The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson was a staple of its time. It was the most modern format of live television and is what we now know as the late-night talk show. But while the Johnny Carson Show was historical, is was also controversial. From his jokes to his personal life, Carson wasn’t perfect. This wouldn’t be much of a big deal now, but back then, Carson often made jokes at the expense of other celebrities. There were lots of rumors and controversies that never really “stuck” — until now. Some of Carson’s real-life interactions and disputes with people will surprise you, including his four failed marriages and the guest that Carson couldn’t stand!
While he is a beloved television icon, Johnny Carson was no saint. Carson is known to have treated those around him with disrespect or horrible cruelty. And you would assume that when someone gets married, they are happy and in love, right? Well, one of Carson’s nastiest displays comes from a time he publicly humiliated his new wife on their honeymoon.
In 1987, after Carson marrying Alexis Maas (his fourth wife), the honeymooning couple traveled to Italy for a yacht trip. Carson quickly fell into a foul mood and he took it out on his new wife. At one point, he told her in front of others, after some inconsequential remark he didn’t care for, “We’ve been married for three weeks. If you say something like that again, this marriage won’t last another three weeks.”
Another Strained Relationship
Johnny Carson has three sons from his first marriage, and he never had any other children with his other three wives. His son, Rick Carson, had struggled mentally. Back then, mental illness was not spoken of or even really known of. When Rick Carson was committed to a mental hospital, Johnny flat out refused to see his son.
Unfortunately, this story doesn’t really have a happy ending. On June 21, 1991, Rick was driving his vehicle near the scenic coastal town of Morro Bay, California, when it plummeted 125 feet down an embankment. He was killed instantly. Johnny paid tribute to his son on his show but it didn’t change the fact that their relationship was strained.
Johnny Carson, while known for his drinking, also had quite the nasty attitude to go with it. In October 1987, NBC threw him a swanky 25th-anniversary party. It was aboard the Queen Mary, and Carson’s son Rick (who also had a significant drinking problem) was in attendance.
Rick was totally sloshed, and when Johnny went to check on him, they got into a big screaming fight. This was on a ship packed with network executives, media and Carson’s family and friends, too. Witnesses recall that Carson was the aggressor. He lost his temper and began yelling. Johnny even pulled back his fist to slug his son but somebody stepped in and pulled him away.
Put Down The Bottle
Johnny Carson was an alcoholic, plain and simple. His worst qualities came out when Carson was drunk, and that was much of the time so many of the people he encountered remember him as a mean drunk.
In 1982, Carson was caught driving his DeLorean while under the influence of alcohol. He pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge. Carson received a sentence of three years’ probation. As part of his probation, he was required to attend an alcohol program for drivers. He was permitted to use his car only to drive to work and back, and he could not transport any persons or animals in his vehicle.
Carson Spills All In 60 Minutes
Carson wasn’t in denial when it came to his addiction. He regularly avoided the media and press so he wouldn’t have to confront his issues or respond to questions, but he knew he had a problem. It changed his approach on his show and how he joked about addiction.
In a 1977 interview with 60 Minutes, Carson admitted there was a time when he used to drink, and he didn’t handle it well. “I don’t handle alcohol well at all, no. Really don’t,” said Carson. “Oh, Ed [McMahon] and I have had some wonderful times in the past.” Interesting ideology around alcoholism. His more mean-spirited jokes about others didn’t go over so well, though.
Johnny And Joanne: Doomed From The Start
One of the most infamous relationships Johnny Carson had was with his second wife, Joanne Copeland. Copeland first worked as a stewardess for Pan American World Airways. She went on her first date with Johnny in 1960, when he was working as the host of a game show, Who Do You Trust? After marrying Carson, Copeland had a serious affair with sports figure Frank Gifford while Johnny also had numerous infidelities.
The Carsons’ nine-year marriage ended in 1972 and was often marred in the public so it is no surprise the couple followed through with their divorce. Despite the dissolution of their marriage, she still helped preserve her ex-husband’s TV legacy. She was still dedicated to his professional career and helping him succeed.
An Affair To Remember
In 2013, Johnny Carson’s former lawyer, Henry Bushkin, wrote a tell-all book about Johnny Carson. One of the explosive disclosures inside the book claimed Johnny’s second wife, Joanne Copleand, had an affair with Frank Gifford.
