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Heeeeere's Johnny!

Late-night television and the name Johnny Carson are synonymous. Although Carson was not the first person to host a late-night show, he became known as the “king” of television during the 30 years in which he hosted “The Tonight Show.”

Johnny Carson A pensive Carson in a studio hallway

The Library of Congress Manuscript Division has more than 47,000 items in the Johnny Carson Collection. Alice Birney, a specialist in the division, wrote this about the collection:

Remember when, promptly at 11:30 p.m., it was time for that nightly rendezvous with a special old friend? Remember when sleep vied with the tease of the next guest, the next joke? There were certain invariables for the old “Tonight Show”: the seducing commercial-less beginning, the trumpeting announcer’s build-up, the dramatic curtain opening, the inevitable appearance of Johnny in yet another neat suit.

The sureness of the steps that followed progressed with the satisfaction invoked by any traditional dance, ceremony or ritual -- the monologue, the skit and the sequence of surprising and delightful guests, with Johnny always balancing his words with a seeming effortlessness, sauntering along a line between diplomacy and insult. All of this comprises only recent television past, but it already has become part of the history of American popular culture.

Birney’s complete article can be read in the online version of the Library of Congress Information Bulletin. This publication chronicles the national library’s news, collections, events and exhibitions and can be accessed at //

The papers of another great comic are also at the Library. Bob Hope’s career spanned nearly 70 years. When he donated his papers, the Library honored him with a permanent exhibition in the Thomas Jefferson Building. A virtual Bob Hope exhibition is accessible online. The exhibition chronicles his early years in vaudeville through his television appearances and entertainment of U.S. troops around the world.

Another excellent source for the early years of entertainment is “American Variety Stage: 1870-1920” in the American Memory Web site. Here you can access motion pictures dating to 1897, early English and Yiddish playscripts, theater playbills and programs, sound recordings and a special presentation on the master illusionist Harry Houdini.

A. [Portrait of Johnny Carson]. Manuscript Division. Reproduction information: Not available for reproduction.

B. Stanley Tretick, photographer. A pensive Carson in a studio hallway, from a Look magazine article in January 1966. Reproduction information: Not available for reproduction.