The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson was an American late-night talk show under the Tonight Show franchise that aired on CBS between 1962 and 1992. It was hosted by Johnny Carson, who established the traditional late-night show format and was known for having a large variety of celebrity guests ranging from major politicians to modern musical performances. Carson is considered to be one of the leading late-night hosts of all time, and in 2002, the show was ranked No.12 on TV Guide’s 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time. Take a look to see some of the program’s most memorable moments and behind the scenes facts!
Johnny Carson Impersonates Willie Nelson
Although Carson didn’t do impersonations all that often, when he did, he made sure to go all out. Such was the case in 1984, when he donned a bandana and braids to perform a duet with Julio Iglesias for the hit song, ” To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before.”
Many people were rather impressed with Carson’s rendition, although Carson was most likely sober during the performance, while Nelson most likely would not have been.
Carson Pranks A Chip Collector
While Johnny Carson had no problem joking with his guests, being borderline mean at times, it was always in good fun. In one 1987 episode, Carson interviewed Myrtle Young, a potato chip collector. Yes, you heard that right.
With a guest with such a unique hobby, Carson couldn’t help himself but play a joke on her. To Myrtle’s horror, Carson began eating her prized potato chips. However, little did she know that the chip came from a bowl hidden behind Carson.
Paul Williams Gets Into Character
Paul Hamilton is an American composer, singer, songwriter, and actor. Known for his numerous musical acts in the 1970s, he also composed several Academy Award-nominated and winning songs for films.
However, he was also an actor, playing Virgil, the genius orangutan in Battle for the Planet of the Apes. So, when he appeared on The Tonight Show on February 9, 1973, he surprised the crowd by appearing in his full Virgil costume and performed a tune.
Adam And Eve Get A Divorce
Johnny Carson was known for his skits, but one that certainly stood out involved the two Old Testament figures Adam and Eve, who had more than being forced out of the Garden of Eden to worry about.
For the skit, Carson and Betty White dressed the part to give their rendition of the world’s first divorce. Failing to come up with an agreement over alimony, God intervenes to help the couple. This results in Eve not just receiving a rib from Adam, but everything else too!
Carson Used A Formula That Is Still Used By Tonight-Show Hosts Today
The format of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson was revolutionary at the time, and his structure of the program is still used by many late-night hosts today.
At the beginning of the show, Carson would begin with a monologue that was between 16 and 22 one-liners, never saying more than three lines about any subject. The show would then continue with interviews with guests, musical acts, and performances with stand-up comedians or other talented artists.
The Frisky Python
Typically, Johnny Carson would have human guests on the show, yet, he managed to squeeze a few animals in there from time to time. In 1986, Carson got up close with a Burmese python when the python began roaming around and in between Carson’s legs!
The crowd laughed even harder as the handler tried to remove the snake from the host’s crotchal region, with Carson simply replying, “If only in real life!” That certainly made the female handler blush!
The Departing Duet
On the second to last show that Johnny Carson would serve as The Tonight Show’s host, Bette Midler appeared to sing a few tunes to commemorate Carson’s retirement from television. While her songs were touching, what was truly memorable was the duet she and Carson performed together.
The two sang an a cappella version of the song “Here’s That Rainy Day” that left tears in some of the audience’s eyes. It was a moment you most likely wouldn’t see on most late-night shows today.
Carnac the Magnificent
Considered by many to be one of Carson’s most famous skits was “Carnac the Magnificent,” in which he demonstrates his psychic abilities. Wearing a turban and a cape, he would predict the answers to questions that were sealed in an envelope.
What made the skit truly funny were the subtle innuendos and delivery that Carson was able to accomplish, of course, with a few inappropriate jokes thrown in here and there. Don’t break his concentration either, or you might find yourself cursed!
Shaking Up Shakespeare
Another skit that has viewers howling to this day was when Johnny Carson attempted to commercialize Shakespeare. Dressed as Hamlet, and while reciting the lines from the play, Carson would frequently break character to promote new commercial products.
While portraying the real Hamlet to the best of his abilities, he snuck in advertisements for everything from Dr. Pepper to Hemorrhoid cream, of course, with a clever Shakespearean twist. Few comedians today would likely be able to pull something like this off as Carson did.
The Toilet Paper Conspiracy
Johnny Carson caused quite the uproar during one of his opening monologues in 1973. He made a joke about a toilet paper shortage that he had read about in the paper. Yet, this was concerning commercial grade toilet paper, and not the kind typically sold at the supermarket.
