The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson is an American Talk Show hosted by Johnny Carson under the Tonight Show franchise. It ran on NBC from from October 1, 1962 through Carson's retirement on May 22, 1992.
It originally aired during late-night. For its first decade, Johnny Carson's The Tonight Show was based at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York City, with some episodes recorded at NBC-TV's West Coast studios in the Los Angeles suburb of Burbank, California; on May 1, 1972, the show moved to Burbank as its main venue and remained there exclusively after May 1973 until the end. Along the way, the show's massive popularity made it the Trope Codifier for the talk show format in general, as well as a major influence on every talk show that followed it.
In 2002, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson was ranked No. 12 on TV Guide's 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time, and in 2013 it was ranked No. 22 on their list of 60 Best Series.
The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson features examples of:
- Added Alliterative Appeal: One of the most famous sketches on the show involved Jack Webb, playing his Dragnet character Sgt. Joe Friday, asking Johnny about his stolen "clappers". Among the words that started with "C" (or used the "C/K" sound) used in the sketch: Clappers, caper, copper, closet, Claude Cooper, copped, Cleveland, clean, kleptomaniac, cleaning woman, Clara Clifford, clobber.
- The Alcoholic: A Running Gag with Ed McMahon. Just one example, during an animal segment where a kinkajou crawled on Ed:Johnny: Obviously, the smell of olives attracted him.
- Award Show: The Sniveling Weasel Awards, where Johnny's lovely assistant would let loose a weasel to choose between five food bowls representing Academy Award nominees. This sketch would find a Spiritual Successor on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon with "Puppy Predictions", about the Super Bowl.
- Baa-Bomb: "Sis boom bah!"
- Big Brother Is Watching: For a few shows in 1984, a big eye was placed in the background, as a tribute to Nineteen Eighty-Four. However, it freaked out some viewers (and others were too fixated on the eye and couldn't concentrate on Johnny's punchlines) so he got rid of it.
- Bigger Than Jesus: In one of the interviews with Charles Grodin, Grodin addressed something Carson said in an earlier interview, when he said that $18.95 isn't too much for a book if you're Mother Teresa. Grodin found that "insulting", but Carson explained that Grodin isn't as famous as Teresa. Grodin asked if Carson considers himself as famous as Teresa. Carson's reply? "Of course not!... (reconsiders) I might be."Carson: I don't do as much good work as she does...
Grodin: You certainly don't.
- The Bus Came Back: Previous host Jack Paar was invited back many times.Carson: Why did you give up hosting The Tonight Show? You could have been here a lot longer...you could have been here today. Why did you give it up?
Paar: Well, you needed the work...
- By-the-Book Cop: A sketch from 1981, stemming from a court case that ruled taping TV shows illegal, parodied The Untouchables with Johnny as an Elliot Ness-esque character who went around busting down doors of households watching taped shows for their own personal use.
- Call-Back: Charles Grodin would often bring up things Johnny said in a previous interview. In some cases, this could be a year beforehand.
- Calling the Old Man Out: Charles Grodin frequently accused Carson of not caring about the questions he asked, and often refused to answer them without a lot of goading.Carson: In what way were you different [from earlier in your life]?
Grodin: ...Do you care what way I was different?
Carson: Not a whit. [audience laughs] Of course I do! We do this every time you come out here!
Grodin: Well you don't care how I was different!
Carson: Of course I do.
Grodin: You don't care how I wrote the book, you don't care what's in the book, you don't care that I'm referred to as a "zen master" in a major literary review of this book, that it says it has echoes of James Thurber, Andy Rooney, that the stores are already buying it more, it's not even been officially published, you don't care about all that plug stuff. It's true.
Grodin: In fact, it offends you, it upsets you, it irritates you. You resent it, you resent it.
- Casanova Wannabe: Art Fern.
- "Heeeeeeeeeerrrrreeee's JOHNNY!"
- Carson would say "It's ____ today." The audience would reply in unison: "How ____ was it??", prompting Carson to do the punchline.
- Whenever a joke would bomb, Carson would jump up, grab the boom mic, bring it close to his mouth (to get the desire echoing effect), and yell: "Attention K-Mart shoppers!"
- During the Carnac the Magnificent sketches, Ed would use many of the same phrases each time, like the "hermetically-sealed" envelopes, which have been sitting in a "#2 mayonnaise jar on Funk and Wagnalls' porch since noon today. NO ONE, knows the contents of these envelopes, but you, in your borderline divine and mystical way, will ascertain the answers having never before seen the questions." And after Carnac's gone through a bunch of envelopes, Ed would announce: "I hold in my hand, the last envelope", prompting audience cheering.
