On This Day: ‘The Johnny Carson Show’ Premieres in 1955

by Jennifer Shea

To many people, Johnny Carson was the silver-haired late-night host who presided over “The Tonight Show” for decades. But once upon a time, Carson was a fresh-faced neophyte with his own variety show.

On this day in 1955, “The Johnny Carson Show” launched. Carson got the gig because he’d been a comedy writer on “The Red Skelton Show,” according to the Daytona Beach Morning Journal. When Skelton injured his neck during a show rehearsal, Carson took his place. CBS executives were so impressed by Carson’s performance that they gave him his own show, “The Johnny Carson Show,” on Thursday nights at 10 p.m.

Sadly, “The Johnny Carson Show” only lasted one year. CBS canceled it due to low ratings. But the variety show format informed Carson’s later work on “The Tonight Show.”

Johnny Carson Rose to Fame from Humble Roots

Carson was born in Iowa and raised in Nebraska. He found his show business calling at age 14 when he began performing a magic act as “The Great Carsoni.”

The future comedian served in the Navy during World War II, then worked his way up in Nebraska’s local radio and TV stations before heading out to Los Angeles in 1950, according to the Associated Press.

Before he got his big break on “The Red Skelton Show,” Carson created a sketch comedy show, “Carson’s Cellar.” That show lasted until 1953.

It wasn’t until 1958 that Carson sat in for the then-host of “The Tonight Show,” Jack Paar. By the time Paar departed four years later, NBC executives had their hearts set on Carson to replace him.

Carson’s ‘Tonight Show’ Years

During his years on the late-night talk show, Carson became an iconic figure. He took shots at President Nixon, accepted a Presidential Medal of Freedom from then-President George H.W. Bush in 1992 and provided an opportunity for then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton to salvage his image with a saxophone performance after a boring convention speech.

In the 1980s, Carson became the highest-paid performer in television history. When he retired in 1992, Carson was at the top of his game. Bette Midler serenaded him with “One More For My Baby” on his way out.

Carson died in 2005 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles of emphysema. The late-night host had been a heavy smoker for years.

Upon hearing news of his death, then-President George W. Bush said in a statement that Carson had been “a steady and reassuring presence in homes across America for three decades. His wit and insight made Americans laugh and think and had a profound influence on American life and entertainment.”