This article was written by the Manuscript Division's literary historian, Alice Birney, in 1997 to describe the papers acquired in 1996 by the Library of Congress from the Carson Production Group. The collection, comprising approximately 47,600 items, occupies more than 54 linear feet in 136 containers. It includes reports, scripts, correspondence and production files for "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" and is available for use in the Manuscript Reading Room in the Library of Congress' Madison Building. The article is reprinted here as a tribute to Johnny Carson, who died on Jan. 23.
Remember when, promptly at 11:30 p.m., it was time for that nightly rendezvous with a special old friend? Remember when sleep vied with the tease of the next guest, the next joke? There were certain invariables for the old "Tonight Show": the seducing commercial-less beginning, the trumpeting announcer's build-up, the dramatic curtain opening, the inevitable appearance of "Johnny" in yet another neat suit.
The sureness of the steps that followed progressed with the satisfaction invoked by any traditional dance, ceremony or ritual—the monologue, the skit and the sequence of surprising and delightful guests, with Johnny always balancing his words with a seeming effortlessness, sauntering along a line between diplomacy and insult. All of this comprises only recent television past, but it already has become part of the history of American popular culture.
There was an air of improvisation about this landmark show, which tantalized the viewer. Yet for 30 years the sequence unfolded with near perfection in a similar manner night after night, and the last 20 years of those shows can now be studied from the files of scripts, plans and comments (1971-1992) sent to the Library of Congress from the Carson Production Group in 1996.
Not surprisingly, a great deal of control, artistry and hard work accounted for the show's laid-back style and continued success. Longtime producer Fred De Cordova appears to have annotated and saved many of the records. His book, "Johnny Come Lately," informally chronicled how the show was put together, and the records now in the Library's Manuscript Division provide many more details.
The late-night television talk show traces its variety act roots back to vaudeville and its broadcasting roots back to radio personalities such as Fred Allen and Arthur Godfrey. "The Tonight Show" itself, however, was conceived in 1954 as the brainchild of Sylvester "Pat" Weaver, president of NBC, and was to be the longest-running show in television history. It began broadcasting on Sept. 27, 1954, with Steve Allen as its first host at the desk. A 1994 history of late-night television by Bill Carter ("The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno and the Battle for the Night") noted that "millions of Americans ... stayed up later than they intended watching a guy behind a desk tell jokes, comment on the news, and schmooze and banter with celebrities. The creation was an undeniable American original: the late-night talk show."
Steve Allen was the pioneer in late-night zaniness. He hosted a late-night radio show on which he interviewed celebrities, worked the audience and created such skit series as "The Question Man"—all of which elements his successors adapted for television. Monologuist and frequent game show host Jack Paar next took that on-camera desk seat and made "The Tonight Show" a controversial broadcasting phenomenon from July 1957 through September 1962. He added the monologue to the show's format, introduced sophisticated guests and was erratic, showy, political and emotional.
NBC executives chose Paar's successor, cool Johnny Carson, for his fast ad-libs, his experience and his boyish, Midwestern good looks. His popularity soon proved the wisdom of selecting "a star who was comfortable to the mass of viewers—and their mass prejudices" in a time when much of television comedy was still dominated by ethnic types. Carson differed from Allen and Paar most importantly because he endured.
How did America come to embrace as its "national humorist" and collective conscience, this particular "late-night pal" as "a keystone of American popular culture"? He was born in the right region, trained himself locally in just the right burgeoning broadcast venues and was not afraid to move on when entertainment destiny called.
John William Carson was born in Corning, Iowa, in 1925 and carried to stardom his origin in the heart of the country, as well as such shared national experiences as his service with the U.S. Navy in the Pacific during World War II. He finished his bachelor's degree at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln in 1949 after writing radio scripts for radio station KFAB there. He also worked for stations WOW and the early local television station WOW-TV in Omaha.
Carson was quick to follow the new medium of television when in 1951 he became station announcer for coast-to-coast KNXT-TV, broadcasting from Los Angeles. He soon tried his hand at hosting "Carson's Cellar," a Sunday afternoon comedy show from 1951 to 1952, which drew a studio audience with its satire of early television. He then sacrificed local celebrity to join the developing television network system as a writer for "The Red Skelton Show" on CBS-TV, working out of Los Angeles from 1952 to 1954. He went on to star in the CBS-TV "Johnny Carson Show" there in 1955, and in 1956 gambled on a relocation to New York City where he became host the next year for the daytime ABC-TV Network quiz show "Who Do you Trust?"