- Art Fern had many phrases that he used in most every sketch: "Drive until you come to... the Fork in the Road!"; "Got no job? We don't care. Got a bad credit rating? We don't care. Got a prison record? We don't care. Don't expect to pay us? THAT'S when we care!"
- Clumsy Copyright Censorship: The reruns on Antenna TV omit any instance where "Tea For Two" is played by the band, replacing it with generic piano music. It's weird to see Johnny dance along to what's obviously a different song.
- Couch Gag:
- Ed's introduction of Carnac the Magnificent always has something different for one of Carnac's previous jobs.
- One segment would have Johnny reading off real TV shows that are debuting in the fall or midseason, and Ed would reply in great length that those are the only new shows debuting, prompting Johnny to reply "WRONG, [insert noun] breath!" before reading the fake/comedic ones.
- Early Installment Weirdness: People who grew up with the Jay Leno incarnation of the show onwards might be surprised that yes, the show used to be an hour and forty-five minutes long. The show was eventually cut down to ninety minutes in 1966 after Carson learned that many affiliates were preempting the first fifteen minutes for local programming and refused to come on until later. For a while, Ed McMahon would do a solo set before introducing Johnny at the point when all the affiliates switched over to the main feed. In 1980, the show reduced its running time to the present sixty minutes. One example of how long it could go is in the Christmas 1979 episode, which featured a very funny opening segment of Johnny and Ed looking at popular toys of the time which took up three segments and lasted about 26 minutes.
- Everything's Better with Monkeys: Carson would frequently have zoology experts like Jack Hanna on, with various animals for him to interact with.
- Failed Future Forecast: Occasionally, after a brand new comedian does their set, Johnny will say something like, "You'll be seeing them a lot". He wasn't always right; some of them faded into obscurity.
- 15 Minutes of Fame: Carson's Tonight Show was famous for featuring both celebrities and non-celebrities who happened to have a unique quirk (like the woman who collected potato chips that looked like famous people) or who won a contest (like spelling bee champs). Aside from Letterman's Late Show, this practice didn't really carry over to many of the late night talk shows, with the hosts mostly sticking to celebrities promoting their latest movies/shows, as well as musicians and stand-up comics.
- Fun with Acronyms: In one Carnac sketch:Johnny: KKK, IRS, UCLA. (opens envelope) How do you spell "Kkkirsucla?"
- Game Show Appearance: One Mighty Carson Art Players sketch had Carson playing President Ronald Reagan as a contestant on Family Feud.Richard Dawson: Name something you'd find on a farm. [Reagan buzzes in] Yes! Name something you'd find on a farm.
Ronald Reagan: ...Well...
Richard Dawson: Is there a well? [top answer] There's a well!
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: Art Fern again."Piths off!"
- One "Consumer Supporter" sketch featured the name Fu K Yu.
- Groin Attack: Accidentally carried out on a wooden target by actor Ed Ames during an axe-throwing demonstration. The entire audience went into hysterics for over a minute, and their efforts to stop laughing were not at all aided by a circumcision joke from Johnny in its wake that ensured the segment's immortality as a high point in his career.
- Head Pet: Johnny's encounter with an undiapered pygmy marmoset is a blooper-reel favorite.
- Hypocrisy Nod: A 1991 episode had a monologue joke about Delta Burke wanting to get paid for an episode of Designing Women she wasn't in. The punchline: "Can you imagine someone wanting to get paid for something they didn't do?"note
- Immediate Self-Contradiction: In 1986, Johnny interviewed four Playboy Bunnies, and some audience members snickered at a comment that could've been interpreted two ways. Johnny admonished them, saying it was a serious interview, then turned back to the Bunny and said, "Go ahead, baby."
- Ironic Echo: Used numerous times during any interview with Charles Grodin, for comedic effect.
- Leno Device: Ur-Example, though he didn't use it nearly as much as Leno did.
- Long List: A sketch about kids' letters to Santa from 1981 had one kid who made a list of everything they wanted for Christmas, which went on for four pages.Carson: (reading the end of the letter) "There's more, but I'm too tired to write it."
- Mood-Swinger: Done for laughs by Bob Newhart in one of Johnny's last shows:Newhart: Uh, I've been watching the shows, it's very good.
Carson: Thank you, we've had a lot of fun.
Newhart: Y'know, I saw Buddy, and it's been, and I know you don't like maudlin kind of, y'know, things.
Carson: We're both the same.
Newhart: We're very similar, we're from the Midwest, we kinda hold- DON'T GO, JOHNNY!!! DON'T GO, JOHNNY!!!
