Monday marks the 50th anniversary of the debut of “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” which set a standard for late-night programming that might never be matched.
Carson wasn’t the first or last host of the show but he provided countless memorable moments between his Oct. 1, 1962 debut and his retirement in 1992. Here are a handful of standouts that come to mind as we look back on his legacy.
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Paul Williams Goes Ape on “The Tonight Show”
Johnny Carson had many, many guests during his run on “The Tonight Show,” but singer Paul Williams’ Feb. 9, 1973 appearance was a little more special than most. Williams, who had been filming “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” (he played Virgil, in case you didn’t recognize him), showed up on set in his costume to belt out a tune. Man, that’s bananas.
Carson Makes a Boob of Himself
Carson interviewed famously top-heavy songbird Dolly Parton in 1977, which were clearly more relaxed times than we currently live in. Discussing Parton’s physical bounty, Carson offered the line, “I have certain guidelines on this show, but I would give about a year’s pay to peek under [Parton’s blouse],” a line that became a classic and would likely get him slapped with a lawsuit today.
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“The Tonight Show” Gets Rand-y
Carson’s guests tended to lean toward entertainers, but in 1967 he welcomed “The Fountainhead” author and mother of the Objectivist movement Ayn Rand onto the show for a breezy chat about man’s role in modern society and the morality of rational self-interest. Crack open a cold one and check it out below.
Johnny Gets De-Pantsed
It’s a time-honored maxim of comedy: When you need a quick laugh, shredding a guy’s pants on national TV gets the job done. In this case, Zsa Zsa Gabor served as Carson’s comedic enabler, stripping him half-bare during a skit.
Carson Shows Off His Trouser Snake
Johnny Carson could be pretty funny with his pants on, too. Carson’s interactions with the animal kingdom during his “Tonight Show” yielded numerous funny moments, but this 1986 run-in with a python was comedy gold. As the snake slithered between the host’s legs, Carson kept relatively cool to deliver the line, “If only in real life.”
Johnny Chips Away at an Old Lady’s Sanity
Sometimes Carson’s humor could border on cruelty — but it remained hilarious nonetheless. Case in point: In 1987, the host interviewed potato-chip collector — yes, that’s right — Myrtle Young and nearly stopped her heart by seeming to devour her prized, pear-shaped chip. In reality, the chip came from a bowl concealed behind Carson. Cruel? Maybe. But can you imagine sitting through an interview with a potato-chip collector without a prank?
Carson Breaks Out His Willie
Carson wasn’t primarily known as an impersonator, but he was no slouch in that department. Such as in 1984, when he donned the bandanna and braids to do his best Willie Nelson as he dueted with Julio Iglesias on the mega-hit “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before.” Close your eyes, and you’d think you were listening to the Red Headed Stranger himself. (Or at least a comically nasal version of him.)