The other night, I was watching an episode of The Tonight Show from 1974, which had Jonathon Winters as a guest. I love the 1970s shows, the 90 minute ones; they were looser and had a great vibe. Ninety minutes was a lot of time to fill, so the conversations could be longer and often went beyond the prepared interview questions. Johnny Carson was a unique television personality; he was the absolute best at what he did. For nearly 30 years he ruled late night. People talked the next day about what he said the night before. His jokes were repeated. You watched his show for the latest gossip or to see the current fashion. Occasionally, you watched him for the hottest author or politician to talk about something urbane. You saw rising comedians and popular musical acts.
There are numerous books out about Johnny, and most not every flattering. Johnny was a complicated guy, and that sells books. His former lawyer wrote a not so complementary book that Doc Severinsen totally dismissed. Most of these books have in common that Johnny was a shy guy, who had problems in his relationships, but was magical when the television camera when on.
It is common knowledge that Johnny was married four times, that he had a very difficult relationship with his mother, and was not the father to his sons that he wanted to be. He had problems with alcohol, could be very vindictive and held grudges, and had a kindness that he often kept hidden.
To land a spot on the Tonight Show could make your career. Johnny ruled his show and he never thought the network truly appreciated him. Johnny was the largest moneymaker for NBC and that usually led to difficult contract negotiations. He was known to be deliciously charming, and then bitterly cold the next minute. Those he knew for years could also claim that they didn’t know him well at all, yet he was in everyone’s home every night like an old friend for 30 years.
When he died, Carson’s vast fortune was put into a trust. Five years after his death $156 million was transferred to a foundation set up by Carson. The foundation benefits from the royalties of his Tonight Show episodes, and
distributes millions of dollars annually to charity. While he was alive, Johnny Carson gave away millions of dollars, usually anonymously. Only in death did the world know of his generosity.
He walked away from the Tonight Show in 1992 and lived his final years quietly. He surfaced only once in awhile but preferred a solitary life aboard his boat.
If you have the chance, watch his 90 minute shows on Saturday and Sunday nights. His shows prior to 1972 were destroyed by some idiot who decided the video tapes could be reused, so outside of some clips, we have little left from his first decade of the Tonight Show.
Johnny tired of the 90 minute format so in 1980, the show was reduced to 60 minutes. During those 90 minute years, the couch was longer as there were as many as four guests, along with Ed, on the set at the same time. That made for some interesting chat. One of the classic episodes has Dean Martin, Bob Hope and George Gobel on the set at the same time.
What you see is one of the funniest and strangest thirteen minutes of Tonight Show history. Dean Martin could single-handedly control a show, even when he moved down the couch as another guest took the seat next to Johnny.
Amazing people are generally complex, a strange formula powering their creativity and personality. For those who didn’t watch him in his heyday, you missed something great.