The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson

For the entire Tonight Show franchise, see The Tonight Show. For the 1955–56 CBS variety show hosted by Carson, see The Johnny Carson Show.
The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson
Also known as The Tonight Show (franchise brand)
Genre Talk/Variety
Created by
Written by
Presented by Johnny Carson
Narrated by Ed McMahon
Theme music composer Paul Anka
Country of origin United States
No. of seasons 30
No. of episodes 4,531 (list of episodes)
Running time 47–105 minutes
Original network NBC
Picture format Color
Original release October 1, 1962 – May 22, 1992
Preceded by Tonight Starring Jack Paar
Followed by The Tonight Show with Jay Leno

The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson is a talk show hosted by Johnny Carson under The Tonight Show franchise from October 1, 1962 through May 22, 1992.[1]

It originally aired during late-night. For its first decade, Johnny Carson's The Tonight Show was based at Thirty Rockefeller Plaza, New York City, with some episodes recorded at NBC-TV's West Coast studios in Burbank, California; on May 1, 1972, the show moved to Burbank as its main venue and remained there exclusively after May 1973 until Carson's retirement.[2] In 2002, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson was ranked No. 12 on TV Guide's 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time[3] and in 2013, it was ranked No. 22 on their list of 60 Best Series.[4]


Johnny Carson's Tonight Show established the modern format of the late-night talk show:[5] a monologue sprinkled with a rapid-fire series of 16 to 22 one-liners (Carson had a rule of no more than three on the same subject) was followed by sketch comedy, then moving on to guest interviews and musical performances. Particularly during the early years of Carson's tenure, his guests included politicians such as former U.S. Vice President (and future U.S. President) Richard M. Nixon, former U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey and (near the end of his run) presidential candidate Bill Clinton; by 1970, Carson had primarily settled into interviewing as guests people that had a book, movie, television show, or stage performance to promote. Other regulars were selected for their entertainment or information value, in contrast to those who offered more cerebral conversation;[6] Carson refused to discuss politics on The Tonight Show out of fear it might alienate his audience,[7] and it was Carson's preference for access to Hollywood stars that caused the show's move to the West Coast on May 1, 1972.[8] When asked about intellectual conversation on Tonight, Carson and his staff invariably cited "Carl Sagan, Paul Ehrlich, Margaret Mead, Gore Vidal, Shana Alexander, Madalyn Murray O'Hair" as guests;[6] one television critic stated, however, "he always presented them as if they were spinach for your diet when he did [feature such names]".[9] Psychologist Joyce Brothers was also one of Carson's most frequent guests. Carson strongly disliked prop comedy and generally refused to have such comics on his show; such acts (Gallagher being a prominent example) only appeared on nights when guests hosted the show.[10]

Carson almost never socialized with guests before or after the show; frequent interviewee Orson Welles recalled that Tonight employees were astonished when Carson visited Welles's dressing room to say hello before a show. Unlike his avuncular counterparts Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, and Dick Cavett, Carson was a comparatively "cool" host who only laughed when genuinely amused and abruptly cut short monotonous or embarrassingly inept interviewees. Mort Sahl recalled, "The producer crouches just off camera and holds up a card that says, ‘Go to commercial.’ So Carson goes to a commercial and the whole team rushes up to his desk to discuss what had gone wrong, like a pit stop at Le Mans." Actor Robert Blake once compared being interviewed by Carson to "facing the death squad" or "Broadway on opening night." The publicity value of appearing on Tonight was so great, however, that most guests were willing to subject themselves to the risk.[6]

Show regulars

Ed McMahon

The show's announcer and Carson's sidekick was Ed McMahon, who from the very first show would introduce Carson with a drawn-out "Heeeeeeeeere's Johnny!" (something McMahon was inspired to do by the overemphasized way he had introduced reporter Robert Pierpoint on the NBC Radio Network program Monitor). The catchphrase was heard nightly for 30 years, and ranked top of the TV Land poll of U.S. TV catchphrases and quotes in 2006;[11] it has been referenced in all media going from The Shining to Johnny Bravo to a "Weird Al" Yankovic album cut; it was even used for the character Johnny Cage in the video game series Mortal Kombat.