Henry alleges that rather than file for divorce Johnny asked him to go to the apartment they were shacking up in and find evidence. Henry also said that Johnny began sobbing at the thought of his wife cheating on him. Henry also claimed that Johnny was wearing a revolver on his hip although made no claims about why he had the gun.
Jealous Johnny’s Dirty Work
At first, the lawyer, Henry Bushkin, refused to go collect evidence but then decided to go and found various scandalous items including lingerie. Apparently, able to confirm the cheating Johnny then allegedly went on a drinking binge with Ed McMahon.
Frank Gifford went on to marry Kathie Lee Gifford. Kathie even joked about the rumors on the Today show. Kathie asked her husband if it was true, however, he said “he couldn’t remember” and “maybe?” Frank and Kathie married in 1986 and the supposed affair happened fifteen years previously. Frank passed away in 2015 so there’s no way to find out if this rumor ever actually took place.
Rare Moment Relaxing At Home With First Wife, Jody
Johnny’s first marriage, in 1948, was to Jody Morrill Wolcott. It was doomed from the start, with major disagreements and instances of infidelity on both sides of the relationship. The couple divorced in 1963, the same year Carson married Joanne Copeland. Jody passed away in 2015 at the age of 83.
Here’s a rare look at Johnny and Jody at home together, relaxing by the pool. It was taken in 1956.
No “Hope” For Johnny
As time passed and the years progressed, Bob Hope’s hearing and eyesight were failing. So Hope’s guest appearances on Carson’s became even more of a trial, annoying Carson. Hope often had trouble picking up Carson’s questions, testing his patience.
Carson had to stick precisely to the notes his staff gave him. For example, if he asked a question out of order, Hope might answer a different question. Regardless of this inconvenience and irritation, Hope kept coming on the show, his weaknesses on full display for the national TV audience. One of the writers recalls how angry Carson became after one of the shows featuring Hope. Carson said to his writer “If I ever end up like that, guys, I want you to shoot me.”
Carson Gets Around
Like many men in show business, Carson was a relentless womanizer. While he was embroiled in harsh divorce proceedings with his second wife, Joanne, he was entertaining company with a Playboy model named Angel Tompkins. He was warned that he was jeopardizing any settlement if his wife’s lawyer found out, and Carson replied, “[expletive] him. A stiff [expletive] has no conscience.”
During his third marriage, his wife Joanna knew of his infidelity. She constantly received exorbitant gifts from him: from an apartment at The Pierre, to a Rolls-Royce Corniche, to diamonds, all as compensation for his many indiscretions. Obviously, it took a toll on their marriage.
A Mother Of A Problem
Many of us can relate to personal life issues but Johnny Carson had many personal life problems. Whether it be his family, friends or lovers, he ultimately struggled every day. But in his mind, there was one reason why: he blamed his personal coldness on his terrible, heartless mother, Ruth.
When speaking of his mother, he only had one thing to say. “She’s the toughest son of a [expletive] of them all,” Carson said. He also blamed her for all of his failed marriages. “There is no goddamn way to please that woman. She’s Lady Macbeth! My marriages failed because she [expletive] me up!” When she died, he did not go to her funeral. He said, “The wicked witch is dead.”
An Insensitive Jokester
Fat jokes are not a new thing now — and it is hard to say when or who started the fat jokes. Well, Johnny Carson was no stranger to fat jokes. He didn’t mind putting someone’s weight on display in front on millions on national television. Imagine if you were that someone and how you would react.
Veteran NBC actor Raymond Burr was the source of many of Carson’s fat jokes. He finally became incredibly angry over Carson’s continuing fat jokes and he refused to appear on The Tonight Show. He did appear at least twice, in 1968 and in 1976.
Losing The Deal
Johnny Carson backed out of a huge deal in 1980; he was going to acquire the Aladdin Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. Then, a competing group (led by Wayne Newton) successfully bought the property. While this is solely a personal, financial decision and shouldn’t necessarily be in the spotlight, Carson became annoyed when he was portrayed by the media as having “lost” the deal.
Carson reacted by telling jokes on his show about Newton, the new owner. Newton had spent a great deal of effort building a masculine image and back then, sexuality and masculinity were sacred. This created a high-profile feud between Carson and Newton.