Carson substituted briefly for Jack Paar as a guest host on "The Tonight Show" in 1958 and performed in nightclubs and a Broadway comedy ("Tunnel of Love") before landing the job in 1962 that gave him 30 years of steady employment as the star of NBC's "Tonight Show."
Ed McMahon, a former salesman and Philadelphia television personality, first joined Carson as announcer in their quiz show days. His contract stipulated that he be present whenever Johnny hosted, and he was there throughout the 30 years, always with the same two long, drawn- out word introduction: "HEEEERE'S JOHNNY!" Doc Severinson and the NBC Orchestra provided the late swing band music, which carried "The Tonight Show" through its three decades.
After the music and introduction, Johnny delivered his monologue. De Cordova called Carson's monologue "the pride and joy of the program" and said it had "been hailed as the most outstanding comedy-oriented editorial on political events since the days of Will Rogers." Carson's satiric style accomplished its critical aims in a gentle, urbane style through laughter, rather than in a bitter, angry style through moral indignation. The host read the day's newspapers for current political and news events to weave into his monologue. Indeed, "Johnny's monologues were part of the zeitgeist. One day social historians will turn to his quips and commentaries in trying to understand popular American culture in the last third of the twentieth century," according to his biographer, Laurence Leamer ("King of the Night: The Life of Johnny Carson," 1989).
Following a commercial break, viewers could depend on another gently satiric or slightly zany comedy skit featuring returning fictional characters like Art Fern, Carnac the Magnificent, Aunt Blabby and Floyd R. Turbo—all underplayed by a straight-faced Johnny Carson. All of these can be found in the Carson Papers and bear the cultural earmarks of their times. Some examples are a 1977 Thanksgiving "interview" with the Jimmy Carter White House turkey, satirizing the Carter family and political events of the time; a 1979 "Carnac the Magician" skit, which adapts the old "Tonight Show" question-and-answer format for a comically costumed Johnny and targets President Ford, the Susan B. Anthony dollar, the Carters, Jerry Brown and Hamilton Jordan; and "The Russian Ballet Defector" with Carson, in leotard and ballet slippers, playing the latest Soviet defector to freedom, one "Boris Notgoodenough."
Guest interviews and musical interludes comprised the rest of the show. While the host handled these in a seemingly improvised manner, in reality almost everything was scripted. A hard-working, competitive group of coordinators worked up the list of prospective guests and did pre-interviews with each. Their efforts resulted in a list of questions to ask each guest with their probable replies.
The majority of the guests on the show were actors and comedians. An early episode featured Johnny diplomatically playing straight man to a rambunctious Groucho Marx, who forced the host to read aloud every word from a letter from the Library of Congress asking for Groucho's papers (a television clip that provides the opening sequence for the Library's "American Treasures" exhibition in the Jefferson Building).
In an early interview with "the country's Toastmaster General, George Jessel," the entertainer's script had him recalling a performance at the age of 9 at the Imperial Theatre in Harlem, when he sang a rhymed tune teamed up with Walter Winchell. Some of the other actors and comedians who appeared through the years were John Wayne, Charlton Heston, George Raft, Gregory Peck, Lauren Bacall, Fred Astaire, Lucille Ball, Sylvester Stallone, Carol Burnett, Jack Benny, Jimmy Stewart, Elizabeth Taylor, Bob Hope, Red Skelton, George C. Scott, Vincent Price, Sid Caesar, Eva Gabor, Ed Sullivan, Jimmy Stewart, Billy Crystal, Madonna, Jane Fonda, Redd Foxx and Rob Reiner.
During Carson's run of the show the United States experienced seven presidents. Some political and broadcasting figures he interviewed were Hubert Humphrey, Robert Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, David Brinkley, Tom Brokaw and Barbara Walters. When Carson asked Walters for examples of embarrassing moments in her own interview work, she recalled an on-the-air show in which her guest misunderstood her time signal and said, "Young lady, what is your hand doing crawling up my thigh?"
Many popular and some classical musicians graced the show with their talents and stayed to chat with the host. Among these were Judy Garland, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Dizzy Gillespie, Liberace, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Stevie Wonder, Bette Middler, Dionne Warwick, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, Ethel Merman, Diana Ross, Tony Bennett, Lena Horne, Liza Minnelli, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Tina Turner, BB King, the Jackson Five, the Pointer Sisters and the cast of "Hair," as well as Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma and Luciano Pavarotti.
Literary celebrities and others in the news came to promote their books or causes and talk with Johnny and the nation. Truman Capote brought his lawyer, Allan Schwartz, and the discussion centered on Capote's jailing in 1967 for refusing to testify at a retrial of a death row inmate he had interviewed. After recounting his two days in jail, Capote and his lawyer steered the conversation to serious issues of privileged communication, media sources of information and a Supreme Court appeal on the subject. Other learned and literary personalities who appeared on the shows included Neil Simon, Orson Welles, Gore Vidal, William Saroyan, Woody Allen, William F. Buckley and F. Lee Bailey.
