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Johnny Carson

Johnny Carson was born on October 23, 1925, in Corning, IA. He was raised in Norfolk, NE, and attended the University of Nebraska. The actor/comedian was the host of NBC's Tonight Show from 1962 to 1992 and, though he inherited the hosting duties of the program from Jack Parr, defined the show and became the icon for late night television. For those 30 years, Johnny Carson was arguably the most popular entertainer in the country and America's most identifiable celebrity on television. Carson served in the Navy from 1943 to 1946 and moved to California in 1950, where he began working in television and radio. The first show he hosted was called Carson's Cellar and aired in 1951. He also wrote and performed on The Red Skelton Show in 1954. In 1956, Carson moved to New York City and he hosted the television game show Who Do You Trust? from 1958 to 1963. During that show's successful run as ABC's top daytime program, Carson was invited to appear on The Tonight Show. His first guest appearance was in 1958 and in 1962, Carson began a 30-year job as the show's frontman. Interestingly, he co-wrote the famous "Johnny's Theme" that opened each show with Paul Anka in 1962 and receives residuals from each daily performance to this day. The first guest of the Carson era was Groucho Marx, who introduced Carson to his new audience. Johnny Carson became known for his relaxed manner, witty commentary, and impersonations. His opening monologue became a national institution and Carson was trusted to such a degree that when he jokingly announced a shortage on toilet paper in 1973, it truly became "the Great Toilet Paper Shortage of 1973." Reports of hoarding and buying extreme quantities were off-kilter proof of his societal impact. Critics sung the praises of his monologues, describing its import in glowing terms: "a magnifying glass on American culture," and "a national institution." Johnny Carson was the most valuable asset in television, making The Tonight Show NBC's biggest money maker and its most consistently high-rated program. Carson was the last person millions of Americans saw before going to sleep every night and The Tonight Show became a cultural tradition that spanned generations and races. Known for a combination of Midwestern charm and cosmopolitan wit, Carson created the standard for late night television, as well as some of TV's most enduring characters. A typical show would include Ed McMahon's introduction, "Heeere's Johnny!", a topical monologue, that famous golf swing followed by interviews with celebrities and common people, and of course, Doc Severinsen's music. Carson's most famous characters included the Mighty Carson Art Players, Art Fern, and Carnac the Magnificent, a psychic whose daft predictions poked fun at politicians and current events. The Tonight Show was also the most-prominent launching pad for comedy careers and Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, David Letterman, Jerry Seinfeld, and Jay Leno all appeared with Carson before becoming famous. When Carson threatened to quit The Tonight Show in 1979, NBC gave him a new contract, shortened the show from an hour and a half to just an hour, increased his salary, and gave him more vacation time as well as an ownership stake in the program. His reward was fair considering that by 1979, The Tonight Show had an audience of more than 17 million viewers and generated a mind-boggling 17 percent of NBC's profits. Carson Productions, founded in 1980, made him very wealthy as producer of other shows and current caretaker of The Tonight Show video empire. Considered one of the most influential television performers, Johnny Carson's legacy skyrocketed when, unexpectedly, he announced his retirement in 1991. The final guests on the next-to-last show on May 22 were Robin Williams and Bette Midler, who sang a tearful goodbye to the legend. The final show was a paired down night of archival clips and remembrances with McMahon and Severinsen. An estimated 50 million viewers watched his departure from the national spotlight. Carson was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1987. Along the way, he won no less than five Emmy awards, an American Comedy Lifetime Achievement Award, an American Guild of Variety Artists Entertainer of the Year Award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1992), a Kennedy Center Honors Lifetime Achievement Award (1993), and the affection of millions. The Tonight Show also won a Peabody award, which is awarded annually to the best in broadcast media. Reflecting upon Carson's legacy, writer Kenneth Tynan noted that "the way he uses the camera as a silent conspirator is probably his most original contribution to TV technique." The final Tonight Show with Carson was treated like a major news event and received front-page coverage in most major newspapers. The Washington Post defended the attention, "after all, Carson was late night TV, and with decency and style he made America laugh and think." Since 1992, Carson has stayed out of the public eye. On March 19, 1999, Carson had quadruple bypass surgery in Santa Monica. His notable TV guest appearances include Night Court, Get Smart, Here's Lucy, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Newhart, Cheers, The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom, The Newton Boys, and The Simpsons. Once asked what he would like his epitaph to read, Carson responded, "I'll be right back."
JT Griffith, Rovi

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