War of Words
Years later, Wayne Newton appeared on Larry King Live. He stated that “Johnny Carson is a mean-spirited human being. And there are people that he has hurt that people will never know about. And for some reason at some point, he decided to turn that kind of negative attention toward me. And I refused to have it.” Newton was definitely tired of the negativity and insults.
Newton finally had enough. He personally confronted Carson; after the final straw, Newton barged into his office at the studio and threatened to fight him unless the jokes stopped. Carson took it seriously and finally ended the jokes.
Snide Comments About Snyder
Carson hated Tom Snyder. He was the Tomorrow Show host whose show followed Carson’s show on NBC. Carson thought of him as a no-talent bore. Snyder gained national fame as the host of Tomorrow with Tom Snyder (more commonly known as The Tomorrow Show) until it ended. He was later offered a new show: The Late Late Show with Tom Snyder.
One night, while he was out for drinks in the late ’70s at the popular LA eatery Chasen’s, Carson became irate and violent after two glasses of wine. He went on a tirade about how much he hated Snyder. Obviously, a public, alcohol-induced tirade is not professional at all.
The “Worst” Guest
As a late night talk show host, Carson had many guests. He also had his favorites and least favorites. Can you guess which guest he thought was the worst to have on his show? From Carson’s point of view, Bob Hope was not a good guest.
Bob Hope, another American television icon, came armed with scripted jokes. Carson criticized the fact that Hope rarely would engage in any genuine conversation. Carson’s former co-head writer, Andrew Nicholls said, “There was nothing spontaneous about Hope. He was a guy who relied on his writers for every topic. Johnny was very quick on his feet. Very well read. He was a guy who learned Swahili, learned Russian, learned astronomy. He appreciated people who he felt engaged with the real world. There was nothing to talk to Bob about.”
Dealing With Joan And John
When former Tonight Show guest hosts John Davidson and Joan Rivers got their own talk shows, Carson was furious. He reportedly loathed what he perceived as their disloyalty to him because their shows were in direct competition with his show.
Rivers’ show was on Fox Network. Her time slot directly competed with Carson during the 1986–1987 season. But regardless of this competition, her show was later canceled. In 2009, Rivers praised McMahon on Larry King Live. But she made a comment about her relationship with Carson; she said that after she got her own show, Carson never spoke to her again.
Johnny And Joan: A Secret Past
While it’s known that Joan Rivers and Johnny Carson had a longstanding feud after Johnny allegedly felt slighted by her after she left for her own show, this was not the only scandal revealed between the two. Joan Rivers alleged in her book that the two had an affair at some point in time. The affair allegedly took place during Joan’s marriage to Edgar Rosenberg.
Joan and Edgar were married for twenty-two years and apparently, the comedienne was not always faithful during their marriage. It’s interesting to consider whether Johnny’s banning of Joan from his show had more to do with their sexual liaison than her loyalty to his show. Edgar ultimately committed suicide which was devastating to Joan and their daughter Melissa.
Carson Had A Big You Know What
In 2014, reporters caught up with Joan Rivers at LAX and asked about the size of Carson’s private parts. She didn’t hold back. She explained, “I saw it in real life. How do you think you got on the show!?” She had admitted in her book that the pair had more than a working relationship.
Plus, he had a sex tape, and Rivers expressed some interest in watching it. She said of the four-times-married Lothario: “Obviously the wife that he made it with wasn’t the wife at the time that he made it. Once you’re married, you don’t wear knee pads.”
Toilet Paper Drama
What if the world ran out of toilet paper? That is difficult to imagine, isn’t it? Well, in December 1973, that idea sparked panic when Carson joked on Tonight about an alleged shortage of toilet paper. Think about a number of viewers he had; so it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to hear that panic buying and hoarding ensued across the United States.
The result? Consumers emptied stores, causing a real shortage that lasted for weeks. Stores and toilet paper manufacturers had to ration supplies and wait it out until the panic ended. Carson later apologized in January 1974 for the incident. The New York Times called this incident a “classic study” of how rumors spread.
Johnny Sued a Portable Toilet Manufacturer
From toilet paper rumors and panic, to portable toilets with an interesting name. A portable toilet company wanted to use the name “Here’s Johnny” for their portable toilets. But the problem with that? Well, that is the phrase used to introduce Johnny Carson on his show.
