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The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson is a late-night talk show hosted by Johnny Carson under the Tonight Show franchise from 1962 to 1992.

For its first ten years Carson's Tonight Show was based in New York Citymarker with occasional trips to Burbank, Californiamarker; in May 1972 the show moved permanently to Burbank. The Tonight Show has continued to this day under a largely identical structure with Conan O'Brien as host.

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 show Monitor). 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 commented on his role in his 1998 autobiography:

Bandleaders and others

The Tonight Show had a live band for nearly all of its existence. The NBC Orchestra during Carson's reign was led by Skitch Henderson, 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 (which usually happened when a guest host substituted for Carson, which usually gave McMahon the night off as well). The show's instrumental theme music, "Johnny's Theme", was a re-arrangement of a Paul Anka composition called "Toot Sweet".

Behind the scenes, 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


  • Carnac the Magnificent, in which Carson played a psychic who clairvoyantly divined the answer to a question contained in a sealed envelope. This was to some degree a variation on Steve Allen's recurring "The Question Man" sketch. The answer was always an outrageous pun. "Carnac" examples:
    • "Billy Graham, Virginia Graham and Lester Maddox" ... "Name two Grahams and a Cracker!"
    • "Over 105 in Los Angeles" ... "Under the Reagan plan, how old do you have to be to collect Social Security?"
    • "V-8" ... "What kind of disease can you get from an octopus?"
    • "Debate" ... "What do you use to catch de fish?"
    • "Camelot" ... "Where do Arabians park their camels?"
    • "Ben-Gay" ... "Why didn't Mrs. Franklin have any kids?"
    • "Ghotbzadeh" ... "What do Iranian men do when their wives refuse them by night?"
    • "S. I. Hayakawa!" ... "Describe the sound made by a man getting his zipper caught in a Waring blender."
    • "Pass the hat" ... "What does a cannibal do after eating Minnie Pearl?"
    • "Dippity-Do!" ... "What forms on your Dippity early in the morning?"
    • "A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou" ... "Name three things that have yeast."
    • "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" ... "How do you tell Marcello Mastroianni his doo-dah is open?"
    • "Three Dog Night" ... "What's a bad night for a tree?"

The Carnac joke that garnered the biggest laugh, and Ed McMahon's personal favorite, as he discussed on several talk shows :

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!"

  • "Floyd R. Turbo", a dimwitted yokel responding to a TV station editorial. Floyd always spoke haltingly, as though reading from cue cards, and railed against some newsworthy topic, like Secretaries' Day: "This raises the question: Kiss my Dictaphone!"
  • "Art Fern", the fast-talking host of a "Tea Time Movie" program, who advertised inane products, assisted by the attractive Matinee Lady, played by Paula Prentiss (late 1960s), Carol Wayne (the most familiar Matinee Lady, 1971-82), Danuta Wesley (1984), and Teresa Ganzel (1985-92). The fake movies Art would introduce usually had eclectic casts ("Ben Blue, Red Buttons, Jesse White, and Karen Black") and nonsensical titles ("Rin-Tin-Tin Gets Fixed Fixed Fixed"), followed by a four-second stock film clip before coming back for another commercial. On giving directions to a fake store he was touting, Fern would show a spaghetti-like road map, sometimes with a literal "fork in the road", other times making the joke, "Go to the Slauson Cutoff...", and the audience would recite with him, "...cut off your Slauson!" The character was previously named "Honest Bernie Schlock" and then "Ralph Willie" when the Tea Time sketches first aired in the mid to late 1960s. At least one surviving pre-1972 Art Fern sketch that originated from New York had its movie show title as "The Big Flick", an amalgam of two movie show titles in use at the time by New York station WOR-TVmarker, The Big Preview and The Flick. On that sketch Lee Meredith was the Matinee Lady.
  • "Aunt Blabby", an old woman whose appearance and speech pattern bore more than a passing resemblance to comedian Jonathan Winters' character "Maude Frickert". A frequent theme would be McMahon happening to mention a word or phrase that could suggest death, as in "What tourist attractions did you check out?," to which Aunt Blabby would respond, "Never say check out to an old person!"
  • "El Mouldo", mysterious mentalist. He would announce some mind-over-manner feat and always fail, although triumphantly shouting "El Mouldo has done it again!" Ed McMahon would take exception, noting El Mouldo's failure. "Did I fail before?" asked El Mouldo. "Yes!," replied McMahon, to which El Mouldo said, "Well, I've done it again!"
  • "Ronald Reagan". During Reagan's term in office, Carson developed an accurate impersonation of the president that was featured regularly in Mighty Carson Art Players skits. Carson also did a less memorable impersonation of Jimmy Carter during his term as President.


