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    Johnny Carson's 1949 College Senior Thesis -- The Original Recording. From childhood, Johnny Carson had been fascinated with entertaining people. He got his start on stage at the age of 14 for the local Rotary Club in his hometown of Norfolk, Nebraska, calling himself "The Great Carsoni," performing magic tricks (an interest he maintained his whole life) and telling jokes. After serving in the Navy as an ensign during World War II, the young John Carson enrolled in the University of Nebraska with the goal of earning a degree in radio and speech in order to pursue a career in broadcasting. While at Nebraska, he was a member of Phi Gamma Delta fraternity and served as Master of Ceremonies for the Kosmet Klub, the male dramatic society. Off-campus activities included performances at the local American Legion, VFW and various clubs, where he honed his comedy timing and practiced the skills he learned in class. He also wrote and performed for KAFB Radio in Lincoln.

    Before the completion of his Bachelor of Arts degree in Radio and Speech, Carson had to do a senior thesis for his broadcasting professor William Dempsey. This was an oral assignment to be recorded at the college radio station and submitted to the professor. For his project, Carson chose a topic close to his own heart, "How to Write Comedy for Radio." It was a scholarly examination of the techniques and devices that the behind-the-scenes writers used to make America listen to, laugh at and buy the products advertised by the popular radio comedians of the day. In it, Carson uses bits from well-known stars such as Jack Benny and Bob Hope to illustrate these comedy techniques. One can tell that, even at this young age, Carson had an innate sense of what makes people laugh as he dissects the comedy of Benny, Hope, Fred Allen and others. He calls these radio comedians "paid-up life members in good standing of millions of American homes" and he calls their gag writers "forgotten souls" but claims that if you know how to make people laugh and can write it down, these same comedians are waiting, check in hand, to hire you to write their material. Carson passed the course, graduated from college in 1949, quickly got a local job in the new medium of television and, well, you know the rest of that story.

    Carson's college professor, William Dempsey, also followed a career in broadcasting and ended up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, at TV station WZZM, the ABC affiliate on channel 13. Through the years, he kept in his archives these three 16" transcription discs of John Carson's senior project. Dempsey was a fine public speaker and lecturer and often spoke to local organizations, taking with him his best friend from the station, Bill Prins, to record and edit these talks. Their friendship grew through the years. Dempsey passed away in the 1970s and his widow, in preparation for moving to Arizona, called Mr. Prins over and gave him all her husband's old records and related memorabilia including these Carson discs. Mr. Prins made several efforts to contact Johnny Carson through NBC with the offer to return these prized segments of broadcast history to him in person in exchange for a trip to Burbank but never received a reply. Mr. Prins is now semi-retired and wants to place these valuable discs in the hand of a collector who will appreciate them and understand their historical significance. The lot consists of three discs of about 15 minutes each, every other sided playing inside out as was the method of that period. (While most standard turntables can play these oversized 33 rpm records, many companies exist that can record them to tape or computer files.) We believe this to be the earliest recording of Johnny Carson extant.

    When you listen to these discs, there is no doubt that this is the voice of Johnny Carson. It is almost eerie to hear that familiar, distinctive voice coming from so far out of the past. This college student was to become a legend every bit as big as these personal heroes he is analyzing and paying tribute to in this senior project. It is particularly poignant to hear him talk about his all-time favorite, Jack Benny. Part of Carson's earliest routines was a dead-on impression of Benny. Known to be a man to not show his emotions, Carson's wife once said that the only time she saw him cry was at Jack Benny's memorial service. Between them, Jack Benny and Bob Hope appeared dozens of times on the "Tonight Show" and, after listening to this early Carson recording, you can understand how big a thrill it must have been for him to sit and talk to these bigger-than-life comedians he studied in college. Though he is no longer with us, Johnny Carson is still, and will always be, a paid-up life member in good standing of millions of American homes.
    Listen to samples of his historic collection: Sample 1, Sample 2, Sample 3.


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    Auction Dates
    October, 2005
    8th Saturday
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