In 1977, Carson successfully sued a manufacturer of portable toilets. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan ruled that Braxton could not use the phrase “Here’s Johnny.” Carson stated he had a right of publicity in that phrase, and the courts agreed after a legal fight that spanned a decade and two appeals. To this day, the company is still trying to reclaim the name.
Johnny’s Not Welcome In This Neighborhood
No one messes with everyone’s favorite neighbor. During his show, Carson did a send-up of the “Mr. Rogers” character. He played an evil Mr. Rogers who wanted children to steal money from their parents so his show could continue—and as you can imagine, this wouldn’t go over well.
The real Mr. Rogers, Fred Rogers, was not impressed with the skit. If you know anything about Mr. Rogers, then you know his show is all about love and kindness and taking care of your neighbors. Basically, being a good citizen in your neighborhood. Carson later apologized to Rogers for making fun of him and for the distaste of his skit.
Frank Sinatra’s Personal Favor
Frank Sinatra produced President Reagan’s 1981 Inaugural Gala. He requested that Johnny Carson host the event and he would consider it a “personal favor”—meaning that if Carson refused, Sinatra would take it as a personal insult.
Carson reluctantly agreed. But he was not pleased about how the event was proceeding. When he was told that the hosting request actually came from Reagan himself, Carson, who had served in the Navy during World War II, replied, “Ronnie does know that I answered my country’s call once already, doesn’t he?” The anti-social host was was miserable at the event. Carson slammed Sinatra behind his back every chance he had. And his final straw was when Dean Martin showed up drunk. Carson refused to introduce him at the inaugural.
Johnny Loses Faith
When Carson died in 2005, there were countless tributes. While he died alone, the overall impression that the King of Late Night left was gone forever and he left behind quite a legacy. But how Carson felt about the future of television was not hopeful whatsoever.
“Not long before he died, Johnny went to dinner with Garry Shandling and Jerry Seinfeld, and apparently went on about his disappointment in the direction television was going, with its tabloid nature and reality garbage,” said filmmaker Peter Jones. “He had said he was sickened by what was going on, and was glad he got out when he did.”
Carson Can’t Take It
In Richard Little’s 2016 memoir called Little by Little: People I’ve Known and Been, he alleged that Johnny Carson hated him. Richard said that he was banned from the show because Johnny had an extremely thin skin. Basically, Richard said Johnny could dish it but he couldn’t take it. It is likely that Johnny disliked Richard’s impersonations of him.
Johnny was not the only one to dislike Richard for impersonations, however, Paul Lynde also notoriously hated his act. Lawyer Henry Bushkin, who wrote a biography about Johnny, also added that Richard “brought out the worst in Johnny.” Although some also attribute Johnny’s hatred of Richard to Johnny’s alcoholism, as he was a notoriously mean drunk.
Johnny’s Pretty Blonde
Carol Wayne was an actress and model who was best known for her work on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson where she played the “Matinee Lady”. Carol had a trademark persona of the ditzy blonde bombshell which many claimed no one acted better than her. She also had appearances on The Red Skelton Show in a similar character.
However, it was due to her work on The Tonight Show that Carol ultimately experienced her downfall and subsequently her mysterious death. The Tonight Show was performing very well and Johnny later wanted the shows run time to be shortened from ninety minutes to sixty minutes, which he received.
Blonde Bombshell Downfall
After the Tonight Show was shortened it made way for David Letterman’s own show Late Night With David Letterman. However, due to the shortening of the show blonde bombshell Carol Wayne’s character was all but discarded from the new format.
Carol began to fall on hard times financially and allegedly turned to drugs and alcohol to cope. She allegedly also turned to escorting to pay the bills. Carol had multiple relationships with questionable men including used car salesman Edward Durston. At one point the two were vacationing in Mexico when they allegedly had an argument and Ed left Carol on the beach.
A Mysterious Death
Several days after Ed Durston left Carol Wayne on the beach, her body was found floating in shallow water in a Mexican bay. The water was only four feet deep and she was found fully clothed. She also tested negative for drugs and alcohol so her death was extremely mysterious. It was unclear how she possibly drowned in such shallow water.