McMahon, who held the same role in Carson's ABC game show Who Do You Trust? for five years previously, would remain standing to the side as Carson did his monologue, laughing (sometimes obsequiously) at his jokes, then join him at the guest chair when Carson moved to his desk. The two would usually interact in a comic spot for a short while before the first guest was introduced.

McMahon stated in a 1978 profile of Carson in The New Yorker that "the ‘Tonight Show’ is my staple diet, my meat and potatoes—I’m realistic enough to know that everything else stems from that". After a 1965 incident in which he ruined Carson's joke on the air McMahon was careful to, as he said, "never to go where [Carson]'s going".[6] He wrote in his 1998 autobiography:

My role on the show never was strictly defined. I did what had to be done when it had to be done. I was there when he needed me, and when he didn't I moved down the couch and kept quiet. ... I did the audience warm-up, I did commercials, for a brief period I co-hosted the first fifteen minutes of the show..., and I performed in many sketches. On our thirteenth-anniversary show Johnny and I were talking at his desk and he said, "Thirteen years is a long time." He paused long enough for me to recognize my cue, so I asked, "How long is it?" "That's why you're here," he said, probably summing up my primary role on the show perfectly... I had to support him, I had to help him get to the punch line, but while doing it I had to make it look as if I wasn't doing anything at all. The better I did it, the less it appeared as if I was doing it....If I was going to play second fiddle, I wanted to be the Heifetz of second fiddlers....The most difficult thing for me to learn how to do was just sit there with my mouth closed. Many nights I'd be listening to Johnny and in my mind I'd reach the same ad lib just as he said it. I'd have to bite my tongue not to say it out loud. I had to make sure I wasn't too funny—although critics who saw some of my other performances will claim I needn't have worried. If I got too many laughs, I wasn't doing my job; my job was to be part of a team that generated the laughs.[12]

Bandleaders and others

The Tonight Show had a live big band for nearly all of its existence. The NBC Orchestra during Carson's reign was originally led by Skitch Henderson (who had previously led the band during Tonight Starring Steve Allen), followed briefly by Milton DeLugg. Starting in 1967 and continuing until Jay Leno took over, the band was led by Doc Severinsen, with Tommy Newsom filling in for him when he was absent or filling in for McMahon as the announcer (this usually happened when a guest host substituted for Carson, which generally gave McMahon the night off as well). The show's instrumental theme music, "Johnny's Theme", was a re-arrangement of the Paul Anka composition "Toot Sweet", which Anka and Annette Funicello had separately recorded, with lyrics, as "It's Really Love".[13] The NBC Orchestra was the last in-house studio orchestra to perform on American television.

Behind the scenes, motion picture director/producer Fred de Cordova joined The Tonight Show in 1970 as producer, graduating to executive producer in 1984. Unlike many people of his position, de Cordova often appeared on the show, bantering with Carson from his chair off-camera (though occasionally a camera would be pointed in his direction).

Recurring segments and skits


If the laughter fell short for a too-lame pun (as it often did), "Carnac" would face the audience with mock seriousness and bestow a comic curse: "May a diseased yak befriend your sister!" or "May a rabid holy man bless your nether regions with a power tool!"


Guest's request: My Dead Dog Rover
Doc Severinsen, singing: "My dead dog Rover / lay under the sun / and stayed there all summer / until he was done!"
David Letterman has revived this bit in recent years along with the CBS Orchestra on his Late Show.
Example: Johnny, dressed as a doctor, starting to talk about some intimate topic (just as in the real ad) and then being hit by cream pies from several directions at once.

Programming history

Carson's first Tonight Show on New Year's Eve, 1962; shown with Skitch Henderson and Ed McMahon

Jack Paar's last appearance was on March 29, 1962, and due to Carson's previous contracts, Carson did not take over until October 1. His first guests were Rudy Vallée, Tony Bennett, Mel Brooks, and Joan Crawford.[15] Carson inherited from Paar a show that was 1 3/4 hours (105 minutes) long.[6] The show broadcast two openings, one starting at 11:15 p.m. and including the monologue, the other that listed the guests and re-announced the host, starting at 11:30. The two openings gave affiliates the option of screening either a fifteen-minute or thirty-minute local newscast preceding Carson. Since 1959, the show had been videotaped earlier the same broadcast day.

