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For the man who would ultimately reign as the all-time king of late-night, the beginning was humble enough: a 14 year-old boy performing magic at the local Rotary Club in Norfolk, Nebraska in 1939.
"The Great Carsoni" may have been the first of Johnny's stage personae, but it would hardly be his last. Following stints as a disc jockey (KFAB, Lincoln, Nebraska), joke writer (for Red Skelton, among others), and game show host ("Earn Your Vacation"), Carson finally got his shot on the late-night stage in 1962.
As host of NBC's talk fest. The Tonight Show, he stepped into some very over-sized shoes. The roster of the show's hosts before him included Steve Allen, Ernie Kovacs, Groucho Marx, and Jack Paar, among others. But Carson quickly connected with his audience -- and ultimately turned the host chair into a throne. For 30 years, he ruled the airwaves with a nightly mix of topical humor, one-liners, cornball comedy sketches, and a galaxy of guests.
With an impish smile, Midwestern affability, and swift wit, Carson made a virtue out of unpredictable guests, and jokes that bombed. It was part of his plan from the start, as foretold in this joke from his very first monologue: "This show is kind of like television roulette ... We booked four or five guests and hope that one of them shows up loaded."
The guest list would go on to read like an encyclopedia of show business, from legends like Cary Grant, Orson Wells, Liz Taylor, and Bob Hope to (then) up-and-comers Will Smith, Kevin Costner, Jodie Foster, and Sean Penn. A disarming interviewer, Carson was able to bring out the best in his subjects, treating them with equal graciousness, whether they were Hollywood royalty or children, novelty acts or astronauts, animal tamers, politicians, or athletes. And of course he loved comedians, creating early breaks for dozens of top names, including Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Robin Williams, Ellen Degeneres, Billy Crystal, Joan Rivers, Flip Wilson and George Carlin to name a few.
Carson's opening monologue, typically a series of one-liners based on the day's events, set the standard for almost every talk show that's followed. "Heeeere's Johnny!" his friend and announcer Ed McMahon would intone (a phrase later immortalized by Jack Nicholson in "The Shining"). As Doc Severinson's big band wailed, a smiling Johnny would emerge from behind a multi-colored curtain and proceed to give the nation's adults their nightly bedtime stories. No one was safe from the observational ribbing -- least of all Carson himself. His sway over popular opinion was powerful enough that politicians soon realized regular visits to Tonight were an essential act of self-preservation and promotion.
His characters and sketches provided a showcase for his performing talents. Among the enduring bits were Carnac the Magnificent, Art Fern, Floyd Turbo, and any number of movie spoofs featuring the ever-evolving cast of his Marty Carson Art Players.
Johnny Carson passed away in January 2005. As his friend Jerry Lewis remarked: "All of us who came after are pretenders. We will not see the likes of him again ... He was the best, a star and a gentleman."