He brought laughter to many of us on this site. Here's the story:
LOS ANGELES (AP) - Johnny Carson, the "Tonight Show" host who served America a smooth nightcap of celebrity banter, droll comedy and heartland charm for 30 years, died Sunday. He was 79. NBC said Carson died of emphysema at his Malibu home.
"Mr. Carson passed away peacefully early Sunday morning," his nephew, Jeff Sotzing, told The Associated Press. "He was surrounded by his family, whose loss will be immeasurable."
The boyish-looking Nebraska native with the disarming grin, who survived every attempt to topple him from his late-night talk show throne, was a star who managed never to distance himself from his audience.
His wealth, the adoration of his guests _ particularly the many young comics whose careers he launched _ the wry tales of multiple divorces: Carson's air of modesty made it all serve to enhance his bedtime intimacy with viewers.
"Heeeeere's Johnny!" was the booming announcement from sidekick Ed McMahon that ushered Carson out to the stage. Then the formula: the topical monologue, the guests, the broadly played skits such as "Carnac the Magnificent."
But America never tired of him; Carson went out on top when he retired in May 1992.
McMahon said Sunday that Carson was "like a brother to me."
"Our 34 years of working together, plus the 12 years since then, created a friendship which was professional, family-like and one of respect and great admiration," McMahon said in a statement. "When we ended our run on 'The Tonight Show' and my professional life continued, whenever a big career decision needed to be made, I always got the OK from 'the boss.'"
Carson's personal life could not match the perfection of his career. Carson was married four times, divorced three. In 1991, one of his three sons, 39-year-old Ricky, was killed in a car accident.
Nearly all of Carson's professional life was spent in television, from his postwar start at Nebraska stations in the late 1940s to his three decades with NBC's "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson."
Carson choose to let "Tonight" stand as his career zenith and his finale, withdrawing into a quiet retirement that suited his private nature and refusing involvement in other show business projects.
In 1993, he explained his absence from the limelight.
"I have an ego like anybody else," Carson told The Washington Post, "but I don't need to be stoked by going before the public all the time."
Carson spent his retirement years sailing, traveling and socializing with a few close friends including media mogul Barry Diller and NBC executive Bob Wright. He simply refused to be wooed back on stage.
"I just let the work speak for itself," he told Esquire magazine in 2002.
Carson did find an outlet for his creativity: He wrote short humor pieces for The New Yorker magazine, including "Recently Discovered Childhood Letters to Santa," which purported to give the youthful wish lists of William Buckley, Don Rickles and others.
Carson made his debut as "Tonight" host in October 1962 and quickly won over audiences. He even made headlines with such clever ploys as the 1969 on-show marriage of eccentric singer Tiny Tim to Miss Vicki, which won the show its biggest-ever ratings.
The wedding and other noteworthy moments from the show were collected into a yearly "Tonight" anniversary special.
In 1972, "Tonight" moved from New York to Burbank. Growing respect for Carson's consistency and staying power, along with four consecutive Emmy Awards, came his way in the late 1970s.
His quickness and his ability to handle an audience were impressive. When his jokes missed their target, the smooth Carson won over a groaning studio audience with a clever look or sly, self-deprecating remark.
Politics provided monologue fodder for him as he skewered lawmakers of every stripe, mirroring the mood of voters. His Watergate jabs at President Nixon were seen as cementing Nixon's fall from office in 1974.
He made presidential history again in July 1988 when he had then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton on his show a few days after Clinton came under widespread ridicule for a boring speech at the Democratic National Convention. Clinton traded quips with Carson and played "Summertime" on the saxophone in what was hailed as a stunning comeback.
Competing networks tried a variety of formats and hosts to challenge Carson, but never managed to best "Tonight."
There was the occasional battle with NBC: In 1967, for instance, Carson walked out for several weeks until the network managed to lure him back with a contract that reportedly gave him $1 million-plus yearly.
In 1980, after more walkout threats, the show was scaled back from 90 minutes to an hour. Carson also eased his schedule by cutting back on his work days; a number of substitute hosts filled in, including Joan Rivers, Jerry Lewis and Jay Leno, Carson's eventual successor.
Rivers was one of the countless comedians whose careers took off after they were on Carson's show. After she rocked the audience with her jokes in that 1965 appearance, he remarked, "God, you're funny. You're going to be a star."
