Carson's life offers proof of possibilities

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Norfolk is not as far away from McCook as one can get and still stay in in the state, but almost.

Still, Southwest Nebraskans and cornhuskers of all stripes have always been proud to call one of Norfolk's own, one of ours as well.

Norfolk -- that's pronounced "nor-fork" for the unitiated -- plans a comedy festival to honor the late, late-night king, Johnny Carson.

Featuring actor and comedian Robert Klein, the 2008 Great American Comedy Festival is set for June 17-22.

Born in Corning, Iowa, but growing up in Norfolk, Carson left funding to create the Johnny Carson Theatre in Norfolk among his many contributions to Nebraska.

The festival will include an amateur hour, a contest to find the next great comedian and workshops on standup comedy and promotion.

Eddie Brill, talent coordinator for the "Late Show with David Letterman," will produce the event.

For Baby Boomers and older, it's almost impossible to believe that Carson has been dead for three years (as of Wednesday), or that it has been nearly 16 years since he last appeared on The Tonight Show.

It seemed like Carson would always be on our television sets, but, like so many fellow World War II veterans, Johnny Carson couldn't overcome the calendar.

But upcoming entertainers could learn a lot from a look at Carson's career.

Leaving the Navy in 1946, he joined thousands of other veterans in college, earning a bachelor's degree from the University of Nebraska in 1949 -- you can hear his senior thesis "How to Write Comedy for Radio," in an MP3 download at http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/theaterstudent/1/

After a stint at WOWT radio and television in Omaha, his big break came with a job at CBS's KNXT television station in Los Angeles.

His sketch comedy show, "Carson's Cellar," caught Red Skelton's eye, and he became a writer for the comedian in the early 1950s. Once, in 1954, Skelton knocked himself unconscious an hour before air time, and Carson filled on his live television show.

Some of us may remember him from his stint on the game show "Earn Your Vacation" in 1954, his "The Johnnny Carson Show" variety show in 1955-56, his appearance as a regular panelist on "To Tell the Truth" until 1962, and his five-year job on "Who Do You Trust" from 1957 to 1962, where he first met Ed McMahon.

When Carl Reiner was creating a new sitcom, to be called "Head of the Family," Carson was in the running for the role of TV writer Rob Petrie. The role, and title of the series, went instead to Dick Van Dyke.

After Jack Paar quit "The Tonight Show" in October 1962, Carson, and McMahon, took over the desk and side chair they occupied for the next three decades.

It's a story that should inspire anyone with a yen for the spotlight.

It's also further proof that growing up in Nebraska shouldn't deter one from persuing a career in show business.

Even in Norfolk ... or McCook.

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