On this day in 1925, John William Carson, who will become known to most of America as the longtime host of the popular late-night TV program The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, is born in Corning, Iowa. As host of the highly rated Tonight Show, which aired on NBC from 1962 to 1992, Carson became a bona fide American institution and entertainment icon.
Carson grew up in Norfolk, Nebraska, served in the U.S. Navy and attended the University of Nebraska. By the early 1950s, he was living in California and working in radio and the then-new medium of television. He later moved to New York City, and in 1957 became host of the popular game show Who Do You Trust? In 1958, Carson appeared on The Tonight Show as a substitute for host Jack Paar. The Tonight Show had originated in 1951 in Los Angeles as a radio program hosted by Steve Allen. In 1954, the program moved to TV and in 1956, Jack Parr replaced Allen as the host. Carson took over permanent hosting duties from Parr on October 1, 1962. He hosted the show from New York City until 1972, when it relocated to Burbank, California.
Each edition of The Tonight Show began with Carson’s sidekick Ed McMahon announcing “Heeere’s Johnny!” Carson, who became known for his relaxed, affable stage presence and dapper appearance, performed an opening monologue of jokes, punctuated by his trademark golf swing. Following the monologue, he would banter with McMahon and the show’s bandleader, Doc Severinsen, and would sometimes perform skits and play characters such as Carnac the Magnificent, an “all-knowing seer,” and the gossipy Aunt Blabby. Carson then conducted celebrity interviews. The Tonight Show featured the day’s biggest movie and TV stars, as well as athletes, politicians, singers, comedians and animal acts. According to his New York Times obituary: “During his reign, Mr. Carson was the most powerful single performer on television. He discovered or promoted new talent like Barbra Streisand and David Letterman; provided a consistent spotlight for show business warhorses like Don Rickles and Buddy Hackett; advanced the careers of emerging stars like Woody Allen, Steve Martin and, of course, his successor, Jay Leno; and helped keep older performers like Jimmy Stewart and William Demarest in the public eye.”
In addition to hosting the hugely successful Tonight Show, Carson served as master of ceremonies for the Academy Awards five times during the late 1970s and 1980s. After deciding to retire from The Tonight Show, he hosted his final program on May 22, 1992. The comedian Jay Leno took over hosting duties the following day. After retiring, Carson, who was married four times, stayed out of the public spotlight. He died of complications from emphysema on January 23, 2005, at the age of 79.