"If Johnny hadn't made the choice to put me on his show, I might still be in Greenwich Village as the oldest living undiscovered female comic," she recalled in an Associated Press interview 20 years later. She tried her own talk show in 1986, quickly becoming one of the many challengers who could not budge Carson.
In the '80s, Carson was reportedly the highest-paid performer in television history with a $5 million "Tonight" show salary alone. His Carson Productions created and sold pilots to NBC, including "TV's Bloopers and Practical Jokes." Carson himself made occasional cameo appearances on other TV series.
He also performed in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, N.J., and was host of the Academy Awards five times in the '70s and '80s.
Carson's graceful exit from "Tonight" did not avoid a messy, bitter tug-of-war between Leno and fellow comedian David Letterman to take over his throne. Leno took over on May 25, 1992, becoming the fourth man to hold the job after Steve Allen, Jack Paar and Carson. Letterman landed on rival CBS.
Born in Corning, Iowa, and raised in nearby Norfolk, Neb., Carson started his show business career at age 14 as the magician "The Great Carsoni."
After World War II service in the Navy, he took a series of jobs in local radio and TV in Nebraska before starting at KNXT-TV in Los Angeles in 1950.
There he started a sketch comedy show, "Carson's Cellar," which ran from 1951-53 and attracted attention from Hollywood. A staff writing job for "The Red Skelton Show" followed.
The program provided Carson with a lucky break: When Skelton was injured backstage, Carson took the comedian's place in front of the cameras.
Producers tried to find the right program for the up-and-coming comic, trying him out as host of the quiz show "Earn Your Vacation" (1954), the variety show "The Johnny Carson Show" (1955-56), the game show "Who Do You Trust?" (1957-62).
A few acting roles came Carson's way, including one on "Playhouse 90" in 1957, and he did a pilot in 1960 for a prime-time series, "Johnny Come Lately," that never made it onto a network schedule.
In 1958, Carson sat in for "Tonight Show" host Paar. When Paar left the show four years later, Carson was NBC's choice as his replacement.
After his retirement, Carson took on the role of Malibu-based retiree with apparent ease. An avid tennis fan, he was still playing a vigorous game in his 70s.
He and his wife, Alexis, traveled frequently. The pair met on the Malibu beach in the early 1980s; he was 61 when they married in June 1987, she was in her 30s.
Carson's first wife was his childhood sweetheart, Jody, the mother of his three sons. They married in 1949 and split in 1963. He married Joanne Copeland Carson that same year, but divorced nine years later. His third marriage, to Joanna Holland Carson, took place in 1972. They divorced in 1985.
On the occasion of Carson's 70th birthday, former "Tonight" bandleader Doc Severinsen, who toured with musicians from the show, said he was constantly reminded of Carson's enduring popularity.
"Every place we go people ask `How is he? Where is he? What is he doing? Tell him how much we miss him.' It doesn't surprise me," Severinsen said.
Carson won a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in 1992, with the first President Bush saying, "With decency and style he's made America laugh and think." In 1993, he was celebrated by the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors for career achievement.
His nephew said there will be no memorial service.
One of my favorites of his was when he did the Art Fern skit. Here's on of them for those of us old enough to remember:
Art Fern: How do you get there? Let me tell you friends, how do you get there! You take the San Diego Freeway to the Ventura Freeway. You drive to the Slaussen Cutoff, get out of your car, cut off your Slaussen, get back in your car, then you drive six miles till you see the Giant Neon Vice-Squad Cop.
Art Fern: Hello there, feature-film freaks! Art Fern here, with today's fabulous feature find.
Art Fern: Got no job? We don't care. Got a bad credit rating? We don't care. Got a prison record? We don't care. Don't expect to pay us? THAT'S when we care!
Art Fern: Now back to our feature film! Woody Harrelson, Woody Allen, Woody Woodpecker, Woody Herman, Herman Munster, and Dumpo the Wonder Pigeon, in "Heidi Suffers an Estrogen Avalanche."
When I was little, Jack Parr was still on, so I remember what a big deal it was when HE retired from doing The Tonight Show. I liked Paar a lot though I didn't get to stay up to see him too often -- when I did it was a happy occasion. Some people were sure that no one could replace Paar, though Carson was accepted fairly fast by most people. But everybody accepted that it was not the same, and many of us still have a very warm spot for the way Paar used to interview -- totally relaxed and in a calm, pleasing tone.
