Getting Acquainted with Johnny Carson

By the time of his passing in 2005, he was a legend of the late-night talk show, paving the way for countless other household names of today including David Letterman, Jay Leno, and Joan Rivers. If nothing else, he’s remembered as being the wry, casual antidote to the glitz and glamour that otherwise characterized the scene. Back in 1962, though, he was just three months in as captain of The Tonight Show. Today we look back on the early career of a man who needs no introduction, but who warrants one anyway out of habit: Here’s Johnny.  

The Soft-Sell, Soft-Shell World of Johnny Carson

By Edward Linn

Originally published on December 22, 1962 

Head shot of Johnny Carson
Johnny Carson
© The Saturday Evening Post

When Johnny Carson first heard he was the leading candidate to succeed Jack Paar as ringmaster of the highly publicized Tonight show, that late-hour NBC marathon of ad-lib humor, adjustable entertainment and adult (and sometimes addled) talk, his initial reaction was, “What do I need that for?”

He was, he explains, just beginning the fifth — and final — year of a daily half-hour ABC quiz program, Who Do You Trust?, and the prospect of tackling one hour and 45 minutes every weekday night was almost too much to contemplate.

His manager prodded him gently for two weeks by pointing out that he owed himself the chance to reach the mass nighttime audience. “I had been offered situation comedies dealing with everything from a bank clerk to a boy disc jockey,” Johnny says, “but the more I thought about it the more I became convinced that Tonight was the only network show where I could do the nutty, experimental, low-key thing I like best.”

Carson has always been a square, low-pressure peg in the round, dog-eat-dog world of show business. He himself likes to point out that he comes not from the Lower East Side of New York but from a Middle West, middle-class background, a situation that not only deprives him of all those “We were so poor that …” jokes but makes him a curiosity among comedians. Nor is he a small, fat or homely waif, searching for love and acceptance in a hostile and dangerous world. He is tall and slim and, at the age of 37, boyishly good looking. Viewing him on a television screen, it is hard to escape the feeling that if Peter Pan had grown old enough to become a naval ensign he would have looked exactly like Johnny Carson.

Since Carson is essentially a comedian who reacts to events around him, his innocent appearance has the added virtue of permitting him to make irreverent and sex-loaded comments without looking as if he really meant them. When Mr. Universe, an awesome tower of muscle, was on Tonight, he proved to have a missionary zeal for converting Carson to the good and healthful life. “Remember, Johnny,” he said earnestly, “your body is the only home you will ever have.”

“Yes, my home is pretty messy,” Johnny replied, looking suitably ashamed of himself. “But I have a woman come in once a week to clean it out.”

By the inflationary standards of show business, the Tonight job doesn’t pay much, something just over $100,000. But once it was announced that Carson had been tapped, all kinds of big money offers poured in on him, including the inevitable jackpot deal from a Las Vegas nightclub. Johnny couldn’t have been less interested: “Everybody kept saying, ‘Take a package out there and make some money.’ I am making money. If I get two weeks off, I’d much rather take my kids to Colorado. I’m not one of the people who has to be in front of an audience constantly.”

Because Carson’s contract with ABC still had six months to run after Jack Paar picked up his seat cushion and strolled into the night, there developed the longest stage wait in history. In the 26 weeks between Paar and Carson, when a grab bag of entertainers ranging from Robert Cummings to Joey Bishop pinch- hit, sponsor participation fell from 95 percent to 40 percent, a drop in revenue of more than $1,000,000. NBC drew comfort through this dry period from the knowledge that Carson himself was sold out for his first 13-week period, long before he went on. In his first week — when interest was admittedly at its height — Carson’s Nielsen rating was 40.9 (that is, he had 40.9 percent of the viewing audience), which translates into 7,760,000 people. Paar himself topped that only with his peak of 48.2 percent the week of his celebrated return from Hong Kong. During Johnny’s first month, the mail poured in at the rate of 12,000 letters a week, surpassing anything in the network’s history.

When Does Tuesday Bathe?

From the beginning, Carson was well aware that he was going to be judged against Jack Paar. “I knew it and I didn’t give a damn,” he says. “I expected that many critics would write ‘He’s up to Paar,’ or ‘He’s not up to Paar.’ Sidney Skolsky wrote that I wasnt Jack Paar — which I could have told him before the show. Skolsky — he spends his time in a drugstore asking Tuesday Weld when she took her last bath. I felt like wiring him that he wasn’t H. L. Mencken either.”

Paar himself admits that he has tuned in for only five minutes during Carson’s first month. “I go to bed early,” he says. “But what little I saw, I liked. Carson is an original wit; he’ll do well. I recommended him personally to the network.”