As more affiliates introduced thirty minutes of local news, Carson's monologue was being seen by fewer people. To rectify this situation, Ed McMahon and Skitch Henderson co-hosted the first fifteen minutes of the show between February 1965 and December 1966 without Carson, who then took over at 11:30. Finally, because he wanted the show to start when he came on, at the beginning of January 1967 Carson insisted the 11:15 segment be eliminated (which, he claimed in a monologue at the time, "no one actually watched except the Armed Forces and four Native Americans in Gallup, New Mexico") citation needed.

Doc Severinsen, leader of The NBC Orchestra, known for his flashy outfits

By the mid-1970s Tonight was the most profitable show on television, making NBC $50 to $60 million ($181,709,000 to $218,051,000 today) each year.[6] citation needed Carson influenced the scheduling of reruns (which typically aired under the title The Best of Carson) in the mid-1970s and, in 1980, the length of each evening's broadcast, by threatening NBC with, in the first case, moving to another network, and in the latter, retiring altogether citation needed.

In order to work fewer days each week Carson began to petition network executives in 1974 that reruns on the weekends be discontinued, in favor of showing them on one or more nights during the week citation needed. In response to his demands, NBC created a new comedy/variety series to feed to affiliates on Saturday nights that debuted in October 1975, Saturday Night Live, which is now in its 42nd season citation needed.

In 1980, Carson renewed his contract with the stipulation that the show lose its last half-hour. On the last 90-minute show (September 12, 1980), Carson explained that by going to an hour, the show would feel more fast-paced, and have a greater selection of guests citation needed.

For a year, Tom Snyder's existing talk show, Tomorrow, was expanded to 90 minutes and forced to change its format, adding gossip reporter Rona Barrett as a co-host and taking on the name Tomorrow Coast to Coast. This was short-lived as a year and a half later, Snyder had quit and Tomorrow Coast to Coast had been canceled. Carson was given authority to fill the vacant time slot and used it to create Late Night with David Letterman (1982–1993). Today, The Tonight Show remains one hour in length and is still followed by Late Night, currently under the title Late Night with Seth Meyers (2014-) citation needed.

The show's start time was delayed by five minutes to allow NBC affiliates to include more commercials during their local newscasts citation needed.

In an onscreen eulogy to Carson in 2005, David Letterman said that every talk show host owes his livelihood to Johnny Carson during his Tonight Show run.[16]

1979–1980 contract battle

In 1979, when Fred Silverman was the head of NBC, Carson took the network to court, claiming that he had been a free-agent since April of that year because his most recent contract had been signed in 1972. Carson cited a California law barring certain contracts from lasting more than seven years. NBC claimed that it had signed three agreements since then and Carson was bound to the network until April 1981.[17] While the case was settled out of court,[18] the friction between Carson and the network remained and Carson was actively courted by rival network ABC, which was willing to double Carson's salary, a lighter work schedule and ownership of his show. Eventually, Carson reached an agreement that paid $25 million a year while reducing his workload from 90 to 60 minutes, with new shows airing only three nights a week 37 weeks a year (a guest host would appear Monday nights and for most of Carson's 15 weeks of vacation and "Best of Carson" reruns would air Tuesdays) and also give him ownership of the show, as well as its back catalog, and of the time slot following the Tonight Show which became Late Night with David Letterman produced by Carson Productions.[19][20] In September 1980, Carson's eponymous production company gained ownership of the show.[21][22] after owning it from 1969 to the early 1970s.[6]

Tape archives

Some memorable moments. Top left: Carson's first show with Groucho, 1962. Top right: Carson practices pitching at Yankee Stadium, 1962. Bottom left: Tiny Tim's wedding, 1969. Bottom right: Carson does a skydiving demonstration, 1968.

Only 33 complete episodes of Johnny Carson's Tonight Show that had originally aired prior to May 1, 1972 are known to exist.[23] All other shows during this period, including Carson's debut as host, are now considered lost because of wiping.[6] Following the standard procedure for most television production companies of that era, NBC reused The Tonight Show videotapes for recording other programs. Carson himself encouraged the erasure of his archives, once humorously quipping that NBC should "make guitar picks" out of them, and did not believe they were of any value.[24] It was rumored that many other episodes were lost in a fire, but NBC has denied this. Other surviving material from the era has been found on kinescopes held in the archives of the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service, or in the personal collections of guests of the program, while a few moments such as Tiny Tim's wedding, were preserved. New York meteorologist Dr. Frank Field, an occasional guest during the years he was weather forecaster for WNBC-TV, showed several clips of his appearances with Carson in a 2002 career retrospective on WWOR-TV; Field had maintained the clips in his own personal archives. There are also two appearances by Judy Garland in 1968 that still survive.