Carol had to be identified by hotel workers at the place she and Ed were staying. Ed had already skipped town and even left Carol’s luggage at the airport. Many believe that Ed Durston was directly involved with the death of the Johnny Carson sidekick.
A Mysterious Connection
TV personality and fellow funnyman Art Linkletter also had a strange connection to the death of the Tonight Show star Carol Wayne. In 1969, Art’s daughter Diane Linkletter allegedly jumped or fell off of a six-floor apartment building. Art publicly claimed that Diane’s death was because she was having a flashback due to her use of LSD. He subsequently ended his TV career in order to speak out against the use of drugs.
Before she died, Art had even recorded an album discussing the use of drugs in modern society and Diane recorded a rebuttal album which actually went on to win a Grammy. In a very strange turn of events, Diane Linkletter happened to be with Edward Durston the night she died, just like Johnny Carson’s colleague Carol Wayne. Edward was never charged with any crime but it certainly suspicious he was with the two women the night of their deaths.
When The Jokes Are Not Paar For The Course
Jack Paar was the second host of the Tonight Show from 1957 to 1962. Paar underwent numerous controversies throughout his tenure including interviewing Fidel Castro and asking a drunken Mickey Rooney to leave the program. Ultimately, he had a joke that was censored on air, which was the last straw for Jack Paar.
While the joke would have been considered tame in today’s day and age, in those days it was considered scandalous. It was at that point that he literally quit the show right in the middle of the broadcast. He said, “I am leaving the Tonight Show. There must be a better way of, uh, making a living than this. You have been….peachy to me always.”
An Open Door For Johnny
After Jack Paar literally walked off set, he also decided to leave the country. He was later persuaded to return but only continued hosting for two more years before leaving for good. While he continued on for several years, it is thought that his original outburst over censorship was still a thorn in his side and a major deciding factor in his departure.
Although he publicly stated that it was simply because the schedule was too much to keep up with. It was Jack’s departure that left an open door for Johnny Carson to begin his legendary tenure on the show.
Johnny Loves His Pageants
Bert Parks was famous for being the voice behind the beauty pageant. Bert was a singer and a television announcer but most famous for hosting the Miss America pageant for over twenty years. He is the one who sang the famous “There She Is, Miss America”.
In 1979, he was unceremoniously ousted from his job, where producers felt like Bert had grown too old. The Miss America Organization was trying to pull in a younger audience. Many were outraged by his firing including Johnny Carson. Johnny even led an on-air campaign to try and get Bert reinstated but was ultimately unsuccessful.
A Night With Carson
In 2014, a Johnny Carson sex tape began making the rounds. The tape had reportedly been recorded with one of his wives. In the tape, Johnny was quite young as he still had dark hair. According to TMZ, the tape had been offered up to his estate who refused to purchase it and said if it was released they would sue.
Apparently, for legal reasons the seller could only offer it to private collectors—not companies—so ultimately it was probably snatched up by someone. Some stills from the tape can be found seen floating around the web. It’s probably a good thing this happened after his death because Johnny would definitely not approve.
Johnny Carson took to mocking the affair, particularly for the name of the boat Gary Hart and Donna Rice were photographed on – “Monkey Business.” Even a television critic named Greg Dawson quipped, “Isn’t it reassuring to know that the identity of the next president of the United States could be decided in large part by Johnny Carson’s joke writers? It this a great democracy or what?”
Of course, this was not the only political sex scandal that was joked about by late night comedians, and there were many for years to come. Little did we know that some thirty years later we would actually have a reality star as President that had publicly been maligned for affairs himself since the 1990s.
Carson Can’t Relate
Back in the 1990s moody singer Morrissey was at the height of his fame. Unfortunately for Bill Cosby, tons of Morrissey fans turned out for their episode of the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. The young crowd was not really interested in either Bill Cosby or Johnny Carson, but rather, reached Beatles-level hysteria for the forlorn singer.
Johnny’s monologue totally sunk and he was clearly struggling as he threw annoyed glances at Ed McMahon. Bill tried to change his stand-up to fit the crowd, however, that didn’t go so well either. Both men were clearly annoyed by the “youth” of the time. Little did we know that Bill would be embroiled in his own major scandal years later.
