After graduating from high school in 1943, Carson toyed with the idea of becoming a psychiatrist or a journalist but shelved both notions when he was accepted in the navy’s V-12 training program. He later attended the midshipmen’s school at Columbia University and ultimately was assigned to the battleship Pennsylvania, bringing a footlocker of card tricks along for comic relief. Between entertaining his fellow swabbies and fighting in the Pacific, Johnny once found time to amuse Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal for several hours with his best sleight of hand.
Carson entered the University of Nebraska after his discharge in 1946, majoring in journalism with the intention of pursuing a career as a comedy writer. Boredom set in and he switched to radio and speech, a move that led to a ten-dollar-a-week writing job on Lincoln’s KFAB radio station in a comedy western entitled Eddie Sosby and the Radio Rangers. Carson eventually wrote a senior college thesis, “How to Write Comedy Jokes,” that was fleshed out with taped excerpts from the popular Fibber McGee and Molly program and the shows of Fred Allen and Jack Benny. The effort earned him an A.B. degree in 1949 and he settled in Omaha with his new wife, a fellow graduate and former magic assistant named Jody Wolcott.
In time, Johnny got his own show, The Squirrel’s Nest, on Omaha’s WOW-TV. He also served as a disc jockey on WOW radio, often butchering the commercials of such local advertisers as the Friendly Savings Bank. (“Drop in any time. At two or three in the morning is fine. Help yourself. Just leave a note.”) With the help of a cameraman, Carson put together a half-hour audition film of his best routines and spent his vacation peddling it, to no avail, in San Francisco and Los Angeles. At length, a family friend intervened and recommended Johnny for a staff announcer job at KNXT-TV in L.A. This opportunity was parlayed into a Sunday afternoon broadcast, budgeted at 25 dollars per show, called Carson’s Cellar. Among the Cellar’s avid fans was a fellow named Red Skelton, who hired the witty young man as a writer and supporting player on his CBS-TV program. One night during rehearsal, Skelton was knocked cold by a breakaway door that failed to fulfill its function, and Carson was called in to substitute for the unconscious clown prince of television.
This stroke of luck led to the fateful creation by CBS of The Johnny Carson Show, a 39-week clunker that was canceled in the spring of 1956. His burgeoning career suddenly deflated, the semi-star found himself playing a club in remote Bakersfield, California, to half-interested houses.
Borrowing money from his father and a bank, Carson and family left for New York, where he joined the Friars Club and gradually repaired a shattered reputation with his deft roasting of such sharp-tongued colleagues as Jack E. Leonard. Hired by ABC to handle Who Do You Trust?, he built the whimsical quiz show into the network’s biggest daytime attraction. During the evening, he occasionally filled in for Jack Paar, who was then hosting The Tonight Show over at NBC. Admiring his quick, off-handed approach to comedy, the networks offered Carson starting roles in various sitcoms, but he always declined and held on to his “secure” position with Who Do You Trust? But as Paar began to publicly reaffirm his intentions to leave The Tonight Show–and mentioned Johnny on the air as a possible successor–NBC redoubled its efforts to lure Carson away from ABC. He finally gave in to their entreaties and signed on with a first-year salary of approximately $100,000. On October 1st, 1962, at 11:15 p.m., Groucho Marx introduced Johnny Carson as the moderator of The Tonight Show, and a new era in television, and comedy, was born.
Johnny’s guests that inaugural evening were Joan Crawford, Tony Bennett, Mel Brooks and Rudy Vallee, and the band was under the direction of Skitch Henderson, with Doc Severinsen on trumpet. Ed McMahon, of course, was the announcer and resident straight man, duplicating his earlier duties on Who Do You Trust?
The New York Times bestowed a favorable review, the writer noting that, “at the onset he [Carson] said he was not going to describe every guest as an old and dear friend, an indication of a refreshing attitude against prevalent show business hokum. “In summation, the Times ruled that his “healthy independence” could “wear very well.”