Carson expresses a somewhat more guarded admiration of Paar. “He took this show when it was dead and built it up single-handedly. Nobody can take that away from him. But I don’t compete with Paar. I compete against myself. Paar works emotionally. I work intellectually. Controversy is easy. I could make every front page in the country tomorrow by knocking Kennedy or coming out in favor of birth control.”

When He Ignored Liz Taylor

The difference in their approach, as Carson suggests, is the natural result of their completely different personalities. What Paar brought to the program was tension. What Carson brings is a well-bred air of good nature. When Eddie Fisher, one of his early guests, talked at length about having renewed his singing career after “I had given it up for a while,” Carson deliberately refrained from mentioning the name of Liz Taylor, which hung in the air like Egyptian perfume. “I have no intention of being Mike Wallace,” he says. “If Eddie had brought up her name himself, fine. But I wouldn’t embarrass him by asking him about his divorce any more than I’d want him to ask me how come I was legally separated from my wife.”

His own production staff disagrees with him. “He’s been holding back,” one member says, “and he knows it. He knows he should be zinging them more and cutting off the guests who have nothing to say. But Johnny has a horror of appearing rude.”

In the field of humor he can, in his casual way, draw blood. During a rather tedious conversation with Shelly Berman on the subject of “overnight stars,” Berman noted: “I was an overnight star.”

“Sure, Shelly,” Johnny replied. “But . . . not . . . tonight.”

In other ways the amiable manner has been a great asset. To give the show a shot of glamour, the producers were very eager to get Joan Crawford, who had never appeared on television and was frightened to death of it. Johnny visited her in her apartment and, in his gentle, easy way, overcame her misgivings. On the show Miss Crawford came off so nicely that she is now ready to take on a panel show of her own.

The tremendous appeal of the program, from Steve Allen to Jack Paar to Johnny Carson, would seem to indicate that Americans admire a man who is able to shoot from the hip. Carson has a reputation among his fellow comedians as one of the fastest draws in town, and yet he goes out of his way to explain that it isn’t really very difficult.

“Ad-libbing doesn’t necessarily mean creating new lines,” he says. “More often it’s the use of a given line at a given time. For instance, we had a showgirl from the Latin Quarter. She came walking across the stage in a tight-fitting dress, with her hair done up in some exotic style, and I said, ‘I suppose you’re on your way to a 4-H Club meeting.’ That’s the humor of the ludicrous, of contrast. But I’ve used that line before many times under the same kind of situation, and I have no doubt I’ll be using it again.”

Benny’s Stare – Hurt, Prissy

As Groucho Marx — one of Carson’s first admirers — points out, the humor that separates Johnny from the rest of the quick-guys-with-a-line stems from his attitude. Carson’s view is that the human condition is so ridiculous we might as well laugh at ourselves. Johnny himself is willing to concede that he is at his best when he has to react to some disaster: when he’s left standing in the middle of the stage with a child’s bat in his hand because a ball which is supposed to pop up at him doesn’t pop, or when a card trick goes all wrong or an oddball guest becomes completely unintelligible. His best comedic device is to simply stare, somewhat forlornly, into the camera. The comedy stare, as he is characteristically quick to point out, is hardly his invention. Oliver Hardy — whom Johnny idolized as a boy — originated it, and Jack Benny made it famous. But Benny’s stare is hurt and prissy, and Hardy’s was a stare of complete defeat. Carson’s not-quite-so-vacant stare says, “Now, this is ridiculous and I could cope with it if I wanted to. But should I really go to all that trouble when something equally ridiculous is bound to come along in a few minutes?”

This ability to smell out the ridiculous is something that has always been with him. Back in his early days in radio when he was an all-purpose disc jockey, announcer and newscaster at station WOW in Omaha, Nebraska, he broadcast the story that the USS Missouri, our only battle- ship in active service, had run aground at Hampton Roads, Virginia. To Johnny, who had been an ensign during the war, there was nothing quite so ludicrous as a battleship on a mud flat, so he announced that he was holding a contest to decide how to get it off. When his listeners’ solutions turned out to be more ingenious than practical, he announced that the only way the country could escape with honor was to paint the battleship white and leave it there as a national monument.

Moments after he had handed down this verdict, he received a message which said that the Secretary of the Navy, Francis P. Matthews, was waiting to see him, a natural enough gag to pull since Matthews came from Omaha and was, indeed, a stockholder in the station. “Good,” Johnny shouted back. “Tell him to get that boat out of the mud and report back here in twenty minutes.”

The program over, Johnny strolled out to the office and, sure enough, there was Matthews waiting to tell him how much he had enjoyed his little joke.

Johnny Carson was born in Corning, Iowa, on October 23, 1925. His father, Homer Carson, was a lineman for the electric company, a job which kept the family hopping from town to town until he had worked his way up to operations manager and settled in Norfolk, Nebraska.

