JOHNNY CAME GREATLY
CARSON BEGAN HIS LONG RUN AS HOST OF 'THE TONIGHT SHOW' 31 YEARS AGO
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Ed Sullivan’s ghost may be hanging around David Letterman’s newly renovated Late Show theater, but his isn’t the only specter haunting and daunting talk shows these days. The spirit of Johnny Carson, the greatest of all TV talkers and the man whose job Letterman really wanted, still hovers over his many heirs. And it all started 31 years ago-on Oct. 1, 1962-when Groucho Marx stepped before the cameras to introduce the skinny 36-year-old comic from Nebraska as the newest host of The Tonight Show. Best known for his razor-sharp repartee on the game show Who Do You Trust?, Carson lost no time in dispelling opening-night jitters by moaning, ”I want my nana.” With Ed McMahon at the end of the couch, he then chatted up Joan Crawford, Rudy Vallee, and Mel Brooks. Tony Bennett sang his new hit, ”I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” and The New York Times quickly proclaimed Carson ”off to an attractive start.” That first night, Carson said he’d dispense with the smarmy Hollywood practice of referring to guests as ”dear, old friends.” But that’s just what his guests-and his audience-had become by the time he called it quits on May 22, 1992. Who would’ve dreamed the gig would last so long? Jack Paar, Carson’s hotheaded predecessor, had held the job for only five years, making headlines with his feuds; he once even walked off the set in a huff over a censored bathroom joke, leaving sidekick Hugh Downs to babble with baffled guests. There were no such outbursts from the cool Carson, who perfected the four- day workweek and ended up earning an estimated $25 million a year. For his standing so tall on the tube, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences last year erected a bronze statue of Johnny on its Hall of Fame Plaza. And just last month the Kennedy Center said it will honor him for his contributions to popular culture. To appreciate the true legacy of Carson’s reign, though, one need only count the number of his former guest hosts still yakking away on air: Letterman, Jay Leno, Garry Shandling, and Joan Rivers. For the record, The Tonight Show was the 1954 creation of television executive Sylvester ”Pat” Weaver (actress Sigourney Weaver’s dad), who also founded Today. So if you want to know why all the channels are cluttered with chat after 11:30 p.m., you can thank him-and Johnny Carson.
TIME CAPSULE Oct. 1, 1962 The Four Seasons’ ”Sherry” and Tommy Roe’s ”Sheila” were the No. 1 and 2 songs, respectively. Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools led the best-seller lists, and The Beverly Hillbillies moved up into TV’s top spot.
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