Happy Birthday Johnny Carson: Remembering ‘Tonight Show’ Icon on Would-Be 96th

by Joe Rutland

Johnny Carson, who would go from a Nebraska-native magician to fame on the “Tonight Show,” would have been 96 on Saturday.

Carson, who ruled over late-night television from his perch atop NBC’s programming, was born on Oct. 23, 1925, in Corning, Iowa. His family would move to Nebraska when he was 8 years old.

He was in radio and Carson’s early TV work included a variety show called “The Johnny Carson Show” between 1955-56 as well as a game show called “Who Do You Trust?” on ABC. All that’s to say the game show led NBC to ask Carson to take over “Tonight” as it was called from Jack Parr, who was leaving. Carson declined at first, then NBC got him to sign on in February 1962.

Johnny Carson Takes Over ‘Tonight Show’ Host Duties on Oct. 1, 1962

His first night as host was on Oct. 1, 1962, with Ed McMahon as his announcer alongside bandleader Skitch Henderson. Later, Doc Severinsen would take over that role. Carson remained the show’s host until May 22, 1992. That final show was estimated to have drawn 50 million viewers, according to Biography.

It was from that position Carson made his show the “must-see” show for comedians. Jerry Seinfeld, Roseanne Barr, David Brenner, and Drew Casey are just a handful of comics that went on from a “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” appearance to fame and fortune.

Carson was influenced by comic legend Jack Benny. It’s Benny who the host would mimic but also learn how to do a monologue. He also managed to create characters like Art Fern and his “Tea Time Theater” along with Floyd R. Turbow.

Carson Held ‘King of Late Night’ Moniker Throughout His Entire Career

But his career also suffered from multiple marriages that became the butt of jokes, especially around alimony payments. There were clashes with stars like Raymond Burr, Wayne Newton, and Joan Rivers.

Still, the “Tonight Show” host truly became the “King of Late Night.” It is said that Carson wanted longtime guest host and friend David Letterman to take over when he retired. NBC chose Jay Leno. Carson never appeared with Leno on his NBC show but made numerous appearances on Letterman’s “The Late Show” on CBS.

Carson, a lifelong smoker, died on Jan. 23, 2005, at 79 years old. He’d suffered from emphysema in the latter months of his life. A few days after Carson’s death, Letterman invited longtime “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” executive producer Peter Lassally, Severinsen, and Tommy Newsome of the show’s band. They appeared in a special “The Late Show” dedicated to Johnny Carson. Severinsen and Newsome, along with band drummer Ed Shaughnessy, performed Carson’s favorite song, “Here’s That Rainy Day.”