Johnny, the second of three children, stumbled upon his career at the age of 12 or 13 when he clipped a coupon out of a magazine and sent away for a book of magic. “The advertisement said I could learn how to Mystify and Amaze my friends,” Johnny remembers, “and I couldn’t see how there could possibly be anything more glamorous than to stand on a stage in a tall hat and tails and Mystify and Amaze an audience.” By the time he was in high school, he had added ventriloquism to his act, and was playing all the Rotary clubs, P.T.A. meetings, church benefits and street carnivals within a 100-mile radius.

He started his radio career in Lincoln, Nebraska, and subsequently went on to Omaha. His first real reputation was made in Los Angeles, with a 15-minute local TV chatter show, Carsons Cellar. The show, budgeted at $25, made such a splash that he soon found such Hollywood comedians as Fred Allen, Groucho Marx, Jack Benny, Red Skelton and Jerry Lewis dropping in. The big break came in August, 1954, when he was called in, on two hours’ notice, to substitute for CBS’s Red Skelton, who had attempted to run through a breakaway door that didn’t break. Johnny wrote his opening monologue during the 60-mile drive to the studio, delivered a humorous lecture on the economics of TV and got such great reviews that CBS gave him a full-hour network show in prime time.

When the Ratings Slumped

The Johnny Carson Show was well received critically too, but when the ratings didn’t come up to expectations, the network people and the agency people moved in on him. The topical comments and low-key skits that had won him the show were thrown out, and the chorus girls and guest stars were brought in. “They told me we had to make the show important,” Johnny says, “and they made it important by making it the Jackie Gleason show without Gleason. The chorus girls would scream, ‘And here’s the star of the show, Johnny Carson! and I’d come bouncing in through a curtain of balloons. I don’t know if we ever became important, but we could match anybody in pretentiousness.”

The show ran out its 39 weeks in 1955, to diminishing enthusiasm, and then sank without a trace.

Johnny’s kid brother, Dick Carson, was in Hollywood during that period. “Johnny’s real trouble,” says Dick, who is now the director of the Tonight show, “is that he isn’t the type of person who can fight back. He’s not aggressive. Even with the confidence he has today, Johnny can’t throw his weight around. He wants people to like him.”

The producer of The Johnny Carson Show, Ben Brady, is now vice president in charge of programming for ABC’s Western Division. Brady, as might be expected, sees it otherwise. “Carson was trying to be a major comedian in prime time, and he didn’t have the power,” Brady says. “It wasn’t that he didn’t have the experience; he is generically not a strong, stand-up comedian like Hope, Skelton or Benny. He wasn’t then, he isn’t now and he never can be. I don’t mean that to be derogatory, any more than if I said that Bing Crosby can’t sing opera. Johnny is bright, intelligent, very inventive and very funny. But he’s low key. He’s a humorist not a comic.”

Oddly enough, it was not Carson’s wit that recommended him to the network so much as his solid background in radio and TV. “Allen, Paar and Carson have one thing in common,” says Mort Werner, the NBC executive vice president who hired them all. “They have all done everything that can be done in broadcasting. They don’t need prepared material or rehearsals. This program is different from anything else in television. The Tonight show is the open forum of the entertainment world, which makes it tough to control, and it also has a unique and complicated business construction. The man who is running it has to know, first and foremost, how to drive the train. He has to know when to stop for the commercials, where to go when he starts up again, and how to keep the train on the track. To tell you the truth, anybody who has all the talents needed for the job could make a lot more money doing something else. And with a lot less effort. All we ask of him is that he devote his whole life to the program.”

Inventing a Kennedy Joke

The program does take up Carson’s whole day. He wakes up around 11 o’clock, possibly after an all-night poker game, and the first thing he does is to go through all the New York papers in search of some item that might have comic possibilities. One morning recently, as an example, he clipped an item announcing that President Kennedy was putting his plane up for sale. For the rest of the day he played around with ideas. Just before air time, he came up with, “The Republicans are thinking of buying it. Not to fly it but to pull the wings off,” a joke with a surrealistic bite.

By three o’clock he is at his office in Rockefeller Center, on the same floor as the studio from which he will tape the show. From time to time he holds meetings with the producer, writer, director and the three talent coordinators who are responsible for getting the guests. The coordinators tell him what the guests want to talk about and provide a list of questions, to which he seldom refers. The full crew holds a final meeting an hour before the taping to go over every detail of the show, right down to instructions on which guest will be moved to which chair during which commercial.

Despite all this preplanning, nobody expects the show to go according to schedule. On every commercial break the producer, announcer and floor manager rush up to Carson’s desk to discuss the next segment, suggesting new ideas but leaving all final decisions to Johnny’s own sense of fitness and pace.

The show has, of course, changed Carson’s life completely. Always a collector of fan mail, which he finds amusing, he is now becoming an unwitting collector of fan reaction, which he finds annoying. Under Paar, Tonight earned itself such a reputation as a discoverer of new talent that Johnny has found himself in a state of siege. “My first great discovery,” he says, “was that everybody has a niece who plays the harmonica or tap dances in hip boots.”