There were rumors for years that Johnny Carson was a perpetrator of many acts of sexual harassment both to women that worked on the show and guests of his long-running stint on the Tonight Show. No lawsuits ever came to fruition but this is partially attributed to the time period that the show ran and also because Johnny had some great lawyers.
Since Johnny has passed away it’s unlikely that will see any kind of retribution or lawsuits but some of his former guests have even taken to speaking publicly about their encounters with Johnny. Perhaps we will see more as the stars get older and more and more release their own life memoirs.
The Octopus And The Guppy
Recently, actress Sally Field appeared on Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen and spoke about her own experiences with Johnny Carson. Her relationship with the late night legend would be considered weird, to say the least.
Andy Cohen asked Sally how she would describe her relationship with Johnny and she said, “The octopus and the reluctant little guppy.” Andy Cohen replied to her, “He was all hands with you.” This is obviously what she meant by “octopus”. While Sally did allegedly date Johnny, she also stated that she was never actually interested in him but didn’t know how to turn him down.
Sally Field Fakes Crazy
On her Watch What Happens Live appearance, Sally went on to say that she had no idea how to turn people down or even to say no to people. She said she figured out only one way to get out of things, and that was “to tell people I had lost my mind.” She said she actually used this excuse with Johnny.
Sally said, “I told him I was having a breakdown and being sent away. I couldn’t figure out how just to say I’m really am just not into this. I just said, ‘I’m so sorry. I have to go away. They’re putting me in a home.'” This is a pretty hilarious, yet sad, way to break off a relationship with someone!
If It Wasn’t Going To Be Johnny
Bob Crane was a hilarious radio and television personality who had actually been tapped to take over for Jack Paar after his departure from The Tonight Show. Luckily for Johnny, Bob didn’t take the offer as he wanted to pursue an acting career and he later went on to act on Hogan’s Heroes which is what he is probably most well known for.
In 1978, Bob was found murdered in his hotel room under mysterious circumstances. He had been bludgeoned to death. The weapon was never found. Bob Crane’s son long suspected an ex-friend to be responsible for his father’s death, however, in 2016 DNA was tested and pointed to an unknown suspect.
The DeLorean Would Have Come In Handy
John DeLorean was an engineer and automobile executive that was the creator the famous “DeLorean” vehicle of Back to the Future fame. When John DeLorean started his own automobile company – DeLorean Motor Company – Johnny Carson was one of the chief investors.
DeLorean was also arrested in 1982 for attempted trafficking of $24 million worth of cocaine. DeLorean had been taped in an undercover sting operation. He defended himself by claiming that he was entrapped by the police and was subsequently acquitted of the charges but his reputation was forever ruined. Needless to say, his business, as well as Johnny Carson’s investment went under.
Carson Didn’t Mingle With The Guests
Carson kept his distance from the guests and didn’t mingle with them either before or after he interviewed them. One of his frequent guests was Orson Welles, who recalled that Carson’s employees were stunned when the late-night host visited Welles prior to being interviewed.
Carson was the opposite of other talk show hosts such as Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, and Dick Cavett. He didn’t pretend to enjoy the interviews and only laughed when he was truly amused. If he wasn’t impressed with a guest, he would cut short their interviews and not let them finish what they were saying.
Carnac The Magnificent
One of Carson’s reoccurring characters on The Tonight Show was Carnac, a “mystic from the East” who was able to “divine” answers to unknown questions. Carson introduced the character to the Tonight Show audience in 1964. Carnac, wearing a turban and cape, would come out from behind the show’s curtain to the sound of Indian music. He would then clumsily make his way to the desk.
Ed McMahon would introduce Carnac, saying in part: “No one knows the contents of these envelopes – but you, in your mystical and borderline divine way, will ascertain the answers having never before heard the questions.”
Carson Made The Rules
The Tonight Show was the most profitable series on the small screen during the 1970s. Each year, NBC was pulling in between $50 and $60 million from the show (the equivalent of $180 to $220 million in 2016 dollars). During this time period, Carson was responsible for scheduling reruns, which were often named The Best of Carson.
If he didn’t get what he wanted he threatened to change networks. In 1980, he was in charge of the length of the show, and he told the network he’d retire if they didn’t give him what he wanted (which was more time off).
