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In the News – Goodnight, Johnny

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Goodnight Johnny Banner

Generations of American television viewers were caught by surprise on Sunday, January 23, 2005, to learn that Johnny Carson, the legendary “King of Late Night” had passed away at his home in Malibu, California. The cause of death was emphysema. For three decades, encompassing the eras of seven different United States Presidents, Carson had ruled the airwaves of late-night television on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, setting what his successor Jay Leno called “the Gold Standard” for all who would follow in his footsteps.

Born John William Carson in Corning, IA on October 23, 1925, Johnny’s family moved to Norfolk, NE, where he spent his formative years. At the age of 12, he read a book about doing magic tricks, and that quickly became an obsession. By the age of 14, he was already performing a magician/comedy routine professionally as “The Great Carsoni”, entertaining social groups such as the local Rotary Club. Following a three year stint as an ensign in the U.S. Navy Reserve from 1943-46, Carson returned to Nebraska, attending the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and graduating with a Bachelor’s Degree in 1949. During his time at UN-L, Carson acquired his first broadcast experience, working for the college radio station. When Omaha television station WOW began broadcasting in 1949, Carson was part of their earliest line-up, hosting an early afternoon talk/skit show The Squirrel’s Nest

Enjoying the challenges of his earliest forays into television, Carson moved to California in the early 1950s, eventually landing a weekly comic series on CBS, Carson’s Cellar. While working on this low-budget show, Carson was able to perfect his monologue and sketch comedy skills, and he was soon noticed by the hot new comic talents of the day, including Fred Allen and Red Skelton. Skelton eventually hired Carson to be a writer on The Red Skelton Show. An on-set accident which incapacitated Skelton provided a break for Johnny, who filled in on the line show and gained even greater notoriety. 

After hosting the quiz show Earn Your Vacation and the short-lived The Johnny Carson Show (a variety show), Carson settled into hosting the ABC daytime show Who Do You Trust? in 1957, where he was teamed up with Ed McMahon for the first time. During his stint with ABC, Johnny served as the occasionally guest-host during Jack Paar’s stint as host of The Tonight Show, and when Paar eventually stepped down, Johnny was hired as his full-time replacement. Against NBC’s wishes, Carson insisted on McMahon’s coming along as his sidekick, and Carson’s era on The Tonight Show officially began on October 1, 1962. 

During Johnny Carson’s 30-year stint as host, The Tonight Show went from black and white to color broadcasts, and in 1972 moved from New York to “beautiful downtown Burbank” in California. Over the course of over 4,500 episodes, Carson played hosts to over 22,000 guests, and created such popular on-going sketches (with his Mighty Carson Art Players) as Aunt Biddy, misguided super patriot Floyd R. Turbo, Art Fern, and Carnac the Magnificent. Despite bringing his marital troubles (four wives and three divorces) into his monologues, Carson managed to keep his private life very private. 

After 30 years at the helm of The Tonight Show, Carson officially called it quits on May 22, 1992, with weeks of special episodes and special guests culminating in an emotional final episode in which he signed off with the following comments: “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. You people watching, I can only tell you that it’s been an honor and a privilege coming into your homes all these years to entertain you. And I hope when I find something I want to do and think you would like, I can come back and (you will be) as gracious in inviting me into your homes as you have been. I bid you a very heartfelt good night.” 

Since that date, Johnny Carson had lived a life out of the public eye. There were a few cameo appearances on other shows, including a 1994 appearance on Late Night With David Letterman that earned him a 73-second standing ovation, but for the most part, Carson wasn’t seen. He was busy behind the scenes, though, especially with philanthropic activities. Among the many monetary gifts he passed out where numerous funds for facilities in his former home state of Nebraska — including: The Lied Center at the University of Nebraska, where the Johnny Carson Theater is situated; funds for the refurbishing of The Temple Building, and many organizations and causes in Norfolk, Nebraska. 

Related Materials in Our Collection

The links in this section of this list will take you directly into the items’ entries in the catalog of the Lincoln City Libraries, where you can check on the items’ availability throughout the library system.

