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50 Years Ago This Week: The King of Late-Night Television

6 minute read

Milestone moments do not a year make. Often, it’s the smaller news stories that add up, gradually, to big history. With that in mind, in 2017 TIME History will revisit the entire year of 1967, week by week, as it was reported in the pages of TIME. Catch up on last week’s installment here.

Week 20: May 19, 1967

When it came time to introduce the subject of this week’s cover story, TIME took the easy route: “And now — here’s Johnny!”

Johnny Carson had taken the reins at NBC’s Tonight in 1962, taking over from Jack Paar, and had already become a late-night television institution. And, thanks to a new contract, he was making $1 million a year doing it. (That’s about $7.4 million today — about half of what current host Jimmy Fallon makes, but a lot for the time.) What, TIME wondered, was the secret to his success?

Maybe it was a new cultural climate in which, as actor Tony Randall put it in the story, “people must be entertained 24 hours a day,” and talk shows were on the rise in both television and radio. But, more likely, it was something special about Carson:

By the time he was twelve, Johnny had found his course. “That’s when I answered a magazine ad that promised to make me a magician and also ‘The Life of the Party.’ ” Not to mention the death of the household. He worked for hours every day at card tricks in front of the mirror. His mother says he was a pest: “He was always at your elbow with a trick.” To this day, reports his sister Catherine (now a Philadelphia housewife and secretary), “whenever the family wants to needle John, we say, Take a card, take a card.’ ” Still, determination paid off. At 14, Johnny was a pro. His mother stitched up an impressive black banner emblazoned with yellow Chinese-like characters reading THE GREAT CARSONI, and Johnny played the Norfolk Rotary Club and local parties at $3 per gig.

From high school in 1943, the Great Carsoni joined the Navy V12 program, served aboard the U.S.S. Pennsylvania and later in Guam. He saw no combat, but he had plenty of time to polish his magic act and work on ventriloquism. He recalls that he devoted a long night to decoding a Navy message, and delivered it to the admiral’s quarters at 7 a.m. Visiting with the admiral was Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, who asked the young ensign what he was going to do after the war. “I hadn’t really given it much thought,” says Carson today, “but I had to say something.” So for the next few hours, he entertained the SECNAV with card tricks.

The great rehearsal continued after the war at the University of Nebraska. Johnny majored in English, Speech and Alpha Phi girls when he wasn’t off broadcasting for the local radio station or working magic on the service-club circuit. He was strictly an average student and strictly show business. He played Cleopatra in a fraternity spectacular called She Was Only a Pharaoh’s Daughter, But She Never Became a Mummy. His senior thesis, titled Comedy Writing, was not in manuscript but on tape. Its quotes and footnotes contained excerpts from Fred Allen, Fibber McGee and Molly, and Bob Hope shows. Carson’s analysis of timing and his appreciation of other crucial matters was somewhat naive (“A good comedian can get you to buy his sponsor’s products”), but “not bad,” he insists, “for 18 years ago.”

Cashless society: A funny letter from a reader about an article that had suggested that the U.S. might be moving toward a system where few people carried cash is fascinating for the way the reader’s concerns differ from those today. Faced with the prospect of bank cards similar to today’s debit cards, the reader frets that it will mean the end of the “fun” out of controlling (or manipulating) one’s own bank balance. “If we are to live in a computerized society where everything is tabulated and deducted as soon as purchased,” she wrote, “I will have to live within my income, and I definitely do not want that.”

War report: Though the Vietnam War had been going on for years, with the U.S. actively involved since 1961, this week’s issue contained the first detailed Defense Department accounting of the American dead. The total combat dead by that point included “6,878 enlisted men, 868 officers and 80 warrant officers.”

News news: A media report explains a change underway in the “women’s pages” of the nation’s newspapers. Once separated from the news as the home of gossip and society profiles written by socialites in their spare time, the sections of papers that were aimed at women were now full of incisive reports on the issues that really affected readers’ lives, from stories about birth-control developments to an exposé about the hidden lives of suburban alcoholics. “The women editors have performed so handsomely that they may be working themselves out of a job,” TIME noted. “Not only is their section as newsworthy as the rest of the paper; in some cases it has been absorbed by it.”

On the record: Another bit of media news strikes at an ongoing problem for the press: what to do about anonymous sources. The New York Times and Washington Post had worked together to come up with a new, stricter policy about the use of not-for-attribution government sources. Though Post Managing Editor Benjamin Bradlee acknowledged that his paper would probably get scooped by less scrupulous sources now and then, he considered it a service to readers “to try to call a halt to spurious backgrounders,” as TIME put it.

Cutting-edge technology: The newest thing making a splash on American college campuses was the computer. But the advances that were making such a difference in 1967 would likely not be recognized by today’s undergrads. (“At Texas A. & M.,” the magazine observed, “students drop their computer data at a window, walk half a block to find the answers waiting on a table—and find the process so pleasant that they dub these evening sessions ‘happy hours.'”) One concern they would likely recognize was identified by Harvard’s Anthony Oettinger, who told TIME that the students of 1967 weren’t afraid of the new technology—”The problem,” he said, “is to keep them from getting addicted.”

Great vintage ad: The little ad in the top right corner of this page is trying to sell the services of a career counselor — but aims its copy at women in a very retrograde way, asking them to think about whether they’re holding up their husbands’ promotions by giving them the idea that security is more important than advancement.

Coming up next week: The story of African-American soldiers in Vietnam

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com