By Adam Nedeff, Researcher for the National Archives of Game Show History
October 2022 marks the 60th anniversary of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. For the next 30 years after its debut in 1962, Carson became a nightly habit for millions of Americans, who were treated to his monologue as a record of the day’s events, sketch comedy featuring “The Mighty Carson Art Players,” Johnny’s lively chit-chat with announcer/sidekick Ed McMahon, the musical interludes of Doc Severinsen and his orchestra, and Johnny’s famous (and not-so famous) guests. Over the years, Carson developed a reputation for warm and witty conversations with people from all walks of life—celebrities, newsmakers, new comedians, or children or elderly people with stories that had caught his attention. It was a simple and successful formula that turned Carson into one of the most popular, and most powerful, stars that the entertainment world had ever known.
Game shows would serve as the launch pad that propelled Carson to The Tonight Show desk. As his star rose in the 1950s and early ‘60s, he could often be found on the panels of game shows. He cross-examined the fibbers on To Tell the Truth and gave the clues on Password.
He made many appearances on I’ve Got a Secret; he bravely agreed to be hooked up to a lie detector while he answered the panel’s questions. Host Garry Moore had to be the brave one for an evening where Carson, an amateur archer, aimed his bow and arrow at the apple on Moore’s head. Moore survived; the apple did not. Lucille Ball, shortly after her divorce from Desi Arnaz, appeared as a guest on the show and flirted with Carson while pretending to be inebriated.
BALL: Johnny, are you married?
CARSON: My story is the same as yours.
On the panel of What’s My Line?, he voiced his exasperation with moderator John Charles Daly’s efforts to nitpick each question the panel asked, to clarify them as precisely as possible.
CARSON Is there any physical action involved in what you teach? Movement?
DALY: Other than the necessary movement that is germane to the fact of instruction or teaching?
CARSON: John, when you talk, the words come out lying in state.
Carson’s big break was as host of games. In the nascent stages of his career, he hosted a show called Earn Your Vacation. His big hit was an ABC daytime game, Who Do You Trust?, which paired him up with announcer Ed McMahon for the first time. Like You Bet Your Life, Who Do You Trust? was a game in which the actual game was something of an afterthought. The emphasis was on the lengthy, humorous interviews that Johnny conducted with the contestants, firing off witty remarks and freewheeling his way through the live commercials for Jell-O that were part of the program. Carson made such a striking impression as host that when Tonight host Jack Paar took a few nights off, Carson got the call to fill in for him. When Jack Paar gave his notice that he was departing the show for good in 1962, NBC knew they had the right man to fill the opening.
Even as he ceased sitting on panels, Carson maintained a friendly relationship with the game show genre in his years as Tonight Show host, frequently welcoming hosts and producers as guests, advocating on behalf of game shows when the Emmys considered eliminating awards for them,
DO YOU REMEMBER…THESE OTHER LATE NIGHT LEGENDS WHO LAUNCHED THEIR CAREERS ON GAME SHOWS?
STEVE ALLEN: Steve Allen joined What’s My Line? as a regular panelist in 1953, telling Mark Goodson and Bill Todman that he would only remain on the show until he got a series of his own on one of the national networks. Allen remained with the show for 21 months, enough time for him to coin the phrase “Is it bigger than a breadbox?,” and then departed in September 1954 to become the first host of The Tonight Show.
DAVID LETTERMAN: David Letterman was a talk radio host in Indianapolis when Allen Ludden, drumming up publicity for Password, visited in 1974 to give an interview. Ludden was so taken by the quirky host that he offered to lend some help if Letterman ever moved to Hollywood. Ludden kept his word, and David Letterman became a frequent “charter member” on Liars Club.
JIMMY KIMMEL: An up-and-coming radio host at the time he got the call to serve as announcer/sidekick for Win Ben Stein’s Money, Kimmel’s laid-back slacker vibes were a perfect counterpart to the stuffy deadpan of host Ben Stein. Kimmel nabbed an Emmy for Outstanding Game Show Host before departing to launch Jimmy Kimmel Live! On ABC.