Back in the late fifties, when ABCTV’s Who Do You Trust? daytime quiz show was headquartered in New York’s Little Theater, host Johnny Carson and sidekick Ed McMahon were frequent patrons of nearby Sardi’s bar. On at least one occasion, the pair enjoyed an overlong recess with their favorite publican and returned to the studio fairly pie-eyed. During the afternoon taping, Carson sought to engage the show’s guests in his usual wry repartee, but his liquid lunch had all but derailed his train of thought, causing him to repeatedly ask the contestants if they were married, where they hailed from, etc. Realizing his own limitations, Carson managed to turn the dangerously muddled situation into an uproarious circular conversation that delighted the studio audience and compelled ABC to let the questionable program run. To this day, Carson says that it was one of his favorite moments before the camera; he had fashioned another victory from near failure and offended no one in the process–because he let everyone in on his predicament.
Whether he is dispensing sly double-entendres or topical barbs, Johnny disowns with his personable delivery, as if each hit-or-miss crack were a parlor trick between mutually pleased friends. His true close friends are extremely few in number, however, and as guarded in their comments about him as he is about every aspect of his personal life and private self.
For 17 years, he has been a mighty distraction in the nation’s bedrooms, keeping 15.5 million of us awake with his well-ordered antics. A true show-business legend, he has demonstrated unparalleled staying power in a medium characterized by shooting stars and swift burnouts. Yet few figures so famous in their own time have remained so elusive.
The 53-year-old Carson has long since given up the jovial nightclub binges of the sort that once prompted an indignant Jacqueline Susann to dash a Black Russian in his face. He and his statuesque third wife, Joanna, now usually confine their socializing to small gatherings with such friends as Henry Bushkin, Johnny’s lawyer and trusted confidant. When not working on The Tonight Show or paying his annual visit to the Las Vegas stage, Carson is usually at home reading, watching TV (sparingly), playing tennis on his own court, working out in his gym, pounding skillfully on the set of white pearl drums that sit across from his gleaming weight-lifting apparatus, or practicing other enduring hobbies like magic and astronomy. When it comes to personal deportment and late-night comedy, the venerable host of The Tonight Show trades the capital sin of excess for the cardinal rule of control.
As a result, he is a virtual nonentity to the gossip columnists that haunt the lavish premieres, gaudy receptions and chic bistros that are the stomping grounds of the star community–a fact that pleases him greatly. And he has hardly made himself available to other members of the press; this is his first in-depth interview in thirteen years.
John William Carson was born in Corning, Iowa, on October 23rd, 1925, the son of Homer Lloyd and Ruth Hook Carson. The elder Carson was an itinerant lineman for an electric company, and the family (including daughter Catherine and son Richard) moved during the first eight years of John’s life to numerous other small towns in the state (like Shenandoah, Clarinda and Avoca) before settling in a large, frame house in Norfolk, Nebraska. By all accounts it was a secure childhood. Homer Carson landed a supervisory post with the Norfolk power and light company and the Carsons spent their summer vacations on a lake in Minnesota.
A shy child, Johnny nevertheless mustered the courage to make his acting debut as a bumblebee in a grammar-school skit. Roles in other school productions followed, and he simultaneously honed his household flair for mimicry, most notably a creditable impersonation of Popeye. At twelve, he came upon an inspirational text called Hoffman’s Book of Magic and quickly became immersed in the art of illusion. He sent away to various Chicago mail-order houses for additional manuals and tricks, and shortly thereafter received a black-velvet-covered magician’s table from his parents for Christmas.
Armed with these tools, “the Great Carsoni” first appeared at the age of 14 before the local Rotary Club, his prodigious feats of prestidigitation rewarded with a purse of three dollars. His interest in dramatics and magic grew as he entered high school, and he shunned sports in favor of school plays and presentations of magic for Norfolk 4-H picnics. To earn additional money, he worked part time as a movie usher in the Granada Theater and sold Saturday Evening Post subscriptions door-to-door. A good student, he also wrote a humor column for the Norfolk High newspaper and contributed random notes of levity to the high school yearbook:
Football season opened this [September] and I went out to make the team. I would have too if they hadn’t found where I hid my brass knuckles…November was the month of blackouts, which the students enjoyed very much. December ended with Bob Jesson waiting at his fireplace for Santa Claus and bag. Bob was interested in the bag, I believe…