The program archive is virtually complete from 1973 to 1992.[25] The New York Post reported in May 2011 that 250 of Carson's monologues and sketches spanning a 20-year period are on the Memory Lane website.[26] Carson Productions has also made clips available on YouTube and Antenna TV.[27]

Although no footage is known to remain of Carson's very first broadcast as host of The Tonight Show on October 1, 1962, photographs taken that night survive, including Carson being introduced by Groucho Marx, as does an audio recording of Marx's introduction and Carson's first monologue citation needed. One of his first jokes upon starting the show (after receiving a few words of encouragement from Marx, one of which was, "Don't go to Hollywood!") was to pretend to panic and say, "I want my nana!" (This recording was played at the start of Carson's final broadcast on May 22, 1992.) citation needed The oldest surviving video recording of the show is dated November 1962, while the oldest surviving color recording is from April 1964, when Carson interviewed Jake Ehrlich, Sr., as his guest.[28]

The 30-minute audio recordings of many of the "missing" episodes are contained in the Library of Congress in the Armed Forces Radio collection. Many 1970s-era episodes have been licensed to distributors that advertise mail order offers on late-night TV. The later shows are stored in an underground salt mine outside Hutchinson, Kansas.[29]


A large amount of material from Carson's first two decades of The Tonight Show (1962–1982), much of it not seen since it had first aired, appeared in a half hour "clip/compilation" syndicated program known as Carson's Comedy Classics that aired in 1983. Audio clips from the show were featured nightly on WHO-AM in Des Moines, Iowa in the mid-2000s. In 2014, Turner Classic Movies would begin rerunning select interviews from the program for a new series called "Carson on TCM" presented by Conan O'Brien, who himself hosted The Tonight Show briefly.[30]

The digital multicast network Antenna TV acquired rerun rights to whole episodes of the series in August 2015. Unlike the previous clip shows, Antenna TV's airings feature full broadcasts as they were originally seen, with the only edits being removal of The Tonight Show name, with the show being renamed simply as Johnny Carson (the broadcasts air partially opposite the current edition of The Tonight Show in much of the United States, and NBC still owns the trademark on that name), and with bumpers, walk-on music and the closing theme being replaced by generic music cues. Most musical guest segments are also removed. Antenna TV began airing the show seven days a week beginning January 1, 2016, with the 60-minute episodes (from September 1980-May 1992) airing on weeknights and ninety-minute episodes (from 1972-September 12, 1980) on weekends.[31]

Guest hosts

Jack Paar had often asked Carson to guest-host Tonight in its earliest years and repeatedly claimed he had been responsible for NBC's selection of Carson in 1962 as his replacement citation needed. Steve Allen also utilized guest hosts, including Carson and Ernie Kovacs, particularly after he began hosting The Steve Allen Show in prime time in 1956 and needed to reduce his workload on Tonight citation needed.

The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson had guest hosts for entire weeks during Carson's vacations and other nights he had off. Many guest hosts were already large names in their own right, among them Frank Sinatra, Burt Reynolds and Don Rickles. The following is a list of those who guest-hosted at least fifty times during the first 21 years of the show's run:

Harry Belafonte guest hosted for a week in February 1968, becoming the first African-American to host a talk show. Among Belafonte's guests were Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.[34] On April 2, 1979, Kermit the Frog was guest host.[35] In addition, many other Muppets appeared for skits and regular segments: Frank Oz voiced Fozzie Bear and Animal, while Jerry Nelson performed Uncle Deadly, a Vincent Price-inspired Muppet during a segment with the real Price.

Carson's contract, that took effect in 1981, reduced his work schedule to three nights a week, 37 weeks a year. "Best of Carson" reruns aired on Tuesdays in the weeks that Carson was hosting new shows. Monday night shows and shows for most of the 15 weeks that Carson had off were hosted by guest hosts. Due to the frequent need for substitutes, starting in 1983 permanent guest hosts were hired in order to give the program more stability. The permanent guest hosts were Joan Rivers (1983–86),[32] then Garry Shandling alternating with Jay Leno (1986–87) and finally Leno alone (1987–92) after Shandling left to focus on his Showtime series It's Garry Shandling's Show.[32] Though the concept of using "permanent" guest hosts was fairly strictly adhered to, occasionally illness or some other situation necessitated a substitute guest host, as when David Brenner filled in for Joan Rivers on October 31 and November 1, 1985, when Rivers' husband was briefly hospitalized.

