Wednesday, 6 July 2022

Johnny Carson’s On His Way

Depending on your age, Johnny Carson is still the King of Late Night Television. As the TV has changed since Carson’s retirement from The Tonight Show in 1992, that opinion likely won’t change.

Carson came up through the ranks, hosting the game show Who Do You Trust? [sic] before being tapped to replace Jack Paar in 1962. Interestingly, both men were Jack Benny protégés.

TV Guide watched his career blossom, and came up with a feature story in its issue of September 3, 1955 after Carson got a surprise break. The story has no byline. Unfortunately, the black-and-white photo below ended up in the gutter between two pages so the middle part of it is missing.

Young Man With A Grin
With many a rataplan on the publicity drums, CBS has launched 29-year-old Johnny Carson as the first network comedian to do his show from Hollywood since an old man of 35 named George Gobel.
The inevitable comparison of Carson and Gobel doesn’t seem to be bothering anybody except TV columnists, who dearly love to make such comparisons.
Carson, a straightforward young man with a pleasant grin which gets a lot of mileage on and off his Thursday night show, fields the Gobel question with the ease of a shortstop throwing out a slow runner at first base.
“We expected to be compared to Gobel,” he admits. (Carson invariably—and refreshingly—uses the editorial “we” when referring to his show, an apparently unconscious compliment to his staff.) “We’re both low-pressure; we both underplay. Gobel is the hottest thing in the field right now, so naturally anyone coming along with even an approximation of his style is going to be compared to him.
“But frankly, we don’t think viewers look at it that way at all. If you entertain them, they’ll stay with you. If you don’t, they’ll tune you out. We think it’s as simple as that.”

Carson is a tall, lanky lad with a boyish appearance that makes him look even younger than he is, a fact which may drive somewhat more venerable funnymen like Jack Benny to hold their heads in their hands and groan softly.
The same Mr. Benny, however, is on record as having stated publicly—not once, but several times—that Johnny Carson is CBS’ hottest young comedy prospect in years.
When Red Skelton bopped his head against a non-breakaway breakaway wall during rehearsal one day last winter, Carson received a hurry call to fill the breach. “All the way into the studio,” he says, “I kept trying to remember sure-fire gags. It was all so fast, I really didn’t have time to get into a nervous tizzy.”
It was Benny who led the raving afterward. “Great,” he kept insisting, buttonholing everyone in sight, “just great. The kid is great.”
Support like this never hurts. CBS, which had been toying with Carson, suddenly got serious about finding a format for him. Egged on by Benny (“No wonder they can’t sell him—he’s too good, too intelligent—they’re all looking for pie throwers”), the network put him on the air June 30, complete with two sponsors, and the fate of young Mr. Carson was thenceforth squarely up to the viewers.
Aside from a natural flair for the quieter kind of comedy, Carson is both a listener and a worker. Besides shouldering the burden of being a young comedian tossed into the network whirlpool, he plays an important part in the writing and casting of the show, chores which are generally full-time jobs in themselves.
Right off, Carson and his writers decided to concoct the show strictly on a week-to-week basis. “We’ve got to avoid the trap of doing the same sort of sketch or routine on every show,” he explains, with the business-like air of a brush salesman outlining the year’s product. “We parodied Person to Person and What’s My Line? on our first two shows, for instance, but then we skipped parodies for a while. If we’d done many more, the audience would start looking for them—and how many shows can you parody? We’ll do them as the occasion demands. But not too often.”
He also plans to go easy on the husband-and-wife sketches. “That’s an even worse trap,” he says. “You’ve got to do that sort of thing brilliantly at this point, to get away with it at all. We’d rather keep trying to make the show as different as possible.”
Carson does plan, however, to use his wife, Jody, on the show on what might be called an irregularly regular basis; and, until he signed singer Jill Corey for an eight-week stint, she was the only girl with any reasonable expectation of sticking. Carson already had run through several singers trying to find one who fitted, and even considered using a different one every week.
“Who knows?” Johnny says almost cheerfully, when queried about plans for specific dates. “We may not even be on the air by that time.”
Carson was born in Corning, Iowa, moving at the age of 8 to Norfolk, Neb., where he later made himself a small reputation as a mail order-tutored magician and ventriloquist. He had a hitch in the Navy during World War II, went through the University of Nebraska on the GI Bill and got his early TV experience, beginning in 1948, on WOW-TV, Omaha.
An old family friend, CBS-TV producer Bill Brennan, talked him into coming to Hollywood. Carson moved in 1950. He and Jody, whom he met in college and married in 1949, now have three young boys—Kit, five; Ricky, three, and Cory, just pushing two.
Carson spent his first year in Hollywood as a staff announcer with the local CBS station, KNXT, meanwhile working up a format for something of his own. In the fall of 1951 he started a local show, Carson’s Cellar. It lasted 26 weeks and was pronounced reasonably successful. Later, CBS gave him a crack at emceeing a summer show, Earn Your Vacation. He did all right. He also continued writing on the side, including monologs for Red Skelton—and that was one thing that didn’t get knocked out of Skelton’s head when he hit that breakaway-proof wall.
He hollered for Carson, and Carson came running.
Which is as good a way as any for a young comedian to be pushed into his own show these days.
“I have sent Red,” Carson says gratefully, “a large bottle of aspirin.”


  1. Actually, it would not be Miss America's final fling on TV...while she was handing off her crown the following Saturday night, we would continue to be seeing Lee Meriwether--one of the few title holders to remain in the public eye.


    1. And who still looks great, by the way, with her short white hair.