Soon after the episode aired, millions of American’s were convinced that there was actually a shortage, leading to them panicking and hoarding toilet paper, causing an actual shortage. Everyone pointed their finger at Carson, including Harold V. Froehlich, a Wisconsin congressman.
Saying Goodbye To Johnny Carson
After hosting The Tonight Show for 30 years, Johnny Carson gave his final farewell on May 22, 1992. During his time on the show, he had guests on ranging from Robert F. Kennedy to Muhammad Ali, and everyone in between.
His final words were said as he choked back tears, thanking his fans for their continuous support for all his years. In his final message, he stated, “I found something I always wanted to do and I enjoyed every minute of it.”
Exposing Uri Gellar
Carson had no problem toying around with his guests and didn’t have any issue with exposing frauds that took advantage of the public either. When supposed psychic Uri Gellar appeared on the show in 1977, Carson and his team set up Gellar’s props without Gellar or his manager being able to inspect them before filming.
Unsurprisingly, although Gellar made strong claims that he was gifted with psychic powers, he was unable to reproduce any of the tricks that he usually did.
A Close Encounter With A Cheetah
Another memorable guest appearance on the show was that of zoologists Joan Embery and Jim Fowler. On occasion, the two would join Carson on the show and bring exotic animals that Carson would often interact with and sometimes let climb on him! In one episode, the two zoologists brought in a cheetah.
Yet, when Carson came too close to the cage, the cheetah tried to swat him with its paw. This resulted in Carson jumping into Ed McMahon’s arms for comedic effect.
James Randi’s Video About Peter Poppoff
James Randi was a friend of Carson as well as a trained stage magician. In 1987, Randi made an appearance on the show to help expose the self-proclaimed faith healer Peter Popoff. While Popoff claimed that his knowledge of the audience members’ problems came from “Godly visions,” Carson and Randi knew otherwise.
In the episode, Randi provided Carson and his audience with a video that showed Popoff’s wife describing the people for him to heal through a microphone that was connected to a hidden hearing aid used by Popoff.
Carson Had A Soft Spot For Orson Wells
Johnny Carson may have appeared to be an extremely approachable and jovial man on his show. Yet, in reality, he was all business when it came to the show. Apparently, he would rarely interact with his guests behind the camera, even those that he had known for years.
Yet, that wasn’t the case when it came to renowned actor Orson Wells. Supposedly, the crew of the show was speechless when Carson sought Wells out to say hello prior to the taping. He must have been quite the fan!
His Pencils Had Erasers On Both Ends
If you ever watched The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson regularly, you may have noticed that he tended to fidget with the pencils on his desk. To avoid the possibility of Carson hurting himself or having a sharpened pencil come flying at a guest, the pencils were equipped with erasers on each end.
In one episode, Ed McMahon joked with Carson that he didn’t need to worry about not having anything to write with, stating that, “There’s no need. You’re a talker. You’re not a writer.”
A Comedian Being Offered A Seat Was A Big Deal
Johnny Carson is credited with launching many famous comedians’ careers after they made an appearance on The Tonight Show. Yet, it was obvious whether or not Carson was impressed by their performance or not.
Following a comedian’s set, if Carson asked the performer to join him for a chat, it meant that he was impressed, something that could easily make a comedian’s career. However, if Carson didn’t offer them a seat, it could just as easily break it.
Many Of The Show’s Tapes Are Archived
Tapes of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson from the show’s later years are not kept where most original recordings of other TV shows are held. Interestingly, they’re kept in a location that most people would never guess.
They can be found in a salt mine that’s an estimated 650 feet underground outside of Hutchinson, Kansas. According to The Washington Post, as of 2012, there were more than 4,000 episodes stored there. The only way for someone to see the tapes is to buy a ticket.
The Show Lost A Lot Of Footage
Many of the later tapes may have been saved and stored away in the salt mine. Yet, unfortunately, many of the show’s earlier tapes are gone for good. It’s assumed that only 33 full episodes from the first-decade show are in existence, with the vast majority of the previous episodes being recorded over, erased, or destroyed.
Yet, this practice wasn’t uncommon for television shows during the 1960s and 70s. During this time, Carson didn’t mind if NBC reused tapes to record others.
Carson Kept A Low Profile After The Show
After The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson went off the air in 1992, Carson stayed relatively out of the spotlight. Although he could have easily stayed in the entertainment industry and continued with television, he only made a few appearances.
He lent his voice to a 1993 episode of The Simpsons and made a brief cameo on The Late Night Show with David Letterman in 1994. Outside of that, he only gave two interviews to the media up until his death in 2005 at the age of 75.