The evolution of 'The Tonight Show' with Johnny Carson
Photo: Gary Null/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank
Long before cable boxes, or even a strongly established network of affiliate stations, television had its roots as a specialty medium for upscale urbanites. In this niche market The Tonight Show got its start on New York City station WBNT (now WNBC), with its first host, Steve Allen. The original 1953 format was a nocturnal complement to the widely popular Today show, but with more of an out-of-studio feel, with pioneering man-on-the-street pieces that continue to this day.
By 1957, The Tonight Show was a hit, and Allen was on to his own weekly Sunday-evening show. Taking over hosting duties was Jack Paar, a radio announcer and game-show host from Ohio. The Paar years saw the show's following broaden, and interviews with Hollywood actors and personalities took center stage. In those early years The Tonight Show provided Americans with their first glimpse into the personal lives of the silver-screen stars they grew up idolizing. Every night a new celebrity would saunter on set and engage in lively banter (of varying degrees of spontaneity), not as a character from their new film, but as themselves.
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By 1962, however, Paar was growing tired of the rigorous schedule a daily talk show required, and was preparing to make an exit to a less time-consuming weekly show. But before he ambled off to greener pastures, Paar made the wise choice of selecting another Midwestern radio-guy-turned-game-show-host as his successor. That young man was, of course, Johnny Carson.
Carson's run on The Tonight Show franchise began October 1, 1962 all through May 22, 1992. Carson's Tonight Showcemented NBC's domination over late night and established the modern format of the late-night talk show: a monologue sprinkled with a rapid-fire series of one-liners followed by some sketch comedy, then moving on to guest interviews and musical performances.
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Through the platform Carson interviewed everyone from Richard M. Nixon to Bill Clinton. Also helping launched the careers of new comics like Jerry Seinfeld and Garry Shandling, while elevating established Vegas performers such as Don Rickles and Joan Rivers into meteoric superstars.
Indeed, of all the conventions he brought to The Tonight Show, his greatest contribution was the general tone. Carson was a shy Midwesterner, always happy to make the guest look good and set them up for the big laugh in a joke. And his nightly ubiquity on television screens nationwide made him practically synonymous with the medium itself.
But let it be known Carson was not the most social of hosts, referred to as a "cool" host he almost never socialized with guests before or after his shows. On-screen he only laughed when genuinely amused and abruptly cut short monotonous or inept interviewees. Actor Robert Blake once compared being interviewed by Carson to "facing the death squad" or "Broadway on opening night." But for many stars the publicity garnered even by a single appearance was worth Carson's scrutiny.
By 1992, however, Carson had been on the air for 30 consecutive seasons, and it was time for the icon to take a much heralded bow. Once his last two episodes were underway the tone of things turned electric, Carson was greeted with a sustained, two-minute intense standing ovations. Hosting both Robin Williams and Bette Middler on his second to last taping, Middler in particular became quite emotional. When their conversation turned to Johnny's favorite songs, "I'll Be Seeing You" and "Here's That Rainy Day", Midler mentioned that she knew a chorus of the latter. She began singing the song, and after the first line, Carson joined in and turned it into an impromptu duet. Midler finished her appearance from center stage, where she slowly sang the pop standard "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)". Making Carson become unexpectedly tearful.
On Carson's final episode of The Tonight show in May 22, 1992 there were no guests. instead there was a retrospective show taped before an invitation-only studio audience of family, friends, and crew. More than fifty million people tuned in for this finale, which ended with Carson sitting on a stool alone at center stage and he said these final words in conclusion:
"And so it has come to this: I, uh... am one of the lucky people in the world; I found something I always wanted to do and I have enjoyed every single minute of it. I want to thank the people who've shared this stage with me for thirty years. Mr. Ed McMahon, Mr. Doc Severinsen, and you people watching. I can only tell you that it has been an honor and a privilege to come into your homes all these years and entertain you. And I hope when I find something that I want to do and I think you would like and come back, that you'll be as gracious in inviting me into your home as you have been. I bid you a very heartfelt good night."
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