Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

CARSON, JOHNNY (b. 1925)

John William "Johnny" Carson, born in Corning, Iowa, on October 23, 1925, became one of the Great Plains' most significant contributions to American popular culture. His humorously skeptical view of American politics, razor-sharp wit, and self-deprecation made him the television equivalent of Mark Twain and Will Rogers.

Carson grew up in Norfolk, Nebraska, where his outlook was shaped by listening to the family radio. He immersed himself in popular culture, memorizing jokes he heard and writing down routines for subsequent analysis. By age twelve he was performing magic tricks interspersed with a memorized, ostensibly impromptu patter. His first "professional" engagement was for the Norfolk Rotary Club in 1939 as the "Great Carsoni."

Upon graduation from high school in 1943, Carson entered the U.S. Navy and distinguished himself in several combat situations, especially after his ship was hit by torpedoes in 1945. He enrolled at the University of Nebraska in 1946, and in 1949 he wrote a senior thesis entitled "How to Write Comedy Jokes," analyzing dozens of radio performers and their delivery. The main thrust of his thesis was, "A good comedian can get you to buy his sponsor's products."

After college Carson went to work for wow radio in Omaha. The Johnny Carson Show aired weekdays, while he was assigned airtime on WOW's television affiliate with no particular format. He told jokes, did humorous interviews, and staged turtle races. Television liked him; he was a "cool" performer, casual and relaxed. Radio announcers with stentorian tones did not normally do well in the new medium.

In Los Angeles by 1954, with KNXT-TV, he created Carson's Cellar, resembling its counterpart in Omaha. In 1955 Red Skelton hired him for his cbs network show, and for one broadcast Carson successfully substituted as host for Skelton. CBS executives gave Carson his own show in July 1955, but it was canceled in March 1956.

Carson then moved to New York City, working as substitute host for afternoon quiz shows. In 1957 he became full-time host of ABC's Do You Trust Your Wife? It was a primordial talk show that soon became the grammatically incorrect Who Do You Trust? With it, Carson's stock reached unprecedented heights. By 1962 he had embarked on a rendezvous with television destiny, becoming the host of NBC's The Tonight Show.

Jack Paar brought an anxiety-ridden persona to The Tonight Show, discussing his personal problems, his family, and his assorted neuroses. Carson was at first reluctant to succeed him, since The Tonight Show had become so closely identified with its host. Carson was far more tranquil than Paar, and the first critical evaluations were not in his favor. He realized, however, that a decade in fear of thermonuclear annihilation had left American television audiences ready for an escape from neurosis. NBC executives feared that Carson's appointment had been a sizable blunder; they thought the show bland when compared to Paar's–and in a way they were right. But audiences found comfort in Carson's blandness. Three months after taking over for Paar, Carson was reaching 500,000 more homes than Paar had. The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson increased its market share year after year, even though television writers continued to pan its host: one said, "He exhibits all the charm of a snickering schoolboy scribbling gra.ti on a public wall." Competitors came and went, but Carson remained "King of the Night" for the next three decades, achieving a dominance unprecedented in broadcast history.

Carson had always been a student of entertainment media; he knew the techniques of other performers, the history of broadcasting successes or failures, and the capacity of television to deplete its assets quickly. He also recognized that late-night television was not an intellectual exercise. It was something to which viewers in most cases paid only intermittent attention: people "had the TV on" while they usually did something else. It was the casualness, the seemingly unrehearsed nonintrusiveness of the show, that made Carson so popular.

Carson became the highest-salaried performer in television history, though his salary amounted to a tiny fraction of the revenues his show garnered for the network. When he mentioned that he might retire from The Tonight Show in the summer of 1979, stock prices of NBC parent company RCA dropped precipitously—an indication of the fact that The Tonight Show alone earned 17 percent of the company's revenue. Carson had become so dominant a figure in popular culture that he had an optical disorder named after him in the New England Journal of Medicine called Carsongenous monocular nyctalopia, or "Carson night blindness." It occurs when a person watches television late at night with only one eye open, a result of lying in bed on one's side, one eye buried in the pillow, the other fixed on the screen.

Since retiring from The Tonight Show in 1992, Carson has returned frequently to his roots in Iowa and Nebraska, contributing large sums for the construction of arts centers in small towns near his boyhood home. In 1992 Carson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 1993 he was awarded the Kennedy Center Honors Lifetime Achievement Award.

William Grange

University of Nebraska-Lincoln

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