"Heeeere's Johnny!" Forty years ago, Johnny Carson moved into America's living rooms and bedrooms as the host of NBC's "The Tonight Show." (Entertainment).
Although Carson once kidded that the program's daytime audience was composed "almost entirely of housewives and Indians," it actually had a very broad viewer base by the time he moved to "The Tonight Show." Indeed, by 1958, he was already guest hosting on that program for the then-king of late night television, Jack Paar. Between Carson's high visibility and "Who Do You Trust?" being based in New York, he further embellished his performing resume. For instance, in January, 1958, he replaced Tom Ewell for several weeks on Broadway in the comedy "Tunnel of Love," and twice in 1960 he surfaced in comedies broadcast on TV's critically acclaimed "U.S. Steel Hour." However, his future fame as the "Tonight Show" host was built upon a fascination with entertainment that dated back to his childhood.
After discovering magic at age 12, Carson immediately became a boy obsessed. His middle-class parents indulged this interest, including a magician's table covered with a black velvet cloth on which his mother embroidered "The Great Carsoni." Carson later said, "I thought it was just about the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen." Soon, by mixing magic with comedy, the teenager had stumbled onto a career.
Graduating from high school in 1943, he further fed his entertainment interests by a brief hitchhiking trip to Hollywood before entering the Navy. While attending a USO show in the film capital, he was selected as an audience volunteer to assist an Orson Welles magic act where the famed filmmaker sawed his actress wife Rita Hayworth in half. Carson would forever savor this event, especially in later years when Welles became both a friend and frequent guest on "The Tonight Show."
After military service, Carson went to college at the University of Nebraska, majoring in speech and drama. His goal was to become a radio comedian, like his idols Jack Benny, Fred Allen, and Bob Hope. His senior thesis, "How to Write Comedy Jokes," was a taped analysis of humor which included excerpts from the aforementioned comedians and others, including Milton Berle and Fibber McGee and Molly.
After graduating in 1949, he became a minor comic celebrity on a series of radio and early television programs in Omaha. By 1951, there was little more for Carson to accomplish in Nebraska, and he left for California with only the most-modest of job offers--an all-purpose television announcer in Los Angeles. Through sheer persistence, he managed to get a 15-minute television show within a year of going west. Called "Carson's Cellar," it was broadcast in a throw-away time period--Sunday at 4 p.m. Despite this, the program soon developed an almost cult following, especially among television insiders, since its ongoing target was the small screen. For instance, on one program, he had a stagehand rush past the camera as Carson announced the blur as the guest star Red Skelton. As luck would have it, a thoroughly captivated Skelton tuned in that afternoon. He called Carson and agreed to make three real appearances for free. In the weeks to come, Benny and Allen would follow Skelton's lead, and the young comic had entered the show business fast track.
Skelton, another comedian from the heartland (Indiana), had a soft spot for aspiring talent. He hired Carson as a writer for his own program, which had just won two Emmy awards (Best Comedy Show and Best Comedian) for the 1951-52 season. Still, it took a rehearsal accident two years later (Aug. 18, 1954) to launch Carson onto the national scene. Skelton went through a breakaway door which didn't live up to its billing. With the star knocked cold, Carson was nominated as a last-minute replacement for the live show and, in the hoary tradition of the Broadway understudy forced to take over for an ailing star, he was a hit, introducing himself to America as "the poor man's Red Skelton."
In addition to the critical kudos, Benny was singing Carson's praises to CBS, where his own program was a perennial Top 10 favorite in the Nielsen ratings. In less than a year (June 30, 1955), at the age of 29, Carson had his own prime-time show on CBS, but his march to the top soon hit a temporary snag. "The Johnny Carson Show" was not a success. In the comedy variety show format normally so popular in the 1950s, Carson somehow got lost in an overproduced program, complete with lavish production numbers. The fact that Carson was an intimate, low-key comedian just added to the problem. Although the era boasted similar stand-up types, such as Benny and George Gobel, each of them was an already well-established comedy persona. In contrast, Carson was still something of an unknown commodity. Moreover, Carson biographer Ronald L. Smith (Johnny Carson, 1987) revealed that "CBS was panicking ... they wanted Johnny to be more like [a brash] Skelton or [Jackie] Gleason."
Cancelled in March, 1956, Carson spent the next year regrouping. Ultimately, he changed managers and locations, moving from Los Angeles to New York. "Who Do You Trust?" would be his way back. Afternoon television offered less pressure and more control for a developing comic personality, and there was no danger of Carson getting misplaced in a broad variety show format. On "Who Do You Trust?" Carson and his zany guests were the show. Besides providing a vehicle for Carson to further hone his comedy skills, "Who Do You Trust?" teamed him for the first time with Ed McMahon, his sidekick/announcer for the next 35 years.
