A man who stopped when it was no longer fun, Johnny Carson (1925-2005) retired from The Tonight Show in May 1992, but the king of late night talk shows still lingers in our cultural memories. He was born on this day.
Born John William Carson in Corning, Iowa and raised in Nebraska, Johnny took over the hosting reigns from Jack Paar in 1962. Lauded by The Village Voice as "one of the most influential performers in the history of the medium" and Time magazine as "an institution," the secret to his 30 year dominance was his strong audience connection.
Estimates were his nightly show produced 17% of NBC's total revenues. Everyone loved Johnny.
Before Letterman and Conan, it was all Johnny...
Can't you just hear that unforgettable theme song then, "Live from Hollywood! The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson..." the list of guests, and "heeeere's Johnny."
Emerging from behind the curtain, wearing a sharp suit. With that mischievous smile, rolling into the opening monologue. Brilliant one-liners, making fun of presidents, making fun of everyone. Funny, with perfect timing, urbane and cool. Golf swing to commercial. Johnny.
Remember how the audience played Stump the Band? How we got the answer, then the punch line from Carnac the Magnificent?
Remember those lame skits (wink wink) with The Mighty Carson Art Players? Remember Ed, Doc, Tommy, Freddie de la Cordova? Or Joan Embery's animals and Don Rickles' insults?
Can't you just see him sitting at the desk, behind an L.A. skyline, drumming pencils? Johnny.
He was a "clean-cut Midwesterner with a bad-boy streak," explained writer Les Brown in The Encyclopedia of Television. "just mild enough to make him endearing."
Never continue in a job you don't enjoy.