American Masters (2012 Season) – Johnny Carson: King of Late Night

Johnny Carson Biography

Air date: 05/12/2012

Johnny Carson, born October 23, 1925, grew up in Norfolk, Nebraska. The future “King of Late Night Television” began to perform at an early age to mask his insecurity and shyness. When he was 14, he performed a magic act as “The Great Carsoni” for local civic groups, earning three dollars for each appearance. At 20, as an ensign serving aboard the USS Pennsylvania during World War II, Johnny entertained his fellow sailors with magic and comedy. After the war, he studied broadcasting at the University of Nebraska and worked as an announcer, writer and host for WOW radio and television in Omaha.

In 1950, Carson landed a job as staff announcer for television station KNXT in Los Angeles. He soon hosted a local program, Carson’s Cellar, which led to a writing stint on The Red Skelton Show. One night, Skelton ran into a breakaway door and suffered a concussion during rehearsal. Johnny went on in Red’s place, opening with a monologue he had put together while driving to the studio. Johnny’s idol Jack Benny said afterwards, “You better watch that Carson kid. The kid is great…”

In 1955, he hosted the short-lived Johnny Carson Show for CBS. Its failure taught Carson to fiercely protect his material from the meddling of network brass. Two years later, Johnny moved to ABC as host of a new daytime game show, Who Do You Trust?, where he was teamed with announcer Ed McMahon. After a successful five-year run, Carson departed the game show to take over for Jack Paar as host of NBC’s late night flagship The Tonight Show.

Carson’s cool wit and temperament were perfectly suited for late night. As host of The Tonight Show, he quickly became a fixture of national life and captured the zeitgeist with his blend of comedy and conversation. He hosted the nightly program for three decades, creating the template for the modern late-night talk show. He became the highest-paid entertainer in television and also its most powerful, capable of launching the careers of comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno, who first came to prominence when Carson showcased their talents before a national audience. The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson also brought in nearly 20 percent of NBC’s annual profits.

On May 22, 1992, Carson’s final appearance as the host of The Tonight Show attracted an estimated 50 million viewers, the largest audience in late-night television history.

Carson gave only a handful of interviews during his 40-year career, choosing to remain a very private man whose public persona made his among the most famous faces in America. After retirement, he retreated from the public eye. He passed away from emphysema on January 23, 2005. He was 79 years old.

Carson won four Emmy Awards, hosted the Oscars five times, was inducted into the TV Academy’s Hall of Fame in 1987, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1992, and was given a Kennedy Center Honor in 1993.