Advanced search

In the News

In the News logo

posted January 25, 2005
The Death of Johnny Carson

Generations of American television viewers were caught by surprise on Sunday, January 23, 2005, to learn that Johnny Carson, the legendary "King of Late Night" had passed away at his home in Malibu, California. The cause of death was emphysema. For three decades, encompassing the eras of seven different United States Presidents, Carson had ruled the airwaves of late-night television on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, setting what his successor Jay Leno called "the Gold Standard" for all who would follow in his footsteps.

He was born John William Carson in Corning, IA on October 23, 1925. When Johnny was eight, his family moved to Norfolk, NE, where he spent the rest of his formative years. At the age of 12, he read a book about doing magic tricks, purchased a mail-order magic kit, and that quickly became an obsession. By the age of 14, he was already performing a magician/comedy routine professionally as "The Great Carsoni", entertaining social groups such as the local Rotary Club. Following a three year stint as an ensign in the U.S. Navy Reserve from 1943-46, Carson returned to Nebraska, attending the University of Nebraska, and graduating with a Bachelor's Degree in 1949. During his time at NU, Carson acquired his first broadcast experience, working for the college radio station. When Omaha television station WOW began broadcasting in 1949, Carson was part of their earliest line-up, hosting an early afternoon talk/skit show, The Squirrel's Nest.


Enjoying the challenges of his earliest forays into television, Carson moved to California in the early 1950s, eventually landing a weekly comic series on CBS, Carson's Cellar. While working on this low-budget show, Carson was able to perfect his monologue and sketch comedy skills, and he was soon noticed by the hot new comic talents of the day, including Fred Allen and Red Skelton. Skelton eventually hired Carson to be a writer on The Red Skelton Show. An on-set accident which incapacitated Skelton provided a break for Johnny, who filled in on the live show and gained even more attention in the industry.


After hosting the quiz show Earn Your Vacation and the short-lived The Johnny Carson Show (a variety show), Carson settled into hosting the ABC daytime show Who Do You Trust? in 1957, where he was teamed up with Ed McMahon (as an announcer) for the first time. During his stint with ABC, Johnny served as the occasional guest-host during Jack Paar's period (1957-62) as host of Tonight!, and when Paar eventually stepped down, Johnny was hired as his full-time replacement. Against NBC's wishes, Carson insisted on McMahon's coming along as his sidekick, and Carson's era on The Tonight Show officially began on October 1, 1962.


During Johnny Carson's 30-year run as host, The Tonight Show went from black and white to color broadcasts, and in 1972 moved from New York City to "beautiful downtown Burbank" in California. Over the course of over 4,500 original episodes, Carson played host to over 22,000 guests, and created such popular on-going sketches (with his Mighty Carson Art Players) as Aunt Blabby, misguided super patriot Floyd R. Turbo, Tea Time Movie with Art Fern, and Carnac the Magnificent. Despite bringing his marital troubles (four wives and three divorces) into his monologues, Carson managed to keep his private life very private.


After 30 years at the helm of The Tonight Show, Carson officially called it quits on May 22, 1992, with weeks of special episodes and special guests culminating in an emotional final episode, in which he signed off with the following comments: "And so it has come to this. I am one of the lucky people in the world. I found something that I always wanted to do and I have enjoyed every single minute of it. You people watching, I can only tell you that it's been an honor and a privilege coming into your homes all these years to entertain you. And I hope when I find something I want to do and think you would like, I can come back and (you will be) as gracious in inviting me into your homes as you have been. I bid you a very heartfelt good night."


Since that date, Johnny Carson had lived a life out of the public eye. There were a few cameo appearances on other shows, including a 1994 appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman that earned him a 73-second standing ovation, but for the most part, Carson wasn't seen. He was busy behind the scenes, though, especially with philanthropic activities. Among the many monetary gifts he passed out were numerous funds for facilities in his former home state of Nebraska -- including: $5.3 million for the renovation of The Temple Building at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus, and a substantial investment to support the original construction of The Lied Center on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus, where the Johnny Carson Theater is situated. Johnny was also extremely generous with financial gifts to numerous facilities and causes in Norfolk, Nebraska, which continued to hold a special place in his heart. Among his beneficiaries there were the Carson Regional Cancer Center, the local library, an arts center, the Elkhorn Valley Museum (now host to a trove of Carson memorabilia) and the Lifelong Learning Center at Northeast Community College. Johnny Carson is suvived by his fourth wife, Alexis, and sons Christopher and Cory, from his marriage to first wife Joan Wolcott Carson. He was preceded in death by his second son, Richard, who died in an automobile accident in 1991.