In 1971 Carson reduced his appearances from five to four nights a week, and in the last years of the show, to three and four nights a week, plus extended vacation periods. Guest hosts included Joey Bishop, Bob Newhart, David Letterman, David Brenner, Jerry Lewis, McLean Stevenson, Joan Rivers and Jay Leno, who eventually inherited the host's position when Carson retired.
The final "Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" aired May 21, 1992, and reviewed the three decades of Carson's reign as king of late-night television. By that time he had walked through the opening in the NBC studio curtain more than 4,500 times. The public hoopla over his retirement was enormous. He quipped, "The Soviet Union's end didn't get this kind of publicity."
In the final Carson show, De Cordova remembered the large staff of writers and coordinators, the many producers, the 10,000 pieces of mail and tapes received each week and all the plans that led to the final tapings at 5:30 p.m.—leaving six hours for review and censoring before the broadcast.
Among the moving moments from the final show was Johnny's reference to the death of his son Rick—a rare personal touch from this master of entertainment communication and one which made him seem more like family to his millions of viewers. He signed off by saying: "And so it has come to this. I am one of the lucky people in the world. I found something that I always wanted to do and I have enjoyed every single minute of it. I bid you a very heartfelt goodnight."
The papers of John William Carson at the Library of Congress consist exclusively of the records of "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson," arranged chronologically by date as aired from October 1970 to May 1992, with a gap in the 1976 files. Records for each show include cue cards, chronologies, outline, scripts, broadcast standards acceptability reports, some correspondence and other materials.
The cue cards include occasional notes on the verso and the announcement of the next night's guests. The chronologies are mimeographed time sheets listing guests, host, announcer and conductor with some time notations added. The monologue, jokes and skit scripts were created by a continually changing staff of writers with conference input from Carson. There are separate preparatory scripts for each guest, but no written record of what was actually said in the interview.
The broadcast standards reports are especially interesting because they detail certain aspects of each broadcast. They list all sponsors and participants, the personalities and commercial products mentioned, as well as all "edits"—the words or sentences censored between taping and broadcast. Some of the "edits" were made before broadcast by the producer or the host, and these at times differ in the preliminary and final scripts. The script for the 1977 Thanksgiving "interview" with the Carter White House turkey, for example, reveals deletions of references to Sen. Hayakawa (R-Calif.) and to the Israelis and Anwar Sadat. Other changes were made by deleting parts of the tape before broadcast. In the 1970 files, there are words and terms that were characteristically deleted from the broadcasts. These included the usual vulgarities and blasphemies, as well as most references to liquor, body parts, ethnic groups and controversial writings or celebrities.
Some of the cue cards in the collection bear notes, which the host penciled in during the show. Most are quips he apparently could not suppress: "Why didn't they take this audience hostage [in Iran]?"; "This they like!" [Canadian Brass]; "Don't laugh while she's singing" [Martina Aroyo]; "This group thinks Johnny Mercer is a punk rocker"; "Watch this crowd. Guy in second row has a rope."
Letters in the files are not extensive and appear to be only a small and haphazard selection of the mail received.
The collection also will illuminate trends in popular culture and socio-political movements of the time. Carson and his production crew gauged popular music trends and featured a changing array of singers, soloists and bands. A 1970 skit with Dyan Cannon merrily showed the early impact of "women's lib" on American courtship habits. The next night, Carson discussed with Harry Belafonte roles for blacks in the television and film industry.
"The Tonight Show" collection in the Manuscript Division joins a growing group of records that trace the highlights of American broadcasting. Some of these are the radio scripts from Goodman Ace, Fred Allen, "Amos ‘n' Andy," the CBS radio scripts and the records of station WOR. For television history, the division holds the Sid Caesar Papers, with scripts for "Your Show of Shows" and "Caesar's Comedy Hour." The Library's Motion Picture Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division holds NBC and other broadcasting materials and recordings, including some 30 Jack Paar shows; 1,500 David Letterman shows, from NBC and CBS; 1,000 Jay Leno shows; and 750 Conan O'Brien shows, as well as a sound recording of excerpts from the early years of Carson's reign.
"The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" earned 42 Emmy nominations and won seven trophies. Carson himself was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1987, received the Medal of Freedom from President George H.W. Bush on Dec. 11, 1992, and was awarded the Kennedy Center Honors Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993.