Carson Was Indirectly Responsible For SNL
When NBC realized it had to give in to Carson’s demands for a shorter work week, they came up with the idea of Saturday Night Live in order to fill the slot on Saturday nights. The show is still successful today and is on season 42. The network also gave Carson what he wanted by shortening the length of the show from 90 minutes to 60 minutes.
His final 90-minute show aired on Sept. 12, 1980. Carson argued that a shorter show would make it move along at a quicker pace and would give them the opportunity to interview a better selection of guests.
Carson Saw No Value In Archiving Old Episodes
Most of the early episodes from Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show are gone forever. Only 33 exist for the period between 1962 and May 1, 1972. During that time period, networks would wipe the episodes and reuse the tapes to record other shows. This was common procedure.
Surprisingly, Carson had no problem with this system. In fact, he once remarked that the network should “make guitar picks” out of the old episodes because he didn’t see any value in them. Some guests kept copies for their own personal reasons, and they have occasionally surfaced over the years. Fortunately, nearly all episodes from 1973 to 1992 are intact.
Carson’s First Episode Is Lost Forever
No known video footage of Carson’s first Tonight Show broadcast exists. However, on Oct. 1, 1962, he was introduced by Groucho Marx, and there is a photo and audio recording of Marx’s introduction and Carson’s first monologue. On the first episode, Marx offered some advice to Carson, saying, “Don’t go to Hollywood!”
One of the talk show host’s first jokes on the very first episode was to declare, “I want my nana!” The oldest black and white video recording that still exists is dated November 1962. The oldest color recording is from April 1964 and features guest Jake Ehrlich, Sr.
Ed McMahon started working with Johnny Carson on the ABC daytime game show Who Do You Trust? When they first met, it wasn’t exactly instant chemistry. McMahon later recalled their first meeting was “… about as exciting as watching a traffic light change.” The pair left the game show to join The Tonight Show in 1962.
McMahon famously introduced Carson with his drawn-out “”Heeere’s Johnny!” for nearly three decades. Known for his loud voice and laughter, McMahon was dubbed the “Human Laugh Track” and “Toymaker to the King”. In the early years, McMahon hosted the first 15 minutes of the show.
McMahon’s Famous Pop Culture Intro
McMahon’s famous introductory line, “Heeere’s Johnny!” appeared in the 1980 thriller The Shining. Actor Jack Nicholson played Jack Torrance, who uses the line while going after his wife and child with an axe. In 2013, the scene was voted the scariest movie moment of all time. The line was also used in the 1983 film Trading Places. In addition, “Weird Al” Yankovic used it on his 1986 Polka Party! album. The song “Here’s Johnny” references McMahon’s catchphrase.
Where else has it been used? Mortal Kombat video game character Johnny Cage used it in 1992, and it was featured in the 1997 television series Johnny Bravo as well as the 2015 series Better Call Saul.
McMahon’s Role Was Never Defined
McMahon once said of his time on the show: “My role on the show never was strictly defined. I did what had to be done when it had to be done. I was there when he needed me, and when he didn’t I moved down the couch and kept quiet. … I did the audience warm-up, I did commercials, for a brief period I co-hosted the first fifteen minutes of the show.”
He continued, “I performed in many sketches…I had to support him, I had to help him get to the punch line, but while doing it I had to make it look as if I wasn’t doing anything at all.”
McMahon’s Financial Problems
In 2008, Ed McMahon faced foreclosure on his Beverly Hills mansion. He was behind $644,000 on payments on a mortgage worth $4.8 million. Citibank was also suing him for $180,000. He and his wife talked about their financial struggles on Larry King Live, explaining that people assumed they were rich because of McMahon’s fame and his long period of work in Hollywood.
Pamela McMahon added that they did not indeed possess “millions of dollars. That same year, McMahon was accused of paying a divorce attorney over $275,000. They hired the woman to represent McMahon’s daughter in a “matrimonial matter.”
Trump Offered To Help McMahon
After learning about McMahon’s financial struggles, Donald Trump, then a real estate magnate, offered to purchase the home and then lease it back to McMahon so he could continue to live there and not lose it to Countrywide Financial. However, a spokesman for McMahon claimed that the star had instead brokered a deal with a private buyer to purchase it.
