonight gig after Carson’s exit. 

But he made millions of dollars, lived a full life, had a genius mind for diverse business branding, owning and operating a successful Johnny Carson clothing line, and made millions of people happy before he died (of emphysema at age 80 on January 23, 2005.  

Throughout it all, he always found time to be respectful, even as one of the busiest and most popular TV stars of his generation.  Now, with his return reign to late-night television, make that several generations.

Echoing the sentiment of countless other Johnny Carson fans across the nation and around the world, Fritz Coleman concludes, “I’m beyond happy that the old episodes are back on.  It’s beyond nostalgia. It’s keeping the memory of the master alive.”


Herbie J Pilato, author of NBC & ME: My Life As A Page In A Book, worked on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson from May 1984 to December 1985.

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