FOR THREE decades, from 1962 to 1992, Johnny Carson dominated late night television in a way that no entertainer ever has or ever will.
In a career containing more than 5,000 episodes of “The Tonight Show,” Carson tucked Americans in at night with his signature mix of mostly gentle barbs directed at political figures and his immense roster of usually compelling guests.
Of course, to say that Carson dominated television during his era is to understate the case. By every measure, not only was he first—he was so far ahead of the competition that it hardly mattered who placed second.
At its peak, Carson’s 90-minute show generated roughly 17 percent of all NBC’s profits, an astonishing share of income from a single program, and one that aired after the prime television viewing hours.
Carson’s era was not a placid time in the U.S., and his show offered a refuge from the troubles of one’s day. In addition, he was the ideal host to steer Middle America through those difficult decades when he held court at 11:30 p.m.
To put it simply, there was no “back of the bus” at the Tonight Show. At a time when African Americans faced violence if they sought to take a seat at lunch counters or in many southern restaurants, Carson’s diverse array of guests cheerfully sat shoulder to shoulder.
Carson’s respectful treatment of a diverse range of political and cultural voices helped undermine Jim Crow practices in this country. The program’s comedy and conversations transmitted into the nation’s living rooms a path towards greater public understanding, if not acceptance, of the many political and cultural changes that roiled the nation during that time.
Over five nights during February 1968, Carson tapped Harry Belafonte—a prominent singer, actor and civil rights activist—to serve as guest host. Thanks to Carson’s initiative, Belafonte brought into America’s living rooms an extraordinary range of African American artists and newsmakers and their white allies to discuss the ongoing crises, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, Dionne Warwick, Aretha Franklin, Lena Horne and Diahann Carroll.
Later that year, as conditions in America worsened, Carson offered two nights of tributes following the assassinations of King and Kennedy.
Even during the turbulent 1960s, “The Tonight Show” offered lighter fare in addition to sometimes sober political discussions. Such variety was a key part of Carson’s appeal.
One of Carson’s highest-rated shows was the wedding of Tiny Tim, an iconic singer of that decade best known for his falsetto rendition of “Tiptoe through the Tulips.” This briefly famous guest brought 58 million viewers to “The Tonight Show” for his televised wedding in December 1969.
Carson’s softer touch when it came to political humor meshed well with his era. As politics and public opinion became much more partisan in recent decades, Carson’s successors followed the lead of their audiences.
Carson’s comedy, expressed without meanness, might seem tame and out-of-touch to fans of today’s late night comics. After Carson, subsequent comics retained “The Tonight Show” format, but pumped up the political venom to reflect the harsher realities of the 21st century.
Of course, were he to host a late night comedy program today, Carson likely would be highly critical of the 45th president. Donald Trump is simply too appealing a target for any comedian of any era to resist.
Even so, I suspect Carson would not enjoy hosting the current version of “The Tonight Show” as much as he did during his own era.
The intensely competitive Carson would say what was necessary to become number one in the ratings, of course. But I suspect that he, along with more than a few of his fans, would mourn the passage of those gentler, less combative times.
Stephen J. Farnsworth is professor of political science and international affairs and director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington. He is the author or co-author of seven books, most recently, “Late Night with Trump: Political Humor and the American Presidency.” He will speak on Johnny Carson as part of UMW’s Crawley Great Lives Series on Tuesday, Feb. 9, at 7:30 p.m. The Zoom talk may be accessed online at https://www.umw.edu/greatlives.