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JOHNNY CARSON | 1925-2005

Comedian Defined Late-Night TV

'Tonight Show' Host Dominated Airwaves and Helped Launch Careers

January 24, 2005|Brian Lowry and Scott Collins | Special to The Times

"I wake up in a sweat," he said. "It's now been 10 years since I've been done with the job, but I will still be back there -- it was two-thirds of my adult life, remember -- and people will be as real and fresh and current as ever in the dream."

Carson did exhibit some signs of wanting to safeguard his legacy. In 2003, for example, he wrote the Wall Street Journal to correct a reference to the use of canned laughter on the program, stressing that he never did during his 30-year tenure.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday January 26, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Johnny Carson obituary -- The obituary of late-night TV star Johnny Carson in Monday's Section A said he worked at television station KNXT when he came to Los Angeles in 1950. The station's call letters at the time were KTSL-TV.

"I don't mean to sound peevish," Carson said, "but I wouldn't want people's memories of 'The Tonight Show' to be dimmed because they believed the laughter they heard wasn't genuine."

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Carson, as the host, was how effortless he made "The Tonight Show" look. His monologue, never rehearsed, seemed to perfectly capture the tone necessary to let people unwind. He also seemed to possess an innate understanding of the rhythms and pacing of television.

"It should be low-key," Carson once told reporter Rick Du Brow, then at the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. "It's the end of the day. People watching don't want someone who looks like they're going to have a nervous breakdown."

In a sense, Carson was the perfect personality for television -- reflecting the generation following the great radio stars such as Jack Benny and Hope, one that grew up with the medium.

"I use the camera," Carson said. "I remember seeing a silent film from the '20s with Oliver Hardy sighing directly into the camera. I can't explain how perfect that sigh was. It's like trying to explain comedy."

Lassally said that even in retirement Carson never lost his passion for comedy and was still finding plenty of material from reading the newspaper.

"I think the thing he misses the most is the monologue," Lassally said.

Some attribute part of Carson's vast appeal to his Midwestern roots and sensibility.

Born in Corning, Iowa, Carson was raised in Norfolk, Neb., where he began his career as a teenager, performing a magic act he called "The Great Carsoni."

Unlike the comics he admired, many of whom were from poor backgrounds, Carson enjoyed relative prosperity even during the Depression as the son of a district manager for the power company. He was a middle child, with an older sister, Catherine, and younger brother, Dick, who later worked as a director on "The Tonight Show" and other TV programs.

Carson served in the Navy (a ship he was on, the Pennsylvania, was torpedoed in August 1945, killing nearly 20 of his crew mates) and subsequently attended the University of Nebraska.

Honing his act by performing during college, he landed a job after graduation at a local radio station -- WOW in Omaha -- where he wrote comedy and announced commercials. Not long after the first TV station in the area signed on in 1949, Carson started to host a 15-minute TV show, "Squirrel's Nest."

The comic moved to Los Angeles in 1950, becoming a staff announcer at the local CBS station, KNXT (now KCBS-TV Channel 2), which led to his own program, "Carson's Cellar." He subsequently wrote for Red Skelton's TV show.

Carson ascended to network television at the age of 29, headlining a daytime show and substituting on CBS' "The Morning Show." In 1957, he became host of what became a popular ABC daytime show, "Who Do You Trust?" which first paired him with McMahon.

When Paar decided to leave "The Tonight Show," NBC saw Carson as the obvious replacement. Desperate to have him, the network used guest hosts for six months until Carson -- who initially turned down the job -- was free of his ABC contract.

His starting salary, $100,000 a year, eventually blossomed into millions (his earnings reportedly exceeded $20 million a year by 1990). Carson owned the sketches on his show as well, which were packaged and sold separately to TV stations under the name "Carson's Comedy Classics."

Carson moved "The Tonight Show" from New York to Burbank -- which became another regular target for jokes -- in 1972. He also pressed to cut the show from 90 minutes (it originally ran 1 hour and 45 minutes) to an hour in 1980 and threatened to quit to get the network to do so.

NBC resisted, resulting in a public and protracted contract negotiation. The network eventually caved in, however, giving Carson ownership of the show itself in the process. This was not surprising since "The Tonight Show" accounted for nearly a fifth of the network's total profit from advertising revenue.

Carson was equally successful as a headliner in Las Vegas, and he negotiated extended vacation time (as well as Mondays off) that allowed him to perform there frequently.

If Carson was a king in the entertainment world, his personal life was thornier. He remained an inordinately private person for such a public figure, but the facts that came out often seemed at odds with his genial on-screen image.

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