Johnny Carson laid the groundwork for successful nighttime television. He hosted The Tonight Show for 30 years from 1962 to 1992, turning it into one of the most-watched programs on television. The show helped break major comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Drew Carey and served as an inspiration to future late show hosts, including David Letterman, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, and Jimmy Fallon. Throughout the run of The Tonight Show, Carson won six Emmys, a Peabody, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom. At its peak, the show was averaging 11 million viewers every single night.
That success proved quite lucrative to Carson. While he entertained millions, he was also racking up millions. Beyond that, he left a significant amount of money to charity when he died in 2005.
But just how much did Carson make during his peak?
And how much money did he leave behind?
Spoiler: The answer to both questions is “a lot.”
What’s most impressive about Carson’s success is that he started in radio, not television. He served in the Navy during World War II and graduated from the University of Nebraska upon his return, earning his degree in radio and speech. Carson quickly grew his local fan base at an Omaha radio station before moving to Los Angeles in 1951 to pursue bigger things.
In LA, Carson started a show called Carson’s Cellar, which again quickly exploded in popularity. Carson caught the attention of Red Skelton, who hired him to work on his TV show. From 1954 to 1962, Carson was the host of multiple television programs and panel game shows, including To Tell the Truth, Who Do You Trust, and Earn Your Vacation. At the beginning of 1962, Jack Paar announced he was leaving The Tonight Show. NBC executives asked Carson to take Paar’s place.
And Carson said no.
The Tonight Show
He was nervous about one element of the show: interviewing celebrities. He had never done it before and thought he wouldn’t be any good at it. NBC spent months looking for a replacement, but found little success and returned to Carson.
This time, Carson said yes. His first show aired on October 1, 1962, and was an instant hit with audiences. It soon became NBC’s most popular program, and by 1975 it was earning the network $60 million in revenue every year ($330 million when adjusted for inflation). At that point Johnny Carson was earning $4 million annually (around $22 million today). But he was about to make a move that would earn him even more money.
In 1980, Carson agreed to deal with NBC that would give his company, Carson Productions, ownership of both The Tonight Show and Late Night with David Letterman, which ran on NBC from 1980 to 1992.
By 1991, Carson was making $25 million per year. That’s the same as making $55 million per year today!
John W. Carson Foundation
Carson didn’t spend all of his money, though. Throughout his life, he donated an incredible amount to charity and educational institutions, and he did it all without the spotlight on him.
In 1981, Carson established the John W. Carson Foundation, also known as the Johnny Carson Foundation. He donated $5.3 million to his alma mater, the University of Nebraska, in 2004, following that up with another $6 million donation after his death. The university renamed its performing arts department in his honor; it’s now called the Johnny Carson School of Theater and Film.
Through his foundation, Carson donated at least $1 to $2 million annually, largely to nonprofits and educational organizations in Nebraska and Los Angeles.
Upon his death in 2005 at age 79, Carson’s estate gifted a trust to his foundation to start an academic program and educational facility focused on emerging media. The gift was listed at $20 million, but it turned out to be worth much more than that.
The full value of the trust was revealed five years later in an IRS tax return — a whopping $156 million. Today, the value of the trust has surpassed $200 million. If that weren’t enough, Carson also left $4 million to Los Angeles Children’s Hospital.
Carson delighted audiences across the world for more than four decades. Even after his death, he’s still making sure people are happy.