The undisputed King of Late Night talk show hosts, Johnny Carson (1925-2009) made his debut on October 1, 1962 at the NBC studio in New York City (before moving permanently to southern California in 1973).
Carson, along with his sidekicks Ed McMahon and band leader Doc Severinson, created the formula for late-night talk shows. Carson’s “current events” comedic monologue, featuring deadpan looks for jokes that bombed and sly grins for those that hit the mark, was legendary. After the first commercial break it was time for sketch comedy featuring characters like the psychic Carnac the Magnificent, yokel Floyd R. Turbo, salesman Art Fern or a spot on impersonation of Ronald Reagan. For the rest of the broadcast it was guest interviews with the Hollywood elite, pop culture icons, and national news makers. Carson also spotlighting up and coming stand-up comics.
The Tonight Show debuted in 1954 with host Steve Allen, followed by Jack Paar (1957-1962), but it was Johnny Carson that made the show must-see NBC television. After 1992, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Fallon hosted, but nobody match the charisma, comedy or command as Carson. In many ways, late night talk shows began and ended with Carson, although younger viewers eventually flocked to hip hosts like David Letterman, Arsenio Hall and Jon Stewart in the 1990s and 2000s.
Nevertheless, for those born between 1940 and 1975, Johnny Carson was late night. In my home, we rarely missed Carson’s monologue and sketch before heading for bed. In fact, even in my 1980s college years, Johnny Carson was my “warm glass of milk” at bedtime.
And the final curtain call happened on this date in 1992.