"The Tonight Show" beckons
Flash forward to 1962. Paar, who had hosted "The Tonight Show" since 1957 wanted out, and told both NBC and the media that Carson should replace him. NBC was amenable, but it was not going to be that easy. First, Carson was initially gun-shy about going back to nighttime television. He had a well-paying hit daytime show in "Who Do You Trust?" and the common consensus was that Paar could not be replaced. By the time Carson came around, ABC, the parent network for "Who Do You Trust?," would not let him out of his contract early. If NBC wanted Carson, they would have to use guest hosts on "The Tonight Show" for six months. By doing so, they would risk losing the high ratings established by Paar. Nevertheless, NBC took a chance.
Paradoxically, this delaying tactic turned into an effective marketing ploy. America grew fascinated with the comic for whom NBC was willing to wait. Moreover, the public even enjoyed the parade of guest hosts, so much so that the Nielsen ratings for "The Tonight Show" remained at near-Paar levels during this period. Fittingly, given the parallels between "Who Do You Trust?" and "You Bet Your Life" when the six months were up, the latter's host, Groucho Marx (a sometimes guest host), introduced Carson on his first "Tonight Show."
Carson was a hit from the beginning, but his style was entirely different from Paar's. Ironically, NBC was first attracted to Carson because of broad parallels with Paar. Both were WASP male entertainers from the Midwest, what Carson friend Mel Brooks comically referred to as "Supergentiles!" Whereas Paar was all about emotional outbursts (especially his crying bouts), controversy (including an interview with Cuban leader Fidel Castro), celebrity feuds with figures such as variety show host Ed Sullivan, and rambling stories about his family, Carson's emphasis was on comedy. He would avoid the emotional roller coaster that was Paar, just as he would minimize comments about both his family and personal views.
While much of Paar's comedy was dependent upon a cast of regulars (including Cliff Arquette as the rustic Charley Weaver, Hans Conreid, Peggy Cass, Buddy Hackett, and Betty White), Carson was a comedy cast unto himself. His sketch characters, the "Mighty Carson Art Players" (in homage to Allen's radio troupe, the "Mighty Allen Art Players"), were such now-celebrated figures as Art Fern, the teatime movie host; the screwy mystic Carnak the Magnificent; the provocatively tongued old lady Aunt Blabby; and the camera-shy hayseed TV editorialist Floyd R. Turbo, American.
Skelton's influence on Carson was most apparent in their creation of characters for sketch comedy. Both comedians brought a casual infectiousness to these routines that effectively milked mistakes (sometimes planned), often in conjunction with a tendency to break character, and neither was ever afraid to laugh with the audience. Critics were often less than fond of this seeming nonprofessionalism, but viewers ate it up for a combined run of 50 years (20 for Skelton and 30 for Carson). Carson biographer Ronald Smith credits the younger comedian with being most impressed by "Red's fearlessness in physical comedy." Carson adopted Skelton's "anything for entertainment" style, and late-night television was better for it.
The ironic twist in the Skelton-Carson comparison is that Skelton's greatest talent was losing himself in a character, while Carson was equally adept at playing himself. This is most obvious when the topic is the opening monologue. Carson, like Hope, excelled here; Skelton struggled. While Skelton sometimes went the personal route in his monologues, such as this use of family-related stories, Carson and Hope focused on a tongue-in-cheek look at the day's news. Still, Skelton's sizable influence on Carson's sketch comedy should not be forgotten, especially when there are character parallels. For example, Carson's Art Fern borrowed a great deal from Skelton's political huckster, San Fernando Red.
In fact, because Carson was such a student of laughter, he often existed as a pluralist comedian, gifting audiences periodically with such signature expressions as Oliver Hardy's embarrassed tie-fiddling look, Stan Laurel's teary elongated face, Benny's direct address (staring at the camera) deadpan, and a Groucho Marx eyebrow twitch after a mildly suggestive double entendre. What made these and other assorted funny footnotes all Carson was the ease with which he segued through such shtick. It was a tour de silly each night of the week. If Paar's appeal was "because of his vulnerability and his outbursts" (Carson's 1979 Rolling Stone interview), Carson won viewers' support because they wanted to be like him--the casually witty uncle who made family gatherings bearable.
Carson worked hard to make "The Tonight Show" seem spontaneous. While much of "The Tonight Show" was loosely scripted, the program was also peppered with extemporaneous humor, which Carson invariably highlighted each year on his anniversary broadcasts. For instance, in an Apr. 29, 1965, show, singer Ed Ames, who played a Native American character on the NBC series "Daniel Boone," demonstrated to Carson the way to throw a tomahawk. The target was a wooden outline of a western sheriff. Ames threw the hatchet and hit the figure in the crotch. While an embarrassed Ames attempted to retrieve the weapon, Carson held him back and milked the moment (Benny style) with the audience. When the demonstrative crowd finally quieted down, Carson ad-libbed, "I didn't even know you were Jewish." This caused Ames to double over with laughter, and the crowd again went wild. When order somewhat returned, Carson brought down the house again with another ad-lib: "Welcome to frontier bris."