People justifiably said Paar had genius; I recall that they thought much the same of the comedic talents of Steve Allen, who hosted the show before Paar. Paar made you excellently comfortable but was not so much a comedian -- just a classy, witty, comfortable host and superb conversationalist who became a superb talk show host as a result. His term on the show was sandwiched between two excellent comedians of course -- Allen and Carson. And nowadays the standard wisdom in Hollywood is, incorrectly, that you have to be a comedian to host a late night talk show -- I remember Paar and it proves otherwise.
Anyway, the significant thing about Johnny as a cultural phenomenon, whose passing is being lamented as much or more than Paar's was, is that Johnnie had the job for three generations, and nobody could ever compete with him in the ratings, though many, many, many people tried. What that meant was, if you were staying up late with the TV on you were most likely watching Johnny and his guests. Johnny could hold his own as a comic in his own right better than most other hosts -- with topical sketches that offended nobody, were suitable for the whole family -- and who could be trusted to present great and topical guests night after night, year after year -- with a lot less attention to marketing tie-ins than you have now. He had people on because they were fun. There was no reason not to watch Carson, really, unless you were going through a phase where you felt somebody like Arsenio was hipper, maybe. But mostly, your other choices were "competition" like Joan Rivers or Charles Grodin or Merv Griffin (who was even less edgy than Carson) who were, at best, watchable occasionally (I disliked Rivers, and Grodin pretty much).
We got a little irritated when Johnnie started skipping out occasionally over his contract renewal, and when he started taking two days a week off, and when he trimmed the show to an hour, but mostly we kept watching because he was perfect for the format like nobody else on the scene (even now).
The young people today who are wondering what all the fuss is about may be forgiven since Johnny's departure was uncompromising a dozen years ago -- he hardly spent another second on TV, in interviews nor certainly in TV commercials. So he disappeared from the popular radar like few do, and the kids had no opportunity to become acquainted -- unlike other popular TV shows, they don't syndicate old talk shows. But never mind. The point is, Johnny WAS late-night for all Americans growing up who are age 30 or more today. But we know why the kids wouldn't know.
A large aspect of Carson's icon status is that Carson took a leaf from Paar's book in regularly introducing new talent, but Carson did it a lot more often and for a lot longer than Paar did. Nearly every comic who came up during Carson's 30-year reign, young or old, new or not, owes him a debt for giving them vital exposure on the Tonight Show -- Carson literally made careers overnight on a routine basis. The point is that our current culture is now populated by people whom we know as stars partly or entirely because we met them on Carson.
Comedians lived for getting onto the Carson show and died if they didn't, sometimes. The ironic part of that is, it turns out Carson was just booking his show -- he didn't have a despotic attitude, nor did he have the same melodramatic, life or death view of the booking of his comedy guests as the comics did.
A few comedy careers died on the Carson show too -- I recall two train wrecks by comics on the show, and their names are unknown today. One guy broke out in a flop sweat in the middle of his act -- he told the director in the studio "you can edit that part out" of the tape where he lost his composure after screwing up a joke -- but they didn't, they let it play. Ouch. Another guy suddenly blurted out that he had no joke and no laugh to finish his act, so he ad libbed his way off stage, slowly and painfully. He disappeared as well. There were other train wrecks by actors and such. If an actor appeared crazy or on drugs on Carson, they paid a hefty price for it in the public eye the next day.
Mostly Carson and his staff were such good judges of new talent that whoever got a first break on Carson became an instant national success -- Cosby, Pryor, Newhart, Steve Martin ("Let's get small!"), Carlin -- most of the mature comics on the scene today were 'made' at least in part by Carson show exposure. And other people, not necessarily performers, became famous through him as well, like Joyce Brothers or the potato chip lady from Fort Wayne, Indiana.
So that's why Johnnie's death is a big deal, and that's why they're calling him an icon, and why some youngsters don't get it -- when he quit being an institution, he quit for good and used his profit to sail around the world. But while he was doing it for 30 years, he was not just a comedian nor just the star of a TV show -- far from it -- he was just about perfect for the latenight talk show, developed the format as we know it today (in the post-Paar era) and therefore is synonymous with it. He is considered the man in whose shadow Letterman and Leno still stand.
Just a ramble, no special reason other than I've been mulling over the explanation of why Carson was so huge to so many. Can't spend too much time editing on all this text so if it's partly out of joint please excuse the "dump."
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