The Darkest Secrets from Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show

“The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” was unquestionably a classic. During the 1960s and 1970s, millions of Americans tuned in each night to hear Johnny Carson speak and entertain them with guest interviews. While Carson became a television star, he had some contentious behind-the-scenes secrets.

Johnny Carson / Johnny Carson, Alexis / Joan Rivers / Jody Wolcott, Jhonny Carson, Cory Carson.
Source: Getty Images

Many detested Carson’s habits of making jokes about other famous people and talking about his favorite (and least favorite) guests. Although speculations about the host’s personal life faded quickly, we thought we’d touch on some of the controversies and show you which ones just may have had a bit of truth to them.

Johnny Carson Wasn’t the Greatest Husband

Although he is a respected star, Carson was no saint. He was known to have disrespected everyone around him. You’d think that when someone marries, they’re happy and in love, but one of Carson’s worst moments was when he ridiculed his new wife on their wedding trip.

A photo of “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

After Carson married Alexis