Johnny Carson, 79, whose topical monologues and outlandish comedy made him the foremost figure of late-night entertainment for three decades, died yesterday. NBC, which produced "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson," said Carson died of emphysema at his home in Malibu, Calif.
Carson often was called the "king" of late-night television, a nickname far from hyperbole. By the 1980s, he reportedly was seen by 15 million viewers. "The Tonight Show" helped launch the careers of hundreds of comics, including Joan Rivers, George Carlin, Jerry Seinfeld, Roseanne Barr, David Letterman and Jay Leno, his successor on the program. To see Carson laugh at a joke meant the teller had a future.
Tanned, dapper and relaxed, Carson was above all a comfortable presence, which the ultraprivate and aloof host took great pains to achieve. In a celebrated profile of Carson, critic Kenneth Tynan wrote that attempting a man-to-man chat with him was like "addressing an elaborately wired security system."
To audiences, he was a trusted companion, boyish even with graying, receding hair. His resonant baritone had a puckish charm. In a profession in which timing is all, the Iowa-born Carson mastered sexual innuendo delivered with self-deprecating pauses and Midwestern modesty. In many ways, he was the heir to radio and television comedian Jack Benny, his idol.
In October 1962, the cerebral Jack Paar handed off "Tonight" to Carson, who immediately custom-fit the program to his tastes. When Carson jokingly parroted a congressman's warnings of a national toilet paper shortage, one actually occurred. His guests ranged from astronauts to authors, from Pele to the Gabor sisters.
He liked to call the mix an unpredictable chess game.
No one offered by competing programs -- including Joey Bishop, Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, David Frost and Dick Cavett -- came close to dethroning him in the ratings or diminishing his popularity.
A decade into his run, Carson moved his New York-produced show to Burbank, Calif., to trump the other hosts in the scheduling of celebrity guests. It was a shrewd move, enabling him to avoid the spate of visitors who appeared on other programs, usually within the same week.
Carson's introduction, by sidekick Ed McMahon, became a national catchphrase: "Heeeeere's Johnny!" The jaunty, brassy and recognizable theme music, written by Paul Anka, was rendered by bandleader Doc Severinsen. It marked the cue for Carson to appear from behind a curtain and warm up the audience with jokes.
Carson and company established absurd comic roles familiar to generations of Americans. As the clairvoyant "Carnac the Magnificent," Carson sat behind his desk wearing a turban and holding a sealed envelope to his forehead. He predicted answers to the questions inside.
"A full moon," Carson would say before revealing the contents of the envelope: "What you would see if Orson Welles dropped his pants."
To "Sis-boom-bah," Carson responded: "What is the sound of a sheep exploding?"
In a memorable skit, from 1965, Ed Ames, who played Mingo on the "Daniel Boone" television series, threw a tomahawk at a board that had a human outline on it. When the tomahawk smacked into the crotch, Carson ad-libbed a circumcision joke: "I didn't even know you were Jewish."
Carson, always cool and elegant, was a reliable presence on television. Despite a series of turbulent divorces, stories of his heavy drinking and the death of a son in a car accident, none of the personal tragedies intruded into his entertainment.
Sometimes comic material bombed, and the ever-alert Carson might groan or cast a knowing glance, almost to beat the audience to the punch. He and his polished cast found inspired ways to counteract a slow moment.
"He had some material, about five sheets of paper, and it wasn't really going anywhere," McMahon said last year in an interview with CNN host Larry King. "And about the eighth joke, we both knew this whole thing was going in the dumper, right? So I very bravely picked up his cigarette lighter, put it under the material and set fire to his material."
"He's looking at the fire," McMahon said. "He looks up at the audience, and he looks at me, and he looks back at the thing and then he looks over. He says, 'You're absolutely right.' Now, he reaches down and gets a wastepaper basket, lifts it up on the desk, takes the material, still burning, in his hands. Just before he drops it in the basket, Doc starts playing taps."
John William Carson, the son of a utility company manager, was born Oct. 23, 1925, in Corning, Iowa, and raised in Norfolk, Neb. Stumbling across "Hoffman's Book of Magic" at age 12 led to his lifelong devotion to magic tricks. He sent away for a magic kit and soon was calling himself "The Great Carsoni." By trailing people and saying, "Pick a card, any card," he considered himself a traveling magician.
His mother, who had sewn his magician's cape, invited her son to perform for her bridge club. Soon he was making the rounds of local Rotary groups. His ability to entertain ceaselessly, somehow overcoming what he described as his innate shyness, made him a hit.
After Navy service during World War II, he enrolled at the University of Nebraska. His thesis was "How to Write Comedy Jokes," in which he explained the technique of major radio comics of his era.
He put theory into use, as a deejay at an Omaha radio station. Working with minimal resources, he took snippets of prerecorded interviews with such celebrities as singer Patti Page and reworked the questions.