A couple of days after Johnny was announced as Paar’s replacement, the waiter at his favorite restaurant told him he could forget the tip from here on in. Then leaning over confidentially, he said, “I’ve been here for forty years, and I’ve got a million stories, all funny.” A cab driver pulled over to the curb, while driving Johnny home, to let him know that he had a cousin coming over from Italy who could sing opera and juggle at the same time.

As he walked out of a restaurant shortly after he took over the show, a hand reached out from the alley, grasped him by the shoulder and turned him completely around. A dowdy woman at the other end of the arm shoved forward a teen-ager and rasped, “I want you to hear my son sing. Sing, Albert.”

Fortunately Johnny is without temperament. His status as a “star” embarrassed him even before he got the Tonight show. “He’d come off the stage after something had gone wrong,” says Art Stark, the producer of Who Do You Trust?, “and he’d hit his fist against the wall and say, ‘Damn it, why? Why? Why? Why did that happen?’ And then you could see that in his mind he was suddenly seeing the picture of himself acting like a star, and he’d grin sheepishly and come over to say he was sorry.”

He is also without temper. In the five years they have worked together, Ed McMahon, his announcer, has seen him blow his top only once. He bawled out a crew member for talking during the show. “It was long overdue,” McMahon says. “The guy had been chattering away for a week.”

Always awkward with strangers, Johnny has reacted to the demands being made upon him by withdrawing even more. Part of this reticence may be due to his sensitivity about the breakup of his marriage. “My wife and I are legally separated,” he will say, in reply to all questions. “The children live with her in Harrison, New York. That’s all I care to say.” He spends his weekends, his only free time, with his three sons — Chris, 12; Ricky, 10; and Corey, 9 — taking them to a movie, a hockey game or, less frequently these days, out on his 22-foot inboard sea skiff, Deductible, “which,” he adds wryly, “it ain’t.”

The boat seems to be his only real luxury. Since his separation he has been living in a four-room apartment by the East River, in one of those apartment buildings built on top of a string of neighborhood stores. “Johnny is unique in the business,” says Carson’s manager Al Bruno, “in that he isn’t interested in the cashmere coats and the flashy suits and the fancy cars. He’s a level-headed young man.”

He is also a rather studious young man. Currently he is studying astronomy, a subject which has interested him since the Navy days. He bought his own telescope, subscribed to the professional publication put out by the Harvard Observatory, and on clear nights he will spend hours on the roof of his apartment house studying the stars.

His eating habits defy description. He gets through the morning on a homemade cup of coffee, which is so bad his best friends won’t tell him. It is his unshakable belief that it is foolish to eat unless you are hungry, and he never seems to be hungry at what are considered the normal eating times. For the most part, he subsists on apple juice, to which he apparently ascribes some magic quality, and — when the mood hits him — a hamburger or sandwich. “Food,” he says, in something of an understatement, “has never been of interest to me.”

Business and Friendship Mix

His best friends are the people he has been associated with professionally: Bruno, Stark and McMahon, plus Bill Brennan, a West Coast advertising man who got him his first radio job in Los Angeles. Among entertainers, he is closest to Rudy Vallee, another old friend from the California days, who was the first guest on his opening show.

A good amateur drummer, Johnny used to get his kicks by dropping into some small club and sitting in with the combo, a pleasure which his new prominence has forced him to forgo.

Like so many men who are observers of others, he finds it difficult to look with amused detachment upon his own ridiculously exalted status and, more to the point, upon the reaction of others to that exalted status — a reaction that is even more ridiculous. “Sometimes you can observe it with humor,” he says, “but there are times when you resent it. Just the other night Ed McMahon and I went to a nightclub, and some big two hundred-pounder, with about four belts in him, came over to our table, took me by the elbow and marched me over to sit with twenty of his friends. Then he yelled for the band to be quiet so I could entertain them.

“I said, ‘Please, I’m very busy, I have to get up early,’ and he picked me up, and said, ‘Come on, I promised my friends.’

“’I’m very sorry,’ I said, ‘But I have to leave.’

“’There’s nothing else open,’ he said.

“’My house is,’ I said, and I walked away with the guy still grabbing at my arm. You can’t win. If you go along, they drive you nuts, and if you don’t they say, ‘Oh, getting stuck up, huh?”’

Carson shrugged, then went on. “In show business that word ‘conceit’ is always popping up. But frequently it’s not that at all. It’s aloofness or shyness. Lots of entertainers are shy — although their manner may change on stage. It’s supposed to be difficult to know yourself. I think I do know myself, though. I’m not a complicated person. It may sound strange, but let’s face it: Like many other entertainers, I’m the kind of guy who is just shy and self-conscious with large groups of people.”