Johnny Carson: The First King Of Late Night

For 30 years, Johnny Carson used comedy, chat and easy-going charm to make late-night television essential to America’s image of itself. In the process, he transformed himself into one of the most famous men in the country, and The Tonight Show into the nation’s most popular cult. Was Carson’s secret ruthless professionalism, innate talent, or was it magic?

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Once upon a time, we met the night like children approaching the dark. We needed a guide, a comforter. John William Carson was born in Corning, Iowa, on 23 October 1925. His father managed a power company and his mother had an Irish background. When John was eight, the family moved about 80 miles west to Norfolk, Nebraska. The boy enjoyed performing magic tricks for his friends in those small towns during the Depression years. 

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At 18, he entered the US Navy and in 1945 was headed for combat in the Pacific theatre when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the Second World War, he attended the University of Nebraska and earned a bachelor’s degree in radio and speech. He wrote his thesis on the structure of Jack Benny’s comedy routines. In 1949, he married fellow student Jody Wolcott and they would have three sons. He found a job at a radio station in Omaha, Nebraska, but that station branched out into television, too. It was all the rage in those years.

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John and Jody and the boys in Omaha: it sounds like a classic version of the American dream that became so plausible after the war. John always strove to be regarded as an ordinary but successful fellow, but he was drinking heavily to the point of blacking out. Later, during divorce proceedings, Jody said Johnny had been violent.

Jump forward to the Seventies, the era of Borg and McEnroe, and Carson took a holiday to attend Wimbledon. He went to London, got seats on Centre Court and watched the matches. One day, another American saw him sitting there, composed and restrained, and said, “Johnny Carson, watching tennis!” The man looked around  expecting to see Carson being mobbed.  “You love tennis?” he asked. “Well, I do,” said Carson, “but best of all I like sitting here in public and no one noticing me.”

In the Seventies, Carson was not just one of the most famous people in the US; he was better liked than presidents and generals. This affection seldom warmed his shy heart, but the US loved Carson. The way many people put it was, “Oh, I go to bed with Johnny.” The movie director Billy Wilder called him “the Valium and the Nembutal of a nation… He has captivated the American bourgeoisie without ever offending the highbrows, and he has never said anything that wasn’t liberal or progressive.”

How do you measure that fame? For 30 years, Carson was not just the host but the presence and persona of The Tonight Show, which was broadcast (with tape delay) on the NBC network at 11.30pm five nights a week. The show also accounted for as much as 17 per cent of the network’s profits. Originally, The Tonight Show had been a 90-minute show (with commercial breaks), but Carson argued that down to 60 minutes and took Monday nights off — in addition to his generous vacations. Still, when he stopped, on 22 May 1992, he had hosted the show 4,531 times. No one in his time had been on television as much, and no one had so demonstrated that with TV you simply had to be “on”, as opposed to “off”. In airtime, that’s the equivalent of 2,000 movies. All that exposure and Carson kept his secrecy.

The Tonight Show had had lives before: Steve Allen and Jack Paar were earlier hosts and they were adroit and sophisticated. Yet neither had the available ghostliness that Carson intuited was vital to TV. This is a rare quality, instantly recognisable, yet mysterious and contained. One can see it as an extension of movie stardom, the code of celebrity and desirable personality that motion pictures had introduced. 

But by 1962, when Carson started on The Tonight Show, many of those great stars were dead or going. In hindsight, one can see that Carson identified the special nature of TV, and the life of the whole medium as an advertisement. He was himself an ad, the man you’d like to be, the guy you’d like to go to bed with, the guy who interviewed you about your day. What did Carson do?  He’d step onto the studio stage, coming through satin curtains and dressed to perfection. At last, he was a magician — and being Johnny Carson was his supreme trick. Tall, lean, elegant and grey-haired, he opened with what was called “The Monologue”, a few minutes of talk and jokes, playing off the laughter (or not) of the studio band and a big, bluff man named Ed McMahon, who became very rich and familiar in his time simply because he was Carson’s side-kick. 

McMahon was company on a lonely set; he was a yes man, a laugh leader and conveyed the illusion of being Carson’s best buddy (surely they went off for a drink together afterwards?). But McMahon also had a licence for naughtiness. He could indicate a joke was dying. He might tease Carson about his turbulent marital history. Occasionally, he topped Carson’s jokes with one of his own. But just like Sonny Corleone with Vito, he had to tread carefully. Carson might put him down. 

The band were more reckless, acknowledged as reprobates by Carson, free spirits who could groan at his jokes if they liked. The band was led by a good trumpeter, Doc Severinsen, who was the emblem of the legend that, no matter the coast or time of day, the band always knew where the good stuff was. Whatever “stuff” you wanted. It was a male family atmosphere, something men would wait up to watch because it confirmed maleness, but something their women were waiting for too, because… it confirmed maleness — and Carson could look at the cameras as if they were summer dresses blowing in the wind.

