News Article

Under His Influence

Here are six ways the late Johnny Carson reinvented television, from moving to California to poking fun at politicians

Johnny Carson | PREZ-ING MATTERS Carson brought political humor to a new level
Image credit: Johnny Carson: NBC
PREZ-ING MATTERS Carson brought political humor to a new level

1. He made TV hosts A-list. Carson declined Steve McQueen's role in The Thomas Crown Affair and Gene Wilder's part in Blazing Saddles. Who needs hit movies when you're one of TV's greatest? (Current TV stars, take note.)

2. You can thank him for all those Burbank jokes When The Tonight Show traded in Broadway for Burbank in 1972, he officially shifted the epicenter of celebrity from New York to the much-maligned Los Angeles suburb.

3. Thanks to him, presidents are expected game in late night He may not have fired the first political poke, but after his Watergate jokes killed, Washington humor was forever an opening-monologue must.

4. He turned late-night TV into a cash cow By 1978, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson had not only doubled its audience, it also accounted for an estimated 17 percent of NBC's profits. Bringing us to No. 5...

5. He proved talent has clout (say thank you, David Letterman). Following well-publicized (and highly lucrative) contract renegotiations in 1967 and 1977, Carson threatened to walk in 1979 — reportedly after a network exec lamented his flexible work schedule. A fat new 1980 contract gave him a raise that took his annual pay to a then-record $5 million, and the show was shortened from 90 minutes to 60.

6. He created ''watercooler'' TV. It might have existed before him, but we're pretty sure that the well ran dry on April 30, 1965 — the morning after Ed Ames chucked that infamous crotch-bound tomahawk on The Tonight Show.

Originally posted Jan 26, 2005 Published in issue #804-805 Feb 04, 2005 Order article reprints
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