There are few people who had more of an impact on the pop culture landscape than Johnny Carson. In addition to being regarded as a master comedian and the greatest late-night talk show host ever, his 30-year run as host of “The Tonight Show” provided the launching pad for countless careers across the show business spectrum.
Even 24 years after his last broadcast in 1992, Carson retains royalty status in American culture. An extensive new DVD collection is being released today by Time-Life to celebrate the mark he made.
“What made Johnny so great was he wanted the guest to shine.”
“The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson: The Vault Series” delivers some of the best complete episodes from Johnny’s reign, plus bonus material, in single discs ($14.95), and three-DVD ($39.95), six-DVD ($59.95), and 12-DVD sets ($99.95). Each DVD features two episodes chosen out of the 4,000 total that Johnny oversaw.
Among the many highlights are the 10th and 11th anniversary shows and Johnny’s birthday episodes, a week of shows from March 1976, visits from Carnac the Magnificent and the Mighty Carson Art Players, and Johnny singing “Rhinestone Cowboy” astride a donkey.
Carson is also at his best bantering with famous friends including Bob Hope, Dean Martin, Richard Pryor, Muhammad Ali, Bing Crosby, Jack Benny, Sean Connery, John Denver, Peter Fonda, Charlton Heston, Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, Paul McCartney, Burt Reynolds, Don Rickles, Orson Welles, and many others.
One guest who can thank Johnny for launching his career is Lance Burton, the master magician who performed more than 15,000 shows in Las Vegas for a total audience of more than five million people. Retired since 2010, he retains happy memories of the man who changed his life forever.
In an interview with LifeZette, Burton, 56, discussed how he made his debut on “Tonight” just one week after moving to Los Angeles from Kentucky. It was his favorite appearance ever (he did 10 with Johnny, and 10 with Jay Leno) — and the special gift that Johnny’s nephew gave him five years ago.
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Question: You’re from Kentucky originally, but managed to get on the “Tonight Show” within a week of moving to L.A. How did that happen?
Answer: I grew up in Louisville and was doing magic shows all through school. When I was 20 in 1980, I entered a contest sponsored by the International Brotherhood of Magicians, won their Gold Medal contest and as a result was booked for two weeks in L.A. to do what’s known as The Magic Show in a theater there … And I somehow got picked after the talent coordinator came to our preview show on Oct. 28, 1981.
The next day I’m standing next to the stage manager at “The Tonight Show,” and I see a hand coming toward me. Instinctively, I turned to shake it and I found I was shaking Johnny Carson’s hand. He was very nice and complimentary … They rearranged to put me on first, ahead of Dick Cavett. They both had interest in magic, and they talked about magic, and me and my act. It really was the greatest launching pad ever for a career in show business. Johnny worked as a magician as a young man, then did comedy and show hosting … I realized that when Johnny saw me the first time, he saw himself in this Midwestern kid doing sleight of hand really well. I think that was the basis of our relationship: He saw himself.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do anything without Johnny intervening personally. I can trace 15,000 Vegas shows back to that first ‘Tonight Show.'”
Q: Do you have a favorite appearance on the show?
A: The one time I interacted with Johnny, I think it was my fourth appearance on the show, in the mid-’80s, and I had a trick where I had a sword. Normally I’d put the sword up to a gentleman’s chest, tug his hand, and kidnap a guy from the audience. It’s a classic of magic: He’d select the card, shuffle the card in the deck, I’d toss it in the air and as they fluttered, I’d stab the card he selected.
But the night I did it on the “Tonight Show,” I chose Johnny as the volunteer. The studio audience went crazy. Johnny knew exactly how much to do and how much not to do, even without rehearsal. What made Johnny so great was he wanted the guest to shine, and didn’t want to overshadow the guest. I never got as big a laugh as I did that night, because he was perfect.
Q: Long after he passed in 2005, Johnny’s nephew gave you a remarkable memento from the star.
A: When Johnny passed away, apparently at his home there in Malibu, he still had all of his magic equipment and props [that he bought] when he was a kid, starting at 12 years old. His nephew Jeff inherited all that stuff … He decided to give those magic props away to some of the guys Johnny liked. I was really overwhelmed they gave me this prop at the Los Angeles Conference on Magic History. The square circle is the name of the trick, and I have a letter from Johnny’s nephew Jeff written on Johnny’s personal letterhead. I have it here on display at home. That was a really big honor.
Q: What do you feel accounts for the lasting impact of “The Tonight Show” under Johnny?
A: There’s so many late-night shows on now and so many other shows new talent can go on. I don’t think many young people realize the huge impact Johnny had on the culture of modern entertainment. When I first did “The Tonight Show” in 1981, that was it — the day before you’re a bum, and the next day your career is off and running. My whole career is thanks to Johnny Carson. I wouldn’t have been able to do anything without Johnny intervening personally. I can trace 15,000 Vegas shows back to that first “Tonight Show.”
They [the Carson show] took great pride in that. They were proud of the fact that they broke new talent … More people became big through the “The Tonight Show” than any other show in television.