Then there would be guests, anywhere from two to four on a night. Singers sang, comics would stand up, sometimes animals came visiting from the San Diego Zoo. Then they’d sit on a sofa next to Carson and join the other guests who were promoting a book, a new movie, a new haircut or an attempt at the presidency (it was for Carson that Bill Clinton played the saxophone). 

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Those celebrities were selling themselves. But the Carson Tonight Show (and its long-term producer Fred de Cordova) had an extra insight. Every so often they had someone on who could talk, who was worth listening to, but had nothing to sell. It might be Gore Vidal, Carl Sagan, Billy Graham, Truman Capote, Orson Welles or Norman Mailer, and they stood for the wise men of the US (women didn’t make that grade). Carson admired these wordsmiths, he indulged them and he got into real conversations with them. He helped introduce one of the noblest lost causes of television: that intelligent people might gather on the small screen and chat — just like you at home in Rotherham or Ruislip.

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Those English places didn’t get the show, though. For all the clichés of television being the fireplace at which the global village gathered, Carson was American in his manner, his references and his topicality.

It was believed that he was a master of relaxation, and the arbiter on a show that seldom tolerated disputes among the guests. Later on, Dick Cavett was intent on getting eloquent hostility in his guests and a flurry of contrary views. Carson didn’t want disturbance; he intended The Tonight Show to be a smooth transition from a full day to bedtime. There were two things he was obsessed with (not that it was in his nature to let obsession show): he loved the machinery of comedy and he loved the idea of being Johnny Carson.

Under Carson, The Tonight Show was famous as a grooming place (and a test) for young comedians, from Woody Allen to Jerry Seinfeld. But Carson cherished the veterans and, as a tennis expert, he knew how to feed them soft lobs. So, Jonathan Winters, Don Rickles, Buddy Hackett and Jack Benny were treated as visiting royalty and masters of the art Carson revered. He was never more boyish or absorbed than when studying the insults offered by Rickles, the surrealism of Winters or Benny’s slow burn. The comic who left him cold was Bob Hope. 

Carson studied comedy and, out of nervousness, skill or a deft way of masking nerves, he had many mannerisms. At a Dean Martin-hosted “roast” (an American TV show tradition of honouring stars with a riotous mix of teasing praise, insults and banter) for Carson in 1973, the impersonator Rich Little listed 23 examples of Carson’s physical shtick and demonstrated them. Carson was in hysterics while being dissected. He was flattered and amazed.
To be Johnny Carson more than 4,500 times you’d think he knew what Johnny Carson did. But too much introspection went against the ideal of cool and “Have a nice day!” or “Have a nice night!”

Carson wanted smooth well-being, and he believed it existed in a mix of good jokes (with a team of writers working on them); a smart, jazzy studio band: the fatuous yet agreeable McMahon; bright new comics; beautiful women; comic sketches; and some wry offerings from the wise men. The show was a magazine and, of course, one other item was “these words from our sponsor”, which included a credit for the brands that supplied Carson’s wardrobe and unfailing, middlebrow elegance.

Middlebrow, Midwest, but also middle of the night. So occasionally, Carson flirted with a woman — for instance, Angie Dickinson, who plainly adored him and who was raised in the tradition that if a woman got on television she should look good and honour male preconceptions. The only exception was Joan Rivers, who Carson had recognised as a unique, subversive comic (and more daring than he wanted to be). She was also Jewish, sentimental but abrasive, outspoken and less than a conventional beauty. In the end they fell out, but Rivers was both guest and guest host on the show more times than anyone else.

Why was there a falling out? Carson never said much about it, though he had once told the young Rivers on air, “You’re going to be a star.” According to Rivers, when she moved on to host her own late-night talk show, Carson took umbrage and never spoke to her again. 

That was hard to reconcile with Carson’s affable screen personality, his evident delight in jokes, his courtesy and that wish to be unflappable. That was the act. Those working with him knew he had a temper and a protective regard for his own power. When Richard, his middle son, died in a car accident in 1991, Carson delivered a eulogy at the end of a show. It was pained, yet restrained. But it went on a little and de Cordova gave him the “hurry up” sign. Without showing a trace of it to the camera, Carson was in a fury and his bond with de Cordova would never again be the same.

As the years went by, and as many as 17 million watched him every night, Carson got to be earning $25 million a year (with some ownership of the show) — enormous money for what was a showcase for the NBC network. There were other talk-show hosts and they all had a following — Merv Griffin, Tom Snyder, Mike Douglas, Dick Cavett — but everyone knew The Tonight Show was the star on top of the tree, the place where singers and comedians longed to be. 

Guests came and went but some people would wait years for a glimpse of the real Carson, while treasuring the balance of ease and anxiety in the man. He was host to a party and he wanted it to seem swell (and controlled). Maybe it’s the Midwestern background they shared, but Carson had something of Gatsby about him. That way Gatsby had of calling everyone “old sport”, like a tic, was akin to Carson’s way of suggesting, “it is so good to see you”. It’s a mannerism in Americans that Europeans often find hollow and demeaning. With a point. For Johnny Carson was not gregarious, nor a party-goer, and he rarely saw the people he said he was so glad to see off-screen.