Joan Rivers

In September 1983, Joan Rivers was designated Carson's permanent guest host, a role she had been essentially filling for the previous year. In 1986, she left the program for her own show on the then-new Fox Network. According to Carson, Rivers never personally informed him of the existence of her show. Rivers, on the other hand, disagreed.[36] Nevertheless, Rivers' new show was quickly canceled, and she never again appeared on The Tonight Show with Carson. She also never appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, a ban instigated by Leno out of respect for Carson.[37] She also never appeared during Conan O'Brien's seven-month run. After Carson's death in 2005, Rivers told CNN that Carson never forgave her for leaving, and never spoke to her again, even after she wrote him a note following the accidental death of Carson's son Ricky in June 1991.[33] On February 17, 2014, Rivers returned to the Tonight Show as part of a skit in which numerous celebrities paid new host, Jimmy Fallon, after having lost the bet that he would never become the host of the program. Rivers appeared for a full-length interview segment on March 27, 2014.[38]

The program of July 26, 1984, with guest host Joan Rivers, was the first MTS stereo broadcast in U.S. television history,[39] though not the first television broadcast with stereophonic sound. Only NBC's flagship local station in New York City, WNBC, had stereo broadcast capability at that time.[40] NBC transmitted The Tonight Show in stereo sporadically through 1984 and on a regular basis beginning in 1985.

Carson's last shows

As his retirement approached, Carson tried to avoid sentimentality but would periodically show clips of some of his favorite moments and again invited some of his favorite guests. He told his crew, "Everything comes to an end; nothing lasts forever. Thirty years is enough. It's time to get out while you're still working on top of your game, while you're still working well."[41]

Carson hosted his penultimate show, featuring guests Robin Williams and Bette Midler, on May 21, 1992.[42] Once underway, the atmosphere was electric and Carson was greeted with a sustained, two-minute intense standing ovation.[43] Williams was especially uninhibited with his trademark manic energy and stream-of-consciousness lunacy.[41][44] Midler was more emotional.[44] When the 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)". Carson became unexpectedly tearful, and a shot of the two of them was captured by a camera angle from across the set that has never been broadcast.[45] The audience became tearful as well and called the three performers out for a second bow after the taping was completed.[43] This show was immediately recognized as a television classic that Midler considered one of the most emotional moments of her life and eventually won an Emmy for her role in it.[44][45][46]

Carson had no guests on his final episode of The Tonight Show on May 22, 1992, which was instead a retrospective show taped before an invitation-only studio audience of family, friends, and crew.[41][42] More than fifty million people tuned in for this finale, which ended with Carson sitting on a stool alone at center stage, similar to Jack Paar's last show. 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.

A few weeks after the final show aired, it was announced that NBC and Carson had struck a deal to develop a new series. Ultimately, however, Carson chose not to return to television. He gave only two major interviews after his retirement: one to the Washington Post in 1993, and the other to Esquire magazine in 2002. Carson hinted in his 1993 interview that he did not think he could top what he had already accomplished. He rarely appeared elsewhere after retiring, providing only a guest voice on an episode of The Simpsons, which included him performing feats of strength, and a silent cameo on Late Show with David Letterman where he delivered a Top 10 List and sat in Dave's chair for a minute.

In 2005, after Carson's death, it was revealed that he had made a habit of sending jokes to Dave Letterman via fax machine which Letterman would then sometimes incorporate into his monologues. The January 31, 2005, episode of the Late Show with David Letterman, which featured a tribute to Carson, began with a monologue by Letterman composed entirely of jokes written by Carson himself after his retirement.[47][48]

In 2011, the last Carson Tonight show was ranked No. 10 on the TV Guide Network special, TV's Most Unforgettable Finales.[49]


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  34. Harry Belafonte; Michael Shnayerson (2011). My Song: A Memoir. Alfred A. Knopf. p. 322. ISBN 978-0-307-27226-3.
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External links

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