Late night television continues to evolve with new names in the designated schedules, but no one will ever compare to Johnny Carson. Many of us tuned in between 1962 and 1992 to hear his clever quips and hilarious routines on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Every weekday night, we joined millions of Americans who settled into bed and prepared to laugh as Ed McMahon announced, “Here’s Johnny!”
I still see him parting the curtains and walking into the spotlight to deliver comical and entertaining monologues. Then he would go to his desk and introduce funny skits with our favorite characters, including Carnac the Magnificent predicting the future, Aunt Blabby discussing elder affairs, and Art Fern giving his effervescent movie critiques. We laughed, turned off the television, and went to sleep with a smile while escaping the current pressures of our daily, unfunny lives.
Carson’s history is interesting and intriguing. As a teenager, he loved to perform magic tricks and earned $25 per performance at his fraternity at the University of Nebraska. He wrote a thesis on the structure of Jack Benny’s comedy routines and graduated in 1949 with a degree in radio and speech with a minor in physics. Obviously, he was smarter than the clowns he often mimicked.
In 1951 as a struggling comic he did a comedy routine in California that spoofed a local political figure. The wife of the victim owned stock in a radio station in Los Angeles and referred Carson as a potential star. Carson gained employment by working for Red Skelton and got his big break by filling in for the popular comedian. Then he was signed as a writer for Jack Benny and his career was underway. By the mid1970s he earned 4 million a year – equivalent to $14 million annual in today’s dollars.
I still remember his final show in 1992. Bette Midler was the last guest and she sang “One for the Road.” There wasn’t a dry eye in the audience or in my house. Carson died in 2005 and ended an era of genuinely funny and unscripted television hosts. It’s sad to realize that new generations will only identify the phase “Here’s Johnny” with the hit movie The Shining, and most won’t understand the correlation between the insane character of Jack Nicholson with the shy comic genius of Johnny Casron. But that’s what he would have wanted.
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