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I don’t mean Carson had anything of Gatsby’s gangster background, but he did have the man’s mystery. Carson did nothing else in show business (except host the Oscars a few times). He lived in a mansion in Malibu where wives came and went, one of the few fallibilities he ever admitted. The youthful marriage to Jody lasted 15 years, then he married Joanne Copeland (1963–’72) and Joanna Holland (1972–’85). He wisecracked that he always picked women whose names began with “J” so he didn’t need to change the monogrammed towels. So there were three divorces before he broke the mould with his marriage to Alexis Maas, which lasted from 1987 to his death in 2005. He joked about marital mishaps and the alimony he had had to pay, but he helped civilize divorce for the middle class. Despite his roving eye, people who knew him thought that was less promiscuity than an unconscious urge to maintain loneliness.

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The screenwriter George Axelrod once said of Carson, “Socially, he doesn’t exist. The reason is that there are no television cameras in living rooms. If human beings had little red lights in the middle of their foreheads, Carson would be the greatest conversationalist on Earth.” Being alone was Carson’s natural condition. He never wrote an autobiography or even a memoir. He saw no need to give interviews; after all, he was the person who interviewed other people. The notable occasion when he broke that rule was agreeing to talk to Kenneth Tynan for a New Yorker profile. Tynan found the same agreeable opacity, the barricade of timing and a seeming absence of content. He said Carson was “a king-sized ventriloquist’s dummy”. That wasn’t said with disrespect. 

Tynan could feel just how central Carson’s taut ease was in American culture. For the man was not just a Gatsby, he was a younger, more urbane Willy Loman (Death of a Salesman), trying to sell himself — and he was a pioneer figure for the Kennedy family. Carson took over The Tonight Show just as Jack Kennedy was hosting the US, and JFK was the first president who realised that the president was the man who went on television. You could do that every night, be charming and say nothing, and the country was content. Both Kennedy and Carson may be said to have lived discreetly by the code Gore Vidal once recommended: never miss the opportunity to go on television, or have sex (not at the same time, though standards are changing). That’s where Carson is essential in the history of television and the US — and in the strange dance between the two. The US is a far-flung nation: its different time-zones have complicated television programming. But it was the mass medium that came of age in an era of prosperity: the economy surged, the standard of living rose and with so many rockets and footprints on the Moon, the US was the most powerful country on Earth — and, it told itself, the greatest. But anxiety nagged in all those achievements. The prosperity could collapse. The military power might destroy the world. Depression and unemployment might return, escalating the mounting mental depression in the US and the fear that every reassuring “Have
a nice day!” was papering over the cracks.

That power needed a mass medium to address all the people and tell them the world was under control.  Even at the worst moments — the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, the killing of JFK, the violence that went with civil rights, Vietnam — television could say: this is a family affair and you may take heart because we are all of us watching. So, Carson sent millions to bed feeling good, just a little smarter and resolved to get one of his dapper sports jackets the next day. 

It’s significant that Carson retired in 1992, just a year or so after the apparent victory in the Cold War — when the US’s empire seemed victorious, benign and relaxed. Carson was liberal in his sentiments, though he would rather not voice them on air. He was in the same league as Ronald Reagan; loving cameras and knowing how to woo them, but devoutly empty inside.

When Carson stopped, a few people reckoned he’d be back after six months of boredom. Others guessed it was for keeps because Carson’s departure signalled the decline of late-night television. The Tonight Show lumbers on today, headed by the rather oafish and unloved Jay Leno, but it has an audience one-tenth the size of Carson’s best. There are several other late-night shows, but only David Letterman has established a personal identity, with an ironic post-modernist edge — as if to say, aren’t talk shows silly?  Letterman was a Carson disciple and one of the few things Carson did after retiring was to send Letterman some choice jokes.

But Carson was a creation of network television and in the years since he stopped, the networks have fallen apart under the pressure of cable channels, pornography (a late-night favourite), on-demand movies, a myriad of stupid talk shows and the technology that has scattered “late night” to the winds. These days, people watch what they want whenever they want. There is no longer the evening gathering that seemed to unite the nation. 

In the same way, “breakfast television” — such as the Today Show and Good Morning America — is slumping. Many people don’t eat breakfast any more. They scan their news online or they’ve given up seeking news. They get up at any odd hour, like teenagers
or people in Las Vegas. So, television is losing its role as a mass medium. Instead, it’s a mess medium, out of control as if accommodating a culture in the same state.

“Heeere’s Johnny!” McMahon cried out every night before the ghost slipped through the curtains. You may recall a moment in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining when Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) axes his way into the bathroom to get at his wife and son with the same war cry. How did any audience outside the US know what he meant, or recognise the twisted brotherhood between Carson’s effortless, dapper cool and Torrance, who was breaking apart? 

Carson had his glory as a jewel of television and a model of the US, but once he withdrew we were plunged into night without any hope of having a host. So we struggle to bed on our own.    


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