- Must Have Nicotine: Due to the changing views towards smoking, Carson eventually stopped smoking on screen. That didn't mean he stopped smoking on set. He would hold a lit cigarette on his lap and take discrete puffs whenever the monitor showed that he wasn't in the shot, exhaling upwards to keep the smoke from showing on screen. His desk even had a special fan installed to draw away the smoke from his hidden cigarette.
- Off the Rails:
- Once an Episode: Carson making fun of last night's "bad" crowd during the monologue.
- Overly Long Gag:
- Carson's purposefully-long intro to Bill Clinton in 1988 might just be the absolute longest guest introduction in history, clocking in at about 2 1/2 minutes. This speech was likely a reference to Clinton's notoriously long speech at the Democratic National Convention that year to introduce candidate Michael Dukakis, which many thought would end his political career.Carson: My, uh, my first guest tonight became a media celebrity last week when he delivered the nominating speech for Michael Dukakis at the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. Uh, Bill Clinton is a four-time governor of Arkansas. He was the nation's youngest governor when he was first elected in 1978, at the age of 32. In a recent Newsweek poll, he was voted one of the five most effective governors in the country. [beat] He also oversaw Arkansas's once-depressed state economy... [audience begins to laugh] rebound to prosperity through his programs of welfare reform, public health plans, and consumer protection, including a tight rein on utility rates. From his capitol office building in Little Rock, Governor Clinton has helped remold his state into a competitive player in economic business and industry, while maintaining his state's traditional homestead heritage and rugged natural beauty. Marvelous to have him on the show, but that's just part of the Bill Clinton story. His family and friends remember Bill as an idealistic and determined young man who earned his Bachelor's Degree from Georgetown University, later graduating from Yale Law School. Like fellow Democrat, New Jersey Senator Bradley, who shares the first name "Bill", Governor Clinton expanded his horizons as a Rhodes Scholar, studying at England's renowned Oxford University. He returned to America... [audience laughs] with a renewed fervor, and while still a law student, ran George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign in Texas. Two years later, he lost the congressional race, but won widespread public admiration, and was easily elected Attorney General at 29, two years after that. And it's great to have him here. He's also the past chairman... [audience laughs] of the education committees of the state, and author of the comprehensive report on the importance of leadership in education reform. It gives me great pleasure to welcome a man who currently serves as the Vice Chairman of the Democratic Governor's Association, and who has shown America that Arkansas is more than just trees and Hot Springs National Park. Much more. There's Blanchard Springs Caverns... [audience laughs] There's the country's only active diamond mine. Arkansas is the birthplace of cosmopolitan publisher Helen Gurley Brown, singers Glen Campbell and Johnny Cash, and the late actor Alan Ladd, best known for his performance in the Academy Award winning film, Shane. [two audience members start chanting "We want Bill!"] Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton, a man who Hernando De Soto might have had in mind when he discovered this territory called Arkansas back in 1541. Of course, back then it was owned by France, then Spain, then France again. Then it was sold as part of the now-famous Louisiana Purchase, which brings us full-circle to my first guest. Bill Clinton, a man who loves his state, from its eastern delta to its southern lowland forests, all the way up to its western highlands, which includes, of course, the Ozark Plateau. And in conclusion... [audience cheers] Here's a man who needs no introduction, the honorable Bill Clinton of Arkansas!
- Carnac (Carson) would often complain that Ed's explanations during the Carnac the Magnificent sketches got longer and longer each time he did them, often joking that he doesn't have enough time to do the sketch.
- Carson's purposefully-long intro to Bill Clinton in 1988 might just be the absolute longest guest introduction in history, clocking in at about 2 1/2 minutes. This speech was likely a reference to Clinton's notoriously long speech at the Democratic National Convention that year to introduce candidate Michael Dukakis, which many thought would end his political career.
- Precious Puppies: During the early years while the show was broadcast live, Ed McMahon would do in studio advertisements for Alpo dog food, which included an eager dog waiting to eat the stuff. One night the dog ignored the food and walked offstage, leaving Johnny to quickly fill in, sitting up for Ed in one famous blooper.
- Product Placement: One skit involved Carson as Hamlet, reciting the famous Alas, Poor Yorick monologue, except inserting product plugs after certain words. Among the items Hamlet plugged included AAMCO, Mentholatum deep heating rub, Preparation H, and American Express.
- PSA: Parodied in a recurring sketch where Johnny would record multiple PSAs for a variety of causes in a row. Just one example:Johnny: Johnny Carson here, to talk about a crime not often discussed in polite society. I'm talking about lumberjacks who use innocent woodland animals as a Frisbee. Next time you stroll through a forest and you spot men in plaid shirts tossing a furry creature, turn them in. Contact "Beaver Heavers, Tacoma, Washington."
