An intensely shy person, late-night television host Johnny Carson was at ease on the air, employing a self-deprecating and sharp sense of humor that pleased television audiences for decades.
“I felt sorry for Johnny in that he was so socially uncomfortable,” recalls friend and fellow comedian, Dick Cavett. “I’ve hardly ever met anybody who had as hard a time as he did … I don’t know what it came from, but I would rescue him if, in leaving the studio and going back to his dressing room, three tourists or somebody had stopped to talk to him for a moment. You could see him being affable but straining. He just was so uncomfortable that way.”
If he struggled personally, Carson’s social skills on the air were pitch-perfect. He was a charming host who developed humorous skits and created several memorable alter egos in his 30 years on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.” One of his characters, “Carnac the Magnificent,” drew on his early entertainment work as a magician in Nebraska.
JOHNNY CARSON’S MAGICAL BEGINNINGS
Cavett remembers going to a Carson magic show in his youth and crashing backstage to meet the young entertainer.
“We sort of surprised him backstage before the show, and magicians hate that because they’re setting up their stuff,” remembers Cavett of meeting Carson for the first time. “He gave us this filthy look, but I pushed ahead and told him we were magicians, and then he welcomed us and showed us some great card manipulations. He was a great card man …”
Early in his television career, Carson distinguished himself on television as a game show host. In particular, the NBC game show “Who Do You Trust?” showcased the young comic’s ability to banter with contestants. So, when Jack Paar stepped away from his hosting gig with “The Tonight Show,” Carson was tapped to take over the show. Initially, he declined. But NBC pursued him, and Carson stepped into the limelight in 1962. He brought with him as his sidekick and announcer, Ed McMahon, a fellow comedian he’d worked with on “Who Do You Trust?”
Carson retired from television in 1992 after winning six Emmy® Awards for his work on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.”