I have always loved late night talk shows. They are some of my favorite things to watch. Seeing adults let loose and tell jokes while discussing pop culture, news, politics and current events all the while listening to great musicians, funny comedians and insightful interviews with my favorite Hollywood stars just epitomized “cool” to me. And they combined many of the things I loved most about Hollywood into one show. These days there are a lot of late night talk shows to choose from. Just look at all the options currently on the air:
The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon (NBC)
Late Night with Seth Meyers (NBC)
The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (CBS)
The Late Late Show with James Corden (CBS)
Jimmy Kimmel Live! (ABC)
Real Time with Bill Maher (HBO)
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)
Pause with Sam Jay (HBO)
Desus & Mero (Showtime)
Full Frontal with Samantha Bee (TBS)
The Daily Show with Trevor Noah (Comedy Central)
Tha God’s Honest Truth with Charlamagne Tha God (Comedy Central)
Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen (Bravo)
Gutfeld! (Fox News)
My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman (Netflix)
The Problem with Jon Stewart (Apple TV+)
The Amber Ruffin Show (Peacock)
Earth to Ned (Disney+)
The Not-So-Late Show with Elmo (HBO Max)
Thinking about how many late night talk shows there are today, I can’t help but think of Johnny Carson. He is likely the single person to which everyone I just listed owes the greatest debt. Back in the sixties when Carson took over The Tonight Show, there were fewer television networks, which meant practically everyone in America knew of Carson and watched his monologues, and it also meant that anyone who was a guest on his show was much more likely to become an instant celebrity than someone who appears on a talk show today. As the host of The Tonight Show for 30 years from 1962 to 1992, Carson was the biggest TV personality of the latter half of the 20th century. It’s hard to convey just how huge a star he was, but he was equally as beloved by everyday Americans as he was by Hollywood celebrities, which speaks to his wide appeal.
Born in Corning, Iowa in 1925 before moving to Norfolk, Nebraska at the age of eight, Carson had stage experience as a preteen when he got into magic, first performing card tricks for family and friends and then for local clubs and county fairs.
After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Carson attended The University of Nebraska-Lincoln and majored in journalism. He showed interest in comedy writing but switched his focus to speech and drama with an eye on the radio business. Although writing jokes was the subject of his college thesis and that’s what allowed him to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1949.
Carson’s show business career began in Omaha in 1950 at WOW Radio where he clowned around doing things like interviewing animals and making fun of politicians on the air. Carson moved from radio to television early on at the CBS-owned L.A. TV station KNXT, where he hosted the low-budget sketch comedy series Carson’s Cellar from 1951 to 1953, capturing the attention of comedian Red Skelton who asked Carson to write for him. Carson’s star was on the rise in the fifties. Even Jack Benny predicted a successful comedy career in Carson’s future.
In 1954, Carson hosted the game show Earn Your Vacation as well as the CBS variety series The Johnny Carson Show (1955-56), and when that show failed he was relegated to the daytime game show Who Do You Trust? (1957-62) where he met his future Tonight Show sidekick Ed McMahon. Carson’s interviews, ad libbing and on-camera charm on this show made it popular. Plus he was a regular panelist on another game show To Tell the Truth from 1961 to 1962. But Carson’s biggest success would come when NBC offered him The Tonight Show.
Originally hosted by Steve Allen before Allen moved to primetime, followed by Jack Paar who got fired for misbehaving on the air, NBC’s late night counterpart to The Today Show proved consistently popular so following Paar’s departure, NBC asked Carson, who was one of Paar’s regular guest hosts, to take over hosting duties. Carson initially declined fearing his inability to interview celebrities for 105 minutes a day, but after everyone from Groucho Marx to Jackie Gleason to Joey Bishop turned down the offer, NBC convinced Carson to accept the job. Ed McMahon would follow Carson from daytime to late night as his announcer and sidekick. Carson eventually relaxed into the job and overcame his fears and delivered solid ratings for NBC every year in addition to consistently good comedy.
The format for the show was simple. McMahon would announce Carson by saying “Heeeeere’s Johnny!” and Carson would deliver a topical monologue of jokes to his New York studio audience in 30 Rockefeller Plaza. There were celebrity interviews, music (courtesy of Doc Severinsin and his band), comedy sketches and recurring popular characters (played by Carson) like Tea Time Movie announcer Art Fern, conservative commentator Floyd R. Turbo and Carnac the Magnificent who could predict the answer (“Debate”) before revealing the question (“What do you use to catch de fish?”) Even when he bombed with a joke, Carson would ad-lib something to save himself and win the audience back (like when he would get up close to the mic and say nonsensical things like “Attention K-Mart shoppers, clean up on aisle four!”)
Stand-up comedians would often get their big career break when they appeared on the show, especially when Carson gave them the “OK” and invited them over to the guest chair. Making Carson laugh and getting invited to the chair was the goal of every aspiring comedian in show business. Successful comedians who performed on the show include Joan Rivers, Jay Leno, David Letterman, David Brenner, Freddie Prinze, Robin Williams, Stephen Wright, Louie Anderson, Richard Lewis, Roseanne Barr, Arsenio Hall, Keenen Ivory Wayans, Jerry Seinfeld, Garry Shandling, Tim Allen, Ellen DeGeneres, Drew Carey and Bill Maher. Some of these comedians have even gone on to host their own talk shows.
Among the changes to the show made under Carson, the show moved from New York to Burbank, California in 1972 because it was closer to Hollywood, in the seventies Carson hosted the show four nights a week instead of five (with a guest host filling the vacancy on the fifth day) and in the eighties the show was shortened from 90 minutes to 60 minutes upon Carson’s request.
Carson ended his Tonight Show run in 1992 and retired from show business, an emotional event for a man who became a fixture of American culture. Jay Leno took over hosting duties that year and had a successful run for years, and currently Saturday Night Live cast member-turned-talk show host Jimmy Fallon holds the mantle. Carson made occasional TV appearances following The Tonight Show, voicing himself on The Simpsons and appearing on The Late Show with David Letterman (his final television appearance would end up being with Letterman). Carson would even write jokes for Letterman’s monologue in retirement and got a kick out of Letterman saying them on the air.
Johnny Carson died in 2005 due to respiratory failure from emphysema, a result of smoking, which he constantly did, even on camera. The world felt it when he was gone, as he was probably the most well-liked person in Hollywood, so the tributes poured in, including those from Leno and Letterman. Many comedians were influenced by Carson and many Americans did not go to sleep until after they watched his opening monologues. Not to mention the fact that he set the standard for every late night talk show. Steve Allen brought sophistication to late night comedy in the fifties and Jack Paar established the formula, but Johnny Carson perfected it and for many people he remains the king of late night.