- Re-Release Soundtrack:
- The Antenna TV reruns feature a different ending instrumental than the original airings. Thankfully, the iconic opening theme is intact (albeit with different visuals).
- Speaking of the Antenna TV reruns, the music coming back from commercials has been replaced by various stock music pieces. Once you know that, it's a little weird seeing Ed praise Doc and the NBC Orchestra, since they didn't actually play the songs.
- Samus Is a Girl: One of the most famous skits involved Johnny pretending to be a cowboy but revealing that he was a woman. Only catch is, when he removed his hat, he accidentally removed his wig with it, essentially derailing the skit and ending it early ("Screw it, let's go!").
- Sex Sells: The Matinee Lady, who appears in every Art Fern sketch.
- Shaped Like Itself: 93-year old guest Florence Hodges said she was from Dothan, Alabama, leading to this exchange:Johnny: Where is that?
Florence: It's in Alabama.
- The Shelf of Movie Languishment: Invoked: Nearly every time Robert Blake was on in the late '70s and early '80s, he complained that one of his movies, Second-Hand Hearts, kept being delayed for release by the studio. Johnny agreed to show a different clip from the movie every time Robert was on, so that if he was a guest often enough, the audience would eventually see all of it.
- The Matinee Lady as portrayed by Teresa Ganzel is virtually identical to her character in National Lampoon's Movie Madness.
- On September 7, 1973, the Mighty Carson Art Players performed a parody of Lost Horizon. Ed introduces the segment by implying that it will be worse than the recent Box Office Bomb.
- Sidekick: Ed McMahon.
- Signature Laugh: McMahon's deep belly-laugh. Hi-ho!
- Smoking Is Cool: Many of Carson's celebrity guests smoked, and unashamedly lit up on the set. Carson prominently kept a wooden cigarette box on his desk (Don Rickles accidentally smashing the box's lid and Johnny subsequently berating him for it is a TV classic). There were frequent instances where five or more people on the set (Carson and McMahon included) had lighted cigarettes in hand at any one time, with ashtrays provided. By the early 1980s, with the habit becoming less socially acceptable and health risks becoming better known, Carson and McMahon stopped smoking on screen; McMahon ultimately quit, while Carson continued his pack-plus-a-day habit for most of the rest of his life, ultimately dying in 2005 of respiratory failure brought on by emphysema.
- Spin-Off: Of sorts. In July of 2013 Turner Classic Movies aired a five-part series hosted by Conan O'Brien called Carson on TMC; each episode consisting of five classic Carson Tonight Show interviews with stars such as George Burns, Elizabeth Taylor, and Henry Fonda.
- Stealth Insult: Done repeatedly in any interview with Charles Grodin. Of course, this supposed bitterness was all part of the act. Example: When Carson was accused of not reading Grodin's latest book:Carson: I've read the book cover to cover.Grodin: You have?Carson: Yes I have.Grodin: And?Carson: ...It's a very long book.
- The Stoic: Carson nicknamed Tommy Newsom (sax player and replacement bandleader whenever Doc was out) "Mr. Excitement".
- Take That!: When Bette Davis was interviewed in 1988, Johnny asked her if there's any actor who she'd never work with again. Without hesitation, she replied "Faye Dunaway". She called Faye impossible, and claimed you could sit any actor in her chair and they'd say the same thing.
- Taps: The band plays Taps whenever an attempted comic bit dies.
- Tempting Fate: Carson has more than once made a point to never oversell a comedy sketch for this very reason:Ed: This is gonna be something hilarious, you're trying to tell us.
Johnny: No, we don't say that. [Ed chuckles] We say this, possibly, could be amusing.
- Tongue-Tied: On a 1986 episode, Johnny called a film a "flim".
- Too Much Information: Johnny asked Charles Grodin what the worst time in his life was, and Grodin agreed to answer if Johnny answered. Johnny replied: "When I first got divorced." Grodin snarked, "See, I would never reveal anything that personal."
- Ugly Slavic Women: Watch some old (uncensored) monologues — at least once a week Carson would make a joke about how mind-numbingly ugly Slavic women were. And, since he was the most respected comedian in America, everyone copied him.
- Vanity Plate: The Carson Entertainment logo on the Antenna TV reruns features a coffee mug on Carson's desk while a sound bite from Carson plays, "I'm humbled by that applause."
- Vitriolic Best Buds: Johnny Carson and Charles Grodin.
- Who's on First?: A variant occurs in a skit where Carson played Ronald Reagan being briefed on his day's activities by his aide. One of the most memorable exchanges was Reagan reviewing his plans to go swimming with James G. Watt at the YMCA.Carson: Who?