The result was this:
"I understand you're hitting the bottle pretty good, Patti -- when did you start?"
"When I was 6, I used to get up at church socials and do it."
Increasingly confident, he moved to Los Angeles and found work as a general announcer, part of his effort to break into television. Gradually, station management was worn down by his persistence and gave him a program that aired for 15 minutes on Sunday afternoons. His entry line was "KNXT cautiously presents 'Carson's Cellar.' " During one program, he told viewers about a special appearance by comedian Red Skelton, then a huge film and television star, which consisted of a shadowy figure racing across the stage.
Despite Carson's terrible time slot, the right person was watching -- Skelton.
On the side, Carson contributed jokes for Skelton and eventually substituted as a host on Skelton's eponymous show after the established comedian broke a leg falling through a prop door. Carson's appearances, deemed successful, led CBS to gamble on him by giving him a self-titled prime-time variety show. Lousy ratings and constant reworkings led to its cancellation after 39 weeks.
To revive his career, he returned to New York. He made appearances on Broadway and television, including a role in a "Playhouse 90" production, to spur his chances of getting a full-time television job. He scored big in 1957 as the host of the ABC quiz show "Who Do You Trust?" The format suited Carson, keen on ad-libbing his lines with guests. He first worked with McMahon on the quiz show, and later brought him to "Tonight."
Meanwhile, Paar was fighting with NBC superiors about his show, whose ratings had fallen, and the network urged Carson to take over. Carson did, as soon as his ABC contract allowed.
By the mid-1960s, Carson's "Tonight Show" had become one of the network's highest-rated programs, meaning huge income from advertisers. In 1967, Time featured Carson in a cover story, dubbing him the first "midnight idol" and describing his style as "cozy," never as abrasive and cutting as Paar's.
Woody Allen, who appeared on the show, paid Carson the compliment that "he appears to be most pleased when the guest scores. He feels no compulsion to top me."
Creative Carte Blanche
Carson created stump-the-band routines and did impersonations. His running characters included the mean old biddy "Aunt Blabby" and the Silent Majority prototype "Floyd Turbo."
The show became, at times, strange. In December 1969, it aired the wedding between the falsetto-singing ukulele player Tiny Tim and his teenage bride, Miss Vicki. The program's ratings skyrocketed because of the nuptials.
NBC gave Carson all but carte blanche, including creative control of the show. The network also provided the $12 million to underwrite Carson Productions, which eventually produced "Late Night With David Letterman."
Carson, who won four Emmy Awards, was reportedly the highest-paid performer in television history in the 1980s, making $5 million annually from "Tonight" alone.
Intermittently, Carson fought NBC for higher wages, staging a walkout in 1967. He also forced the network to reduce its 90-minute format to an hour in 1980 and relied increasingly on guest hosts.
His acrimony toward his employers crept into his humor.
In the mid-1980s, he let NBC's new owner, General Electric, know where it stood in his estimation. One Christmas, he joked that a holiday card had arrived from the company: "In lieu of a gift, a GE employee has been laid off in your name."
When an audience member asked why the NBC logo is a peacock, Carson said: "I don't know. I guess they couldn't find a multicolored weasel."
He needed the increased income to pay for expensive divorces. His first wife, Jody Wolcott, was a childhood sweetheart and the mother of his three sons. Besides Wolcott, Carson divorced Joanne Copeland Carson and Joanna Holland Carson (a former model who reportedly received in the settlement more than $20 million in cash and property). He married a woman 30 years his junior, Alexis Maas, in 1987. They had met on a beach in Malibu.
Carson deflected questions about his personal life and politics. He was a mystery man to interviewers, who found him alternately abrasive and jocular but seldom revealing.
He might have been most public about his feelings once on his show, telling an audience in 1982: "You know what this is like? It's like the challenge of death every night. It's like I'm standing on the ledge of a 20-story building and the crowd is yelling, 'Jump!' "
Over the years, Carson hosted Academy Awards ceremonies and performed comedy at nightclubs. He launched into other business ventures, including a successful clothing line -- his turtlenecks became a fashion trend -- and a failed restaurant franchise.
In 1991, his son Ricky, 39, was killed in a car accident. In May 1992, Carson made his final broadcast, after 4,531 shows. His sign-off was casual and sincere, thanking viewers for their time: "I bid you a very heartfelt good night."
In short order, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, and the Kennedy Center Honor for career achievement.
He stayed away from interviewers, preferring the seclusion he seldom had for three decades. Instead, he focused on philanthropic work and entertained close friends and fellow poker players aboard his yacht. His guests included Steve Martin, Carl Reiner, Neil Simon, Chevy Chase and media executive Barry Diller.
After he retired, offers came his way for anniversary specials, but he declined, preferring to "just let the work speak for itself."