"Heeeere's Johnny!" Forty Years Ago, Johnny Carson Moved into America's Living Rooms and Bedrooms as the Host of NBC's "The Tonight Show." (Entertainment)
Gehring, Wes D., USA TODAY
IN 1962, Johnny Carson began his unprecedented 30-year run as host of NBC's "The Tonight Show." The 36-year-old Midwest-raised comedian was known at the time as the witty daytime emcee of "Who Do You Trust?" Though ostensibly a quiz show, the program was really a vehicle for the humor Carson brought to the interviews he did with contestants before they played the game. This comic task was made easier by booking extremely eccentric guests, such as the woman who tried to teach him to breathe through his toes or the pharmacist who sold voodoo supplies. The show was not unlike the popular prime time comic quiz show "You Bet Your Life" (1950-61), which was a Top 10 Nielsen ratings hit the year Carson took over "Who Do You Trust?" (1957).
Although Carson once kidded that the program's daytime audience was composed "almost entirely of housewives and Indians," it actually had a very broad viewer base by the time he moved to "The Tonight Show." Indeed, by 1958, he was already guest hosting on that program for the then-king of late night television, Jack Paar. Between Carson's high visibility and "Who Do You Trust?" being based in New York, he further embellished his performing resume. For instance, in January, 1958, he replaced Tom Ewell for several weeks on Broadway in the comedy "Tunnel of Love," and twice in 1960 he surfaced in comedies broadcast on TV's critically acclaimed "U.S. Steel Hour." However, his future fame as the "Tonight Show" host was built upon a fascination with entertainment that dated back to his childhood.
After discovering magic at age 12, Carson immediately became a boy obsessed. His middle-class parents indulged this interest, including a magician's table covered with a black velvet cloth on which his mother embroidered "The Great Carsoni." Carson later said, "I thought it was just about the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen." Soon, by mixing magic with comedy, the teenager had stumbled onto a career.
Graduating from high school in 1943, he further fed his entertainment interests by a brief hitchhiking trip to Hollywood before entering the Navy. While attending a USO show in the film capital, he was selected as an audience volunteer to assist an Orson Welles magic act where the famed filmmaker sawed his actress wife Rita Hayworth in half. Carson would forever savor this event, especially in later years when Welles became both a friend and frequent guest on "The Tonight Show."
After military service, Carson went to college at the University of Nebraska, majoring in speech and drama. His goal was to become a radio comedian, like his idols Jack Benny, Fred Allen, and Bob Hope. His senior thesis, "How to Write Comedy Jokes," was a taped analysis of humor which included excerpts from the aforementioned comedians and others, including Milton Berle and Fibber McGee and Molly.
After graduating in 1949, he became a minor comic celebrity on a series of radio and early television programs in Omaha. By 1951, there was little more for Carson to accomplish in Nebraska, and he left for California with only the most-modest of job offers--an all-purpose television announcer in Los Angeles. Through sheer persistence, he managed to get a 15-minute television show within a year of going west. Called "Carson's Cellar," it was broadcast in a throw-away time period--Sunday at 4 p.m. Despite this, the program soon developed an almost cult following, especially among television insiders, since its ongoing target was the small screen. For instance, on one program, he had a stagehand rush past the camera as Carson announced the blur as the guest star Red Skelton. As luck would have it, a thoroughly captivated Skelton tuned in that afternoon. He called Carson and agreed to make three real appearances for free. In the weeks to come, Benny and Allen would follow Skelton's lead, and the young comic had entered the show business fast track.
Skelton, another comedian from the heartland (Indiana), had a soft spot for aspiring talent. …