(entertainer, born October 23, 1925, Corning, Iowa; died January 23, 2005, Los Angeles, California)
Since 1962, watching the "Tonight" show was for millions of Americans a nightly ritual, particularly Johnny Carson's opening monologue that chronicled the events of our nation for three volatile decades. It's been described as "a magnifying glass on American culture," "the nation's emotional barometer (also weathervane and thermometer)," "a national institution," and "the national comforter."
"Carson is one of the most influential performers in the history of the [television] medium," wrote James Wolcott in The Village Voice. "As a comedian, he is unquestionably a master. . . he has distilled the influences of Jack Benny, Jackie Gleason, Steve Allen, Jonathan Winters, Fred Allen...into a style which is perfectly calibrated to the scale of the video medium."
Many have tried to explain the secret of Carson's success: his cool, affable, understated style; his uncanny rapport with the audience and his brilliant blend of comic talent and down-home charm that disarmed everyone. "Accustomed to thinking of Carson the host, we forget the range of Carson the actor-comedian," stated Kenneth Tynan. "Carson is capable of daring comic one-upmanship. The way he uses the camera as a silent conspirator is probably his most original contribution to TV technique."
Growing up in Norfolk, Nebraska, Carson first practiced his entertainment skills on family members with card tricks and other magic acts learned from a mail-order kit. At 14, he was earning $3 a show as "The Great Carsoni," a typical shy, uncomfortable teenager who blossomed in front of an audience, appearing in high school plays as well.
After serving in the Pacific, he got jobs writing radio comedy programs while still at the University of Nebraska. Later in Los Angeles, he became an all-purpose announcer until he was given his own program, "Carson's Cellar." This stint was short, lasting less than a year, but it attracted the attention of several big-time entertainers, including Red Skelton, who hired him to write for his television show. In a classic show business turn of events, one night the star was ill, Carson substituted, he wowed the audience, and a star was nearly born. His reward, "The Johnny Carson Show," didn't last a year, but it led to a game show, "Who Do You Trust," which became ABC's top-rated daytime program, which eventually led to an offer to replace Jack Paar as host of the "Tonight" show. "With the public," Kenneth Tynan reported, "Carson's triumph was immediate and nonpareil."
Logging 10 years in New York and nearly 20 in Burbank, Carson's "Tonight" show became NBC's most successful show ever. By 1979, it had an audience of more than 17 million people and accounted for 17 percent of the network's profit. The show also won critical respect as well as numerous Emmys and a Peabody.
Carson, whose own comedy timing had been described as "so precise we wouldn't be surprised to find buried in his skull a quartz crystal" (Seattle Times), inspired many a young cut-up to go professional, and "Tonight" became a highly visible showcase for the young careers of a virtual honor roll of America's great comedians: Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, David Letterman, Jerry Seinfeld, and Jay Leno, to name a few. They all cracked jokes on Carson's couch long before we knew who they were.
All good things come to an end and Carson's retirement from regular television in May of 1992 was treated like a monumental event in American culture, landing on the front page of the New York Times. "After all, Carson was late night TV, and with decency and style he made America laugh and think" (The Washington Post).
Carson was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1987. An estimated 50 million people watched his final broadcast in 1992.
President George H.W. Bush awarded Carson the Medal of Freedom in 1992, and he received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1993.
Carson died in 2005 at his Los Angeles home, survived by his fourth wife, Alexis, and sons Christopher and Cory from his first marriage, to Joan "Jody" Wolcott. He was 79.
"And so it has come to this. I am one of the lucky people in the world. I found something that I always wanted to do and I have enjoyed every single minute of it," Carson said to close his final show. "I bid you a very heartfelt goodnight."