Professor of Political Science Stephen Farnsworth, who is also the director of UMW's Center for Leadership and Media Studies, penned an editorial piece in advance of his Great Lives lecture on late-night legend Johnny Carson. He is the author or co-author of seven books, most recently, “Late Night with Trump: Political Humor and the American Presidency.”
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.