Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Remember Him?


     He made his debut 51 years ago tonight, and became a touchstone in many of our lives for the next 30 years. Such was his influence that when in 1973 he made an offhanded joke about an alleged shortage of toilet paper, American consumers panicked and wiped out all the toilet paper from supermarket shelves, leading to a real shortage. For several weeks both paper manufacturers and grocery stores had to ration supplies, until the panic was relieved.

     He was born on Oct. 23, 1925, and grew up in Iowa and Nebraska. When he was a kid he found a book on magic, and started performing at local picnics and country fairs, for $3 an appearance.

     He joined the Navy in 1943, received officer training and was commissioned an ensign. He shipped out to the Pacific on the USS Pennsylvania, where he took a turn as an amateur boxer and posted a record of 10-0. He was en route to a combat zone, aboard a troop ship, when the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan. So he was able to finish out his service as a communications officer, then go home to attend the University of Nebraska. He graduated in 1949 with a major in radio and speech, and a minor in physics.

     He got a job on a local radio station, then was tapped to host a local morning TV program called The Squirrel's Nest. He did a comedy bit involving pigeons reporting on political corruption; and he also supplemented his income by serving as master of ceremonies at local functions -- where the very politicians he'd been mocking would likely turn up.

     He headed to California in 1951, looking for work, and talked his way into hosting a local sketch comedy show. He was spotted by funnyman Red Skelton, and eventually asked to join his show as a writer. One evening in 1954, so the story goes, Red Skelton knocked himself out during rehearsal and needed a substitute for the night. The former sailor filled in and was judged a complete success.

     The next year brought him to the Jack Benny Program, and before long he found himself hosting nationwide game shows, until he moved to New York and became a regular on Who Do You Trust? He spent five years on the successful game show, interviewing guests and throwing out one-liners, and also meeting future sidekick Ed McMahon.

     His success on Who Do You Trust? led NBC to put him -- and surely, by now, you know our special guest today is Johnny Carson -- in the running as host of The Tonight Show. The fledgling late-night show had originated in 1954 starring Steven Allen. In 1957, Jack Paar took over the show, but the acerbic comedian was not a particularly good match for the late-night audience. NBC asked Jackie Gleason to replace Paar. Gleason refused. NBC turned to Groucho Marx, Bob Newhart, and Joey Bishop. After they all turned down the opportunity, NBC went to Johnny Carson, who took the job, and first opened the curtain on Oct. 1, 1962.

     Pop star Paul Anka wrote the lead-in music for the show, and Ed McMahon soon joined Carson as his second banana. The formula was an instant hit, attracting top talent from New York and Hollywood. In 1972 Carson moved the show to Los Angeles -- or, "beautiful downtown Burbank," as he often joked -- and continued there until he retired in 1992, at age 66, and was replaced by Jay Leno.

     During his 30 years on The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson created many characters, from Art Fern, the Tea Time movie announcer, to Carnac the Magnificant, the psychic who could answer a question before it was asked. He was given credit for launching the careers of many young comedians, including Joan Rivers, Steve Martin, Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Ellen DeGeneres, David Letterman -- and David Brenner, who appeared on the show more than any other guest. But Carson also destroyed his competition, including Dick Cavett, Alan Thicke, Pat Sajak, Chevy Chase and a host of others including Joan Rivers, who claimed that Carson never spoke to her again after she went into competition with him.

     Johnny Carson did occasionally get in trouble when he made fun of other celebrities, including Las Vegas performer Wayne Newton and corpulent TV detective Raymond Burr. But for the most part Carson projected an amiable personality, refusing to discuss politics, for example, insisting that his personal views didn't matter and besides they would only serve to alienate a portion of his audience.

     Carson was married four times -- explaining the many alimony jokes on his program -- and had three sons from his first marriage. Off camera he was notoriously shy, and after he retired in 1992 he studiously avoided the limelight, although according to the New York Times he did occasionally send jokes to David Letterman to use on the air.

     Carson, a long-time smoker, suffered a heart attack in 1999, and in 2002 was diagnosed with emphysema. By the time he died, in January 2005, he had been awarded virtually every honor in American comedy. And in 2012 he was the subject of a PBS documentary, King of Late Night, as part of the American Masters series, narrated by Kevin Spacey.

     Here's a funny bit Carson did in 1968 with Jack Webb, who'd played the detective from the old TV series Dragnet.





    

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

I religiously watched and grew up on Johnny Carson, there will never be a fellow like him today, most comics use drivle for their stand up and blue content..making fun of many many things, which Johnny just did not do..he was a classic Midwest fellow who knew who he was where he was from and never waivered a real gentlemen..He adored his children and lost one in a freak car accident that broke his heart, he even left his first wife money in his will, he never really got over the fact he divorced her. His last wife was a and is a beautiful human being whom he found a lasting brief happiness. The world was a better place with him in it, it seems the good do die young and the idiots and mean spirited and cruel seem to live forever..just saying, ciao

Anonymous said...

I religiously watched and grew up on Johnny Carson, there will never be a fellow like him today, most comics use drivle for their stand up and blue content..making fun of many many things, which Johnny just did not do..he was a classic Midwest fellow who knew who he was where he was from and never waivered a real gentlemen..He adored his children and lost one in a freak car accident that broke his heart, he even left his first wife money in his will, he never really got over the fact he divorced her. His last wife was a and is a beautiful human being whom he found a lasting brief happiness. The world was a better place with him in it, it seems the good do die young and the idiots and mean spirited and cruel seem to live forever..just saying, ciao

Douglas said...

I knew who it was as soon as you mentioned the toilet paper boodoggle (he bragged). I remember Jack Paar also and I used to watch "Who Do You Trust?' also, loved the show. Jack Paar was very good but he would occasionally have Jerry Lewis guest host and those shows far outdid what Paar was capable of.

We forget how great TV once was...

Linda Myers said...

I still miss him.

Stephen Hayes said...

Few comics could work a crowd and squeeze humor from so little as Johnny Carson. Whose who are around today are merely pale imitations of him.

schmidleysscribblins.com said...

I watched Steve Allen (was doing so when I went into labor with child #2). Even so, I remember the toilet paper incident. Great write-rup.

Got a great photo of Jean Auther I would like to use someday. Dianne

DJan said...

I laughed out loud at that video. It brought back such memories of that man, the voice, the funny moments he brought into so many millions of lives. Thank you for this, Tom. :-)

June said...

I loved Johnny Carson! I still see so many of his mannerisms being used by comedians, but they can't recreate his timing or his deadpan expression. I always loved the shows in which he'd have animals on . . . remember the baby orangutan giggling in his arms?

Anonymous said...

Although I did not watch Mr Carson on TV, much, I heard something about his school days in Nebraska from friends who were classmates. I'm surprised that my friends failed to tell me (whose major was physics for my baccalaureate) that he minored in physics.

BTW: I don't recall the toilet paper shortage that Mr Carson triggered; but, I do remember one (that I though specious) in the mid-1960s. In those days, there were 500 sheets to the standard roll and the roll was about 1/2" wider than current production.
Cop Car

Kay Dennison said...

Johnny kept me laughing!! I miss him a lot!

gabbygeezer said...

Loved this guy.He set the late-night comedy bar so high his consistent great performances never will be matched.