Michael Cohen, special counsel to Trump, said at the time: “For Mr. Trump, this acquisition was not business-related, but, as he has stated, was meant to help out an American icon,” said “If another buyer should emerge who will create the benefit Mr. Trump sought for Ed McMahon, then he is clearly pleased.”
Remembering Ed’s Laugh
One year after the foreclosure crisis, McMahon died. He was 86 years old. No cause of death was released, but he suffered from many health problems and had broken his neck a couple of years earlier. After he died, late-night talk show host Conan O’Brien honored McMahon on The Tonight Show, noting, “It is impossible, I think, for anyone to imagine The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson without Ed McMahon. Ed’s laugh was really the soundtrack to that show.”
He added that McMahon and Carson created “the most iconic two-shot in broadcasting history. There will never be anything like that again.”
Harry Belafonte Made History
It wasn’t uncommon for Carson to utilize guest hosts for an entire week when he went on vacation or if he needed a night off. In 1968, the show made history after Harry Belafonte hosted the show for an entire week. He was the first African-American to host not only the Tonight Show but any talk show.
His guests were pretty significant: Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. In an unusual twist, Kermit the Frog hosted the show on April 2, 1979. Naturally, he was joined by many of his Muppets castmates. Among others, Frank Oz voiced Fozzie Bear and Animal.
Carson Sent Jokes To David Letterman
In 2005, it was revealed that Carson, who retired from the Tonight Show in 1992, still watched late-night talk shows and kept in touch with many of his friends, including David Letterman. It was unclear whether Carson watched The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
Caron’s friend Peter Lassally told reporters that Carson read the newspaper every day and still came up with a lot of jokes that, if he was still working, would have wound up in one of his monologues. Instead, Carson sent many of the jokes to Letterman, who in turn would often include them in his own monologues.
In 2015, on what would have been Carson’s 90th birthday, the New York Daily News compiled some of the talk show host’s most memorable quotes. Here are a few classics…On celebrities that died too soon: “If life was fair, Elvis would be alive and all the impersonators would be dead.”
On living life: “I know a man who gave up smoking, drinking, sex and rich food. He was healthy right up to the time he killed himself.” And on politics: “Democracy means that anyone can grow up to be president and anyone who doesn’t grow up can be vice president.”
Going Out On Top
Not known for being sentimental, towards the end of his late-night career Carson would air some of his favorite clips and invited his favorite guests on the show for interviews. He made the decision to retire because he wanted to go out while he was still on top.
He told the crew, “Everything comes to an end; nothing lasts forever. Thirty years is enough. It’s time to get out while you’re still working on top of your game, while you’re still working well.” On his second to last show, the audience gave him a two-minute standing ovation. His guests were Robin Williams and Bette Midler.
The Most Emotional Moment Of Bette Midler’s Life
When Bette Midler appeared on Carson’s penultimate episode, she and the talk show host sang an impromptu duet of “Here’s That Rainy Day.” She also took center stage to sing “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road),” and it made Carson get teary eyed. Footage showing the two of of them across the set from one another has never been broadcast.
The audience was also deeply moved by her performance, and she along with Carson and guest Robin Williams made a second bow after filming stopped. Midler later said the appearance was one the most emotional moments of her life.
The Luckiest Guy In The World
Fifty million viewers tuned in to Carson’s final show on May 22, 1992. He sat on a stool in the center of the stage and told the studio audience and TV viewers he was one of the luckiest people in the world.
He said, in part, “I found something I always wanted to do and I have enjoyed every single minute of it. I want to thank the people who’ve shared this stage with me for thirty years. Mr. Ed McMahon, Mr. Doc Severinsen, and you people watching. I can only tell you that it has been an honor and a privilege to come into your homes all these years and entertain you.”
Remembering An Icon
Following his death in 2005, many of Carson’s friends reflected on his legacy. Actor/comedian Steve Martin said: “All of us who grew up on Johnny Carson had three decades in which to go to sleep with a smile on our faces. He loved to laugh, he loved to make you laugh, and he loved comedians and entertainers.”
Martin continued, “His occasional touch of boyish naughtiness made America a sweet and kind place to be, and he without doubt enriched our nation.” Jay Leno, then the Tonight Show host, said: “No single individual has had as great an impact on television as Johnny. He was the gold standard.”