  • "Stump the Band", where studio audience members ask the band to try to play obscure songs given only the title. Unlike when this routine was done during the Jack Paar years with the Jose Melis band, Doc's band almost never knew the song, but that did not stop them from inventing one on the spot. Example:
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.
  • "The Mighty Carson Art Players" (depending on one's point of view, the name was an obvious tribute to or ripoff of radio legend Fred Allen's Mighty Allen Art Players). While Carson's show was primarily a talk show, with performances by guests, periodically Carson and a group of stock performers would perform skits that spoofed news, movies, television shows, and commercials.
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.
  • "The Edge of Wetness", in which Johnny would read humorous plot summaries of a fictional soap opera (such as The Edge of Night) while the camera randomly chose an unsuspecting audience member who Carson claimed was, for example, the butler from the soap.

Programming history

  • October 1962-December 1966: Monday-Friday 11:15 p.m.-1:00 a.m.

When Carson took over from Jack Paar, he inherited a show that was 105 minutes long. The show was structured to have what appeared to be two openings, with one starting at 11:15 p.m. and including the monologue, and another which listed the guests and announced the host again, starting at 11:30. The two openings gave affiliates the option of having 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, from February 1965 to December 1966, Ed McMahon and Skitch Henderson began to co-host the first fifteen minutes of the show without Carson, who then took over at 11:30. Finally, because he wanted the show to start when he came on, Carson insisted on eliminating the 11:15 segment at the beginning of January 1967 (which, he once claimed in a monologue at the time, no one actually watched "except the Armed Forces and four Indians in Gallup, New Mexico").

  • January 1965-September 1966: Saturday or Sunday 11:15-1:00 a.m. (reruns, initially billed as The Saturday Tonight Show)

  • September 1966-September 1975: Saturday or Sunday 11:30-1:00 a.m. (reruns, now identified as The Saturday/Sunday Tonight Show; The Weekend Tonight Show by 1973)

  • January 1967-September 1980: Monday-Friday 11:30 p.m.-1:00 a.m.

  • September 1980-August 1991: Monday-Friday 11:30 p.m.-12:30 a.m.

Carson influenced the scheduling of reruns (which typically aired under the title The Best of Carson) in the mid-1970s and, later 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. In order to enable a shorter work week for himself, 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. In response to his demands, NBC began planning a new comedy/variety series to feed to affiliates on Saturday nights that debuted in October 1975 and is still airing as of 2009: Saturday Night Live. Five years later, Carson renewed his contract with a stipulation that the show lose its last half hour; Tom Snyder's Tomorrow expanded to 90 minutes in order to fill the resulting schedule gap. Despite the fact that a year and a half later, Tomorrow gave way to the hour-long Late Night with David Letterman (1982-1993; replaced by Late Night with Conan O'Brien and later Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, both also an hour in length), an hour remains the length of Tonight to this day.

  • September 1991-May 1992: Monday-Friday 11:35 p.m.-12:35 a.m.

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

In his tribute episode after Carson's death, David Letterman revealed that because of the great success of the Tonight Show, every talk show host since then – himself included – is secretly emulating Carson during his Tonight Show days.

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 they had signed three agreements since then, and Carson was therefore bound to the network until April 1981. While the case was settled out of court, the friction between Carson and the network remained. Eventually, Carson reached an agreement to appear four nights a week but cut the show from 90 to 60 minutes. In September 1980, Carson's eponymous production company gained ownership of the show.

Tape archives

Virtually all of the pre-1970 shows, including Carson's debut as host, are considered lost when, following standard procedure at the time, the videotapes were reused. 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-TVmarker, showed several clips of his appearances with Carson in a 2002 career retrospective on WWOR-TVmarker; Field had maintained the clips in his own personal archives.

The program archive is virtually complete from 1973 to 1992.