Biographies, Interviews & Profiles of Johnny Carson and/or The Tonight Show

The Playboy Interviews  – 081 Hal – [1993]Show People: Profiles in Entertainment  – 790.2 Tyn – [1979]Carson: The Unauthorized Biography  – 791.452 CarYc – [1987]Here’s Johnny: Thirty Years of America’s Favorite Late Night Entertainment  – 791.452 CarYc – [1992]Here’s Johnny: Thirty Years of America’s Favorite Late Night Entertainment [updated]  – 791.452 CarYc – [2002]King of the Night: The Life of Johnny Carson  – 791.452 CarYl – [1989]King of the Night: The Life of Johnny Carson  – 791.452 CarYl – [1990 paperback]Johnny Carson: An Unauthorized Biography  – 791.452 CarYs – [1987]Tonight!  – 791.457 Gal – [1972]The Tonight Show  – 791.457 Met – [1980]40 Years at Night: The Story of The Tonight Show  – 791.457 qTonYv – [1992]Johnny Tonight!  – 791.457 Ten – [1980]The Playboy Interview, Volume II  – Heritage 081 Gol – [1983]Here’s Johnny [My Memories of The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson, and 45 Years of Friendship] – by Ed McMahon – 791.452 CarYm – 2005
Johnny Carson – Biography Carson – [2013]

Additional Works With References to Johnny Carson

I’m So Happy  – 306 Hei – [1990]My Wild World  – 636.088 Emb – [1980]Johnny Came Lately: A Biography  [Tonight Show producer Fred Decordova’s biography] – 791.452 Dec – [1988]Peter’s People  – 920.02 Pet – [1979]Double Exposure, Take Two  – SOS 779.12 McD2 – [1989]For Laughing Out Loud: My Life and Good Times [Ed McMahon’s biography] – 791.452 McM – [1998]

Books by Johnny Carson

Happiness is– A Dry Martini  – Heritage 817 C23h – [1965]Misery is… A Blind Date  – Heritage 817 C23m – [1967]

Both of these items are located in the non-circulating collection of our Heritage Room of Nebraska Authors

Audio and/or Video Materials

The Johnny Carson Show: The Lost Episodes  – DVD 791.452 Car – [1989]Johnny Carson: King of Late Night  – DVD Biography Carson – [2012]Ultimate Collection Starring Johnny Carson vol. 1-3  – DVD 791.452 Car – [1989]Whales!  [Carson is host/narrator of this Nature video] – Video 599.5 Nat – [1988]

Vertical File/Clippings

— clipping file of older newspaper articles may be viewed at the Bennett Martin Public Library, downtown

Online Resources

The following databases on the Lincoln City Libraries site can be used to access numerous articles and/or links to additional resources about Johnny Carson on-line. [If you have difficulty using these databases, or need the log-on passwords, please contact the Reference Department at 441-8530 for assistance.]

Database: Magazine Article Search [Index of magazine/journal articles – many full-text; plus – biographical profiles]Database: eLibrary [Index of magazine/newspaper/radio articles – many full-text]Database: New York Times [Database of articles from the NYT]

Additional on-line resources * about Johnny Carson:

“The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson”
Official site of the Johnny Carson years of the “Tonight Show”. Features video clips from Johnny’s most memorable moments on the show. Also features video ordering information

Brilliant Careers: Johnny Carson
A February 2001 tribute to Carson from Salon.com

Johnny Carson page at the IMDb
The Internet Movie Database’s complete list of Johnny Carson’s TV and movie credits

The Elkhorn Valley Museum [site apparently no longer on-line, or electronically compromised as of Feb 2016] Norfolk, NE museum which houses Carson memorabilia, including his six Emmy Awards

The Museum of Broadcast Communications
Biographical page

E!Online’s “The Facts”
Biographical Information

“So Long to Johnny, America’s Sandman”
New York Times columnist Frank Rich on Carson’s last ‘Tonight Show’ episode. From May 10, 1992

Profile of Carson after his death
Washington Post detailed obituary, January 23, 2005

Profile of Carson after his death
Foxnews.com detailed obituary, January 23, 2005

“Johnny Knew What the Country Wanted”
A Q&A Session With Ed McMahon on “The Today Show”, January 24, 2005

Steve Martin’s tribute to Johnny Carson
From the New York Times Op/Ed pages, January 24, 2005

Johnny Carson: America’s Late-Night Host
A collection of links to articles from the New York Times database

Profile and Obituary of Johnny Carson
Detailed profile from Investors Business Daily

A Life in Broadcasting
A slideslow on CNN.com of Johnny Carson’s career

An Appreciation: Late-Night’s “King of Cool”
A look at Carson’s impact, by CNN.com’s Todd Leopold

A History of The Tonight Show
Straight from the official Carson “Tonight Show” Web site

NBC’s Official The Tonight Show Page
Page for the current version of “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon”

* Please Note: The presence of a link on this site does not constitute an endorsement by Lincoln City Libraries.