The tomahawk misfire was later chosen by TV Guide (Jan. 23, 1999) as one of the "50 funniest TV moments of all time." While it logged in at number 16, another Carson segment claimed the top spot. In a "Who Do You Trust?"-like moment (Oct. 16, 1987), Carson had on a heartland eccentric guest, Myrtle Young, who collected potato chips that resembled animals and inanimate objects. Unlike the totally improvised Ames spot, Carson had a prearranged action planned in order to elicit something comically spontaneous from the potato chip lady. While McMahon distracted her, with Young turning in the direction of the announcer, Carson crunched loudly as he bit into a potato chip. The shocked Young turned back to Carson, mouth agape, a picture of stunned betrayal. Carson, with the innocent obliviousness of a Stan Laurel, initially seemed unaware of what had so upset his guest. Then, with Jack Benny-like timing, he revealed his own bowl of chips, which had been previously hidden by his desk. The audience's laughter at this somewhat-sadistic gag seemed to go on forever.
A third Carson spot highlighted at number 17 demonstrated another famous facet of his "Tonight Show." A Denver housewife, Roseanne Bart, made her national television standup comedy debut on Aug. 13, 1985. Not since another housewife/wannabe comedian, Phyllis Diller, made a 1950s appearance on "You Bet Your Life" had such a memorable woman comic burst upon the national scene. While "The Tonight Show" had always been known as an opportunity for new talent (Paar had prided himself on "discovering" people), the program became a mecca for stand-up comedians during Carson's 30-year tenure.
Jerry Seinfeld's sitcom "Seinfeld" was the only other show with three episodes represented on the top 50 list. Consistent with such acclaim was Carson's rank in an earlier TV Guide study of the "50 Greatest TV Stars of All Time" (Dec. 14, 1996)--second only to Lucille Ball, the beloved centerpiece of another television institution, "I Love Lucy." Years before, Carson biographer Paul Corkery (Carson, 1987) had zeroed in on a pivotal explanation for this "Tonight Show" host's ongoing praise: "The enigma of Johnny's life is that he manages to speak so well, so humorously, and so clearly for middle America despite a lifestyle that's anything but middle class."
Carson the enigma
Carson complemented this assessment by being something of an enigma himself. In Nora Ephron's engaging early biography of Carson (Here's Johnny!, 1968, years before she penned "When Harry Met Sally ..."), she included a telling description by McMahon: "Johnny packs a tight suitcase." Or, as Carson's brother Dick had told Look magazine in 1966, "Put it this way--we're not Italian. Nobody in our family ever says what they really think or feel to anyone else." Thus, while Carson felt that being a less-emotional "Tonight Show" host was the ticket to successfully following Paar, it fit Carson's personality as well. Even after 30 years, a 1992 Newsweek profile could still observe, "The joke around Hollywood is that Johnny Carson exists only on television."
So how did the invisible man become so beloved? The secret lies in the 1979 Rolling Stone interview, the best single source (regardless of length) on the comedian. Two of Carson's most-basic comedy principles are axioms he formulated from his radio favorites of the past, especially Benny and Allen: "First of all, I think that people have to like people that make them laugh." This sounds obvious, but consider how rare this is in today's crop of late-night talk show hosts. What often passes for entertainment is a condescending, ironic put-down style. In contrast, Carson always seemed like one of us.
The second comedy basic to be gleaned from that interview states, "You should try to help guests be as good as they can be, because the better the guest is, the better I'll be." More common sense, it would seem, but there are so few good listeners on television today. If Paar had any impact on Carson, this might have been it. Paar prided himself on being the word's greatest audience, and Carson continued this "Tonight Show" tradition.
Carson also had a very democratic perspective on getting laughs. As long as the program was funny, it did not really matter who delivered the punch line. As an army of "Tonight Show" guest comics have noted, Carson was a masterful set-up man. For example, in the 1992 Newsweek piece, Tommy Smothers observed, "Like my brother Dick, Johnny is one of the greatest straight men in the business. He has the wonderful ability to make everything believable. And if your straight man doesn't believe you, it's all over."
Ultimately, Carson's casually toned-down style fit pioneer media theorist Marshall McLuhan's axiom that television was a "cooler" medium relying upon more audience involvement. That is, a more-demonstrative performer, suited to the "hot" motion-picture medium, with its more-information-laden image, would not have worn as well on television. For instance, while Groucho Marx predated McLuhan, he seems to have instinctively grasped his theory, for the television Marx is a realistically subdued entertainer compared to the zany movie variety. (Witness how many film stars have bombed on television.) Of course, with Carson one is tempted to go with the obvious pun and credit him with being "cool" regardless of which ism is currently in vogue. Or, a Carson profiler might simply close by recycling the comedian's joking description of how he passes time in Malibu retirement--"watching hummingbirds mate."
Wes D. Gehring, Associate Mass Media Editor of USA Today, is professor of film, Ball State University, Muncie, Ind.
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|Author:||Gehring, Wes D.|
|Publication:||USA Today (Magazine)|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2002|
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