“What Made You a Star?” “I Started Out in a Gaseous State, and Then I Cooled”

Johnny Carson? Kenneth Tynan? David Letterman? Ed McMahon?

Dear Quote Investigator: A prominent show business personality was once asked how he or she became a star. The reply was a very funny absurdist remark about astrophysical star formation. Do you know who made this response?

Quote Investigator: In 1968 English theatre critic Kenneth Tynan wrote about U.S. television host Johnny Carson in the pages of “The Observer” of London. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

This complicated man has total aplomb. He was once asked, not without aggression: “What made you a star?” Blandly, he replied, “I started out in a gaseous state, and then I cooled.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1972 the joke appeared in “The Reader’s Digest Treasury of American Humor” and Carson received credit: 2

Johnny Carson was once asked, “What made you a star?” He answered, “I started out in a gaseous state, and then I cooled.”

In 1978 Tynan published a lengthy profile of Carson in “The New Yorker” magazine, and the quip was included: 3

The remark took me back to something that Carson said of himself ten years ago, when, in the course of a question-and-answer session with viewers, he was asked, “What made you a star?” He replied, “I started out in a gaseous state, and then I cooled.”

Johnny Carson died in 2005 and during the Emmy Awards of that year David Letterman delivered a tribute to his greatly admired colleague: 4

Letterman recalled how Carson was asked once by a “Tonight” show audience member what had made him a star. “I started out in a gaseous state and then I cooled,” Carson said.

“Johnny Carson’s star never cooled,” Letterman said. Carson’s monologue was “the nightly comic monologue of record,” Letterman said.

In 2005 Ed McMahon who was Carson’s sidekick for decades published “My Memories of Johnny Carson”. McMahon stated that he heard the original quip: 5

The speed of his wit was never shown better than the time I heard a fan ask him, “What made you a star?” Johnny’s answer could have been chiseled in stone at the Comedy Club: “I started out in a gaseous state and then I cooled.”

In conclusion, Johnny Carson should receive credit for this remark which was circulating by 1968.

Image Notes: Star-forming region S106 captured by the NASA Hubble Space Telescope; accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Image has been cropped.

(Thanks to Barry Popik for his pioneering research. He located the 1978 occurrence in “The New Yorker” profile.)

Notes:

  1. 1968 May 26, The Observer, Shouts and Murmurs by Kenneth Tynan, Quote Page 30, Column 3, London, Greater London, England. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1972, The Reader’s Digest Treasury of American Humor, Chapter: Like No Business I Know: Stage and Screen, Section: Star-Spangled Banter, Quote Page 634, A Reader’s Digest Press Book published in conjunction with McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1978 February 20, The New Yorker, Profiles: Fifteen Years of the Salto Mortale by Kenneth Tynan, Start Page 47, Quote Page 54, Column 2, Published by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc., New York. (Accessed Online Archive of Page Scans at archives.newyorker.com on January 20, 2018)
  4. 2005 September 19, Florida Today, 57th Annual Emmy Awards: Letterman honors Carson; Trump sings by Solvej Schou (Associated Press), Quote Page 5E, Column 1, Cocoa, Florida. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 2005, Here’s Johnny!: My Memories of Johnny Carson by Ed McMahon, Chapter 5: A Party of One, Quote Page 34,Rutledge Hill Press, Nashville, Tennessee. (Verified with scans)