A large amount of material from Carson's first two decades of the Tonight Show (1962-1982), (much of it not seen since its original airings) appeared in a half hour "clip/compilation" syndicated program known as Carson's Comedy Classics which aired in 1983.

Although no footage is known to remain of Carson's first broadcast as host of The Tonight Show on 1 October 1962, photographs taken that night do survive, as does an audio recording of Carson's first monologue. One of his first jokes upon starting the show was to pretend to panic and say, "I want my Na-Na!" (This recording was played at the start of Carson's final broadcast on May 22, 1992.)

Thirty-minute audio recordings of many of these "missing" episodes are contained in the Library of Congressmarker 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 film archive in Kansasmarker.

Guest hosts

The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson had guest hosts each Monday for most of the show's run and sometimes for entire weeks during Johnny's frequent vacations. The following list is of those who guest hosted at least 50 times during the first 21 years of the show's run; it does not count the episodes hosted by the three "permanent guest hosts": Joan Rivers (1983-1986), Garry Shandling (1986-1987), and Jay Leno (1987-1992).

Carson had been an occasional guest host during the years when Jack Paar was the regular host, and Paar repeatedly claimed he had been the one to suggest to NBC that Carson replace him when he left the show in 1962.

On April 2, 1979, Kermit the Frog was guest-host. Additionally, many other Muppets appeared for skits and regular segments: Frank Oz voiced Fozzie Bear and Animal, while Jerry Nelson voiced a Vincent Price-based Muppet during a segment with the real Price.

Joan Rivers

In September 1983, Joan Rivers was designated Carson's permanent guest host, a role she had been essentially filling for more than a year before then. In 1986, she abruptly left for her own show on the then new Fox Network. This move — and her failure to inform him personally — infuriated Carson so much that he banned Rivers from his show, canceling even the three weeks of guest hosting she was scheduled to do in the remainder of the 1985–86 television season. Rivers' new show was quickly canceled, and she never appeared on The Tonight Show with Carson again. She never appeared during the seventeen years of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno either, a ban instigated by Leno out of respect for Carson. After Carson's death, 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 [June 1991] accidental death of Carson's son Ricky.

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

Carson's last shows

As his impending retirement approached, Carson tried to avoid too much sentimentality, but would periodically show clips of some of his favorite moments and revisit with some of his favorite guests.

But no one was quite prepared for Carson's next-to-last night, where he hosted his final guests, Robin Williams and Bette Midler. Williams was in top form with his manic energy and stream-of-consciousness lunacy. Midler, in contrast, found the emotional vein of the farewell. After the topic of their conversation turned to Johnny's favorite songs ("I'll Be Seeing You" and "Here's That Rainy Day"), Midler mentioned she knew a chorus of the latter. She began singing the song, and after the first line, Carson joined in and turned it into a touching impromptu duet. Midler finished her appearance when, from center stage, she slowly sang the pop standard "One for My Baby ." Carson became unexpectedly tearful, and a shot of the two of them was captured by a camera angle from across the set which had never been used before. This penultimate show was immediately recognized as a television classic, and Midler would win an Emmy Award for her role in it.

Carson did not have guests on his final episode of The Tonight Show. An estimated 50 million people watched this retrospective show, which ended with him sitting on a stool alone on the stage, similar to Jack Paar's last show. He gave these final words of goodbye:

During his final speech, Carson told the audience that he hoped to return to television with another project and that hopefully "will meet with your approval", and a few weeks after the final show aired it was announced that NBC and Carson had struck a deal to develop a new series, but ultimately he chose never to return to television with another show of his own. He only gave two major interviews after retiring. One was in 1993, another in 2002. Carson hinted in the December 1993 interview which was with Tom Shales of the Washington Post that he did not think he could top what he had already accomplished.


  1. However, in its first twelve months in Burbank, the show made two return visits to New York, in November 1972 and May 1973.
  2. Letterman delivers Carson-penned monologue February 1, 2005
  3. "Johnny Carson Calls This Man 'Bombastic' All the Way to Bank." The Wall Street Journal, June 8, 1980, p. 14.
  4. Johnny Carson: The Official Tonight Show Website, Clip Licensing.
  5. Peter W. Kaplan, "TV Notes", New York Times, July 28, 1984, sec. 1, p. 46.

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