In the News - Resources in Our Collection
The links in this section of this list will take you directly into the items' entries in the catalog of the Lincoln City Libraries, where you can check on the items' availability throughout the library system.

Biographies, Interviews & Profiles
of Johnny Carson and/or The Tonight Show

The Playboy Interviews  081 Hal [1993]
Show People: Profiles in Entertainment  790.2 Tyn [1979]
Carson: The Unauthorized Biography  791.452 CarYc [1987]
Here's Johnny: Thirty Years of America's Favorite Late Night Entertainment  791.452 CarYc [1992]
Here's Johnny: Thirty Years of America's Favorite Late Night Entertainment [updated]  791.452 CarYc [2002]
King of the Night: The Life of Johnny Carson  791.452 CarYl [1989]
King of the Night: The Life of Johnny Carson  791.452 CarYl [1990 paperback]
Johnny Carson: An Unauthorized Biography  791.452 CarYs [1987]
The Tonight Show  791.457 Met [1980]
40 Years at Night: The Story of The Tonight Show  791.457 qTonYv [1992]
Johnny Tonight!  791.457 Ten [1980]
The Playboy Interview, Volume II  Heritage 081 Gol [1983]

Additional Works With References to Johnny Carson

I'm So Happy  306 Hei [1990]
My Wild World  636.088 Emb [1980]
Johnny Came Lately: A Biography 
[Tonight Show producer Fred Decordova's biography]
791.452 Dec [1988]
Peter's People  920.02 Pet [1979]
Double Exposure, Take Two  SOS 779.12 McD2 [1989]
For Laughing Out Loud: My Life and Good Times 
[Ed McMahon's biography]
791.452 McM [1998]

Books by Johnny Carson

Happiness is-- A Dry Martini  Heritage 817 C23h [1965]
Misery is... A Blind Date  Heritage 817 C23m [1967]
Both of these items are located in the non-circulating collection of our Heritage Room of Nebraska Authors

Audio and/or Video Materials

Ultimate Collection Starring Johnny Carson vol. 1-3  DVD 791.452 Car [1989]
[Carson is host/narrator of this Nature video]
Video 599.5 Nat [1988]

Vertical File/Clippings

In the News - On-Line Resources

The following databases and/or webliographies on the Lincoln City Libraries site can be used to access numerous articles and/or links to additional resources about Johnny Carson on-line. [If you have difficulty using these databases, or need the log-on passwords, please contact the Reference Department at 441-8530 for assistance.]

Database: Ebsco Masterfile Elite [Index of magazine/journal articles - many full-text]
Database: Wilson Omnifile & Biographies Plus [Index of magazine/journal articles - many full-text; plus - biographical profiles]
Database: eLibrary [Index of magazine/newspaper/radio articles - many full-text]
Database: New York Times [Database of articles from the NYT]
LCL Webliography: Entertainment and Arts Resources

Additional on-line resources * about Johnny Carson:

"The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson"
Official site of the Johnny Carson years of the "Tonight Show". Features video clips from Johnny's most memorable moments on the show. Also features video ordering information
Brilliant Careers: Johnny Carson
A February 2001 tribute to Carson from
Johnny Carson page at the IMDb
The Internet Movie Database's complete list of Johnny Carson's TV and movie credits
The Elkhorn Valley Museum
Norfolk, NE museum which houses Carson memorabilia, including his six Emmy Awards
The Museum of Broadcast Communications
Biographical page
E!Online's "The Facts"
Biographical Information
"So Long to Johnny, America's Sandman"
New York Times columnist Frank Rich on Carson's last 'Tonight Show' episode. From May 10, 1992
Profile of Carson after his death
Washington Post detailed obituary, January 23, 2005
Profile of Carson after his death detailed obituary, January 23, 2005
"Johnny Knew What He Wanted"
A Q&A Session With Ed McMahon on "The Today Show", January 24, 2005
Steve Martin's tribute to Johnny Carson
From the New York Times Op/Ed pages, January 24, 2005
Johnny Carson: America's Late-Night Host
A collection of links to articles from the New York Times database
Profile and Obituary of Johnny Carson
Detailed profile from Investors Business Daily
A Life in Broadcasting
A slideslow on of Johnny Carson's career
An Appreciation: Late-Night's "King of Cool"
A look at Carson's impact, by's Todd Leopold
A History of The Tonight Show
Straight from the official Carson "Tonight Show" website
NBC's Official The Tonight Show Page
Page for the current version of "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno"

* Please Note: The presence of a link on this site does not constitute an endorsement by Lincoln City Libraries.

Are you interested in the materials and resources available at the library about people, issues and events that have been in the news? Click on the subject below for more information.

Back to the Reference Department page
Library Departments
Main Library Homepage