LATE NIGHT KING
Johnny Carson was a pioneer in American TV, says his former wife Joanne
He is remembered as the greatest, classiest and most revered figure on late-night TV. But rarely is Johnny Carson mentioned as an edgy television pioneer on the order, say, of Ernie Kovacs. But recently unearthed episodes of The Johnny Carson Show from 1955 may change that assessment.
“These things were so ahead of their time, they play today,” Joanne Carson said from Los Angeles. “He was a genius, and I don’t think people know that yet.”
The sketch comedy programme ran for 39 weeks. Ten episodes survive, saved by Joanne Carson, who was Carson’s second wife. Most of the original kinescopes were lost, a common fate for the early recordings.
The 10 surviving episodes have been restored and are now available on the two-DVD set The Johnny Carson Show (Shout! Factory).
The DVD set includes the half-hour shows, plus an episode of Carson’s 1958 ABC-TV quiz show Who Do You Trust, as well as rare clips from his short-lived daytime show on CBS in the summer of 1956 and segments of him as substitute host of The Jack Paar Show.
As the king of late night, Carson was a ritual for millions of viewers from the early 1960s until his retirement from The Tonight Show in May 1992. But here is the time before “Heeeere’s Johnny!”
In the mid-’50s, Carson was inventing and recycling some of the same absurdist gags and parodies that are now staples on comedy shows from Saturday Night Live to Late Show With David Letterman.
“He was breaking ground,” Joanne Carson said. “This was the first time that this was done. If you want to see who his idol was, you have to look at Jack Benny. If you look at the old Jack Benny Show, you’ll see Johnny’s teacher.”
“That’s what’s fun about these things,” Joanne Carson said. “You see the precursor to Tonight Show. You see all the things that are naturally Johnny.”
She said Carson used the shows to court her, to try to impress her. (They met in 1960, introduced by her father.) He considered these 10 episodes to be the best of the lot.
“He was so shy,” she said. “This was Johnny’s way of letting me know who he was and what he did — because he was so proud of these. He started showing them to me, and I just howled. These are really funny.”
“I was in television in New York. I didn’t know from Johnny Carson. I didn’t even know who the hell he was when I met him,” she said.
They would watch the shows at home with a projector and a screen.
“Little by little, he would invite me to dinner and say, ‘Would you like to see another show?’ It was like the first date we had,” she said. “So we had 10 dinners in a row, and watched 10 shows in a row. By the 10th show I was in love.” Carson gave them to her. Married 10 years, they remained friends. Less than a year before he died in 2005, Carson suggested that she issue the episodes on DVD. She promised that she would, and she’s rightfully proud.
“Today, kids fall on the floor laughing,” she said of reaction to the old shows. “That kind of humour you don’t see today, you don’t hear it. It’s funny, it’s wild, it’s silly, it’s off the wall. It’s Johnny being Johnny before the polish of The Tonight Show.”
The restoration project — the film was stored in a temperature controlled wine chest, and she hadn’t seen them since the 60s — helped her through her mourning.
“These are Johnny’s picks. (The show) was his dream come true,” she said.
“He’s an American icon, and I always suspected that.”