DescriptionJohnny Carson's "Tonight Show" Desk -- We Kid You Not! It was on the night of October 1, 1962 that an era began. That was the night Johnny Carson took over as host of NBC's "Tonight Show." That show opened with the new announcer, Ed McMahon, listing the night's guest stars -- Joan Crawford, Rudy Vallee, Tony Bennett, Mel Brooks and the Phoenix Singers. Groucho Marx was on stage to bring the new host on in style. A nervous Johnny Carson walked out to strong applause and his first words were "Boy, you would think it was Vice President Nixon." After the applause subsided, Carson said "Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you" and, feigning extreme stage fright, "I want my nana!" It was nearly 30 years, 4,500 shows and 24,000 guests later when a clearly emotional Carson closed his final show on May 22, 1992 with the words "I bid you a very heartfelt goodnight." In that span, John William Carson became a national treasure and a comedic icon. And he did it with the simplest of props -- a desk!
The Desk From Which Millions of Americans Were Entertained After the requisite monologue and a commercial break, Carson usually would next be seen at the desk with sidekick Ed McMahon in the seat next to him. Before the first guest was called out, there was usually some chat between the two and almost always a comedy bit. One of everybody's favorite recurring routines that took place at the desk was Carnac. Ed would appear alone and announce a visitor from the East -- a sage, seer, soothsayer, the all-knowing, all-omniscient, the famous mystic Carnac the Magnificent. Carson would walk out in a cape and large eastern-style headdress. He would then divine the answer to a question sealed in an envelope that had been "hermetically sealed in a mayonnaise jar on Funk & Wagnall's front porch since noon today," having never seen the question. For example, Carnac would concentrate and announce "Jerry Falwell." He would then tear open the envelope and read the question "How does ex-President Ford come down the stairs?" Other popular characters and sketches done at the desk included Aunt Blabby and The Edge of Wetness.
The Desk From Which Thousands of Straight Lines Were Served. One of the great things about Carson was his ability to put ego aside and serve up straight lines for the thousands of comedians, actors and just regular people that appeared as guests on his show. Carson would make even the most nervous guest feel at ease and he brought out the best in everyone. Comic Jackie Mason summed it up with "The nervousness never lasted more than a second because he was so congenial and comfortable." Joan Rivers once called him "The best straight man in the business." He knew when to ask a probing question and when to be quiet and let the guest take the lead. That, apparently is a rare gift. Various networks brought dozens of competing shows to the air during his 30 years but Carson was always the best at what he did, keeping both the "A" list stars and a huge national audience coming back for more.
The Desk From Which Hundreds of Careers Were Launched. Once Carson got his big break with the "Tonight Show" he seemed determined to give as many new and young comics a chance at stardom as possible. His show was the springboard for dozens of our best comedians. David Letterman said, "He gave me a shot on his show and in doing so gave me a career." Joan Rivers, who was once Carson's permanent guest host, said of him "We all started on his show. Every solid comedian today really got their break on the Carson show." David Brenner, Jerry Seinfeld, Garry Shandling, Drew Carey, David Letterman and Jay Leno are just a few who can attribute much of their success to Johnny Carson.
The Desk From Which Innumerable Books and Movies Were Plugged. The movie studios and book publishers have a system. When a movie star or author has a new movie or book nearing release, they get placed on the talk shows to "plug" the new project. Can you even imagine how many major stars appeared on the "Tonight Show," sat next to this desk and shamelessly promoted a new movie, show or book? It would be interesting to do the research.
The Desk From Which a Few Routines Bombed. Even a king has an occasional off-day and Johnny Carson was no exception. Every now and then, a routine or interview just did not go over as well as expected. Carson was excellent at knowing when a routine was bombing and he was a master at making the most of it. Once, at this very desk, the material that was prepared for him and placed on index cards just was not working out. He stopped the bit, took the index cards, his garbage can (which is included in this auction lot), his lighter and put a fiery end to the offending material. Interestingly, you can still see the black scorch marks on the carpet underneath the top of this desk!
It is hard to be certain, but it is likely that there were approximately five different desks used by Johnny Carson during his 30 year run as host of the "Tonight Show." The particular desk offered here was used, to the best of our knowledge and research, from 1974 until 1981. These were years in which the show was in its prime and for the most part, still in the longer 90-minute format. Literally thousands of fabulous guests appeared during these years, as well as numerous great guest hosts including David Letterman. In perusing reruns of old shows, one sometimes notices a lower ledge at the guest's side of the desk. This was not ever part of this desk but rather a separate extension piece that was sometimes placed there, possibly at a guest's request. It is not included in this auction. The top has a gold formica finish. The inside is carpeted in red shag with a "hidden" slide-out tray on which Carson placed his ashtray so it would not be seen by the television audience once it became unfashionable to smoke on the air. This vertically grained rosewood finish desk is really not very large -- approximately 60" x 31" x 21" but it was big enough for the King to sit behind.
Picture in your mind images of Johnny Carson sitting at this desk -- adjusting the microphone (which Heritage recently sold), nervously tapping his pencil, taking a sip from his coffee cup, shuffling his note cards. Picture the hundreds of cute little animals from the San Diego Zoo that he played with on this desk. Picture the thousands of legendary actors, singers, writers, comedians and politicians who sat next to this desk. Picture the millions of people who laughed at the comedy originating from this desk. Then, picture yourself as the owner of this desk. It could happen!
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