Johnny Carson: Classic Late-Night Moments

By: Ben Anton


The 30-year run of Johnny Carson as host of The Tonight Show was both memorable and historic. It was the setting for a number of classic TV moments remembered by television watchers of several generations. Though many people remember Carson for his hilarious characters and skits, he was not one to shy away from controversial topics when it was something that he truly believed in. Many of his best-known moments have been captured on various classic TV DVD's, enabling fans of Carson to watch their favorite bits over and over again.

One of Johnny Carson’s best known moments, one that demonstrated to the world just how quick his wit really was, happened two years after he began his run on The Tonight Show. On April 29, 1965, Ed Ames of the Daniel Boone television series was Carson’s guest. Ames was demonstrating how to throw a tomahawk using a wooden silhouette of a man, and when he threw the tomahawk it landed squarely in the silhouette’s crotch. As the crowd laughed, Carson quipped, “I didn’t even know you were Jewish.” This piece of classic television comedy was so popular that it was often replayed on the show’s anniversary.

Other classic moments on The Tonight Show revolved around some of the recurring characters that Johnny Carson portrayed, often with the help of Ed McMahon. Quite possibly the most famous of these classic television characters was Carnac the Magnificent, a mentalist played by Carson who would claim to be able to answer questions sealed in envelopes without ever seeing the question. The answers, of course, would never be straight answers and would instead be puns. When the audience didn’t like one of the jokes, he would respond with equally outlandish curses, such as “May a diseased yak befriend your sister.” Carson had a number of other popular characters as well, such as Floyd R. Turbo, Ralph Willie, and Aunt Blabby.

Not all of the comedy sketches that Carson did contained these repeating characters. There were a number of one-shot skits which appeared on the classic television show, including Carson’s portrayal of Hamlet delivering the famous “To be or not to be…” soliloquy. In the Johnny Carson version, however, were a number of product advertisements which flowed directly from the famous Shakespearean lines to create one of the funniest portrayals of the play to date.

In addition to providing laughs and unexpected punchlines, Carson would from time to time use his show as a means of exposing scams and fakes who were taking advantage of the public at large. Famed psychic Uri Gellar appeared on the show in 1973. Carson himself set up the props for Gellar’s act without Gellar or his manager being able to see them before filming. Despite Gellar’s claims of having genuine mental powers, he was unable to reproduce his usual tricks with the props that Carson provided. This method of proving Gellar a fraud had been suggested by Carson’s friend James Randi, a trained stage magician (like Carson himself) who later appeared on the show in 1987 to expose the supposed faith healer Peter Popoff. Though Popoff claimed that his knowledge of the audience’s problems came from “Godly visions”, Randi provided Carson and his audience with video that showed Popoff’s wife describing the people for him to heal via a microphone which broadcast to a speaker hidden in his hearing aid.

Other classic TV moments on The Tonight Show included visits from zoologists such as Joan Embery and Jim Fowler. They brought animals which Carson would often interact with in some way; many episodes featured Carson being crawled on by smaller animals. One famous incident often shown as a clip featured Carson leaning down too close to a panther’s cage which caused the cat to swipe at him with its paw. Carson ran across the stage and jumped into Ed McMahon’s arms for comedic effect.

When Johnny Carson retired from the show, his final episodes were considered major events. The most sentimental moment came on the next-to-last of his episodes. Bette Midler and Robin Williams were his guests. After Carson revealed in conversation some of his favorite songs, Midler began to sing one. The song soon became a duet between her and Carson. She finished her appearance by singing “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road).” An emotional Carson began to tear up on camera. This historic and touching moment was caught on film using a long camera angle never used in the previous 30 years of Carson’s run. One of his most emotional classic moments became a historic milestone in late night television filming.

Carson was an amazing entertainer, a charismatic personality and a moment maker. His appeal as a celebrity and a comedian carries on to future generations as classic television shows become available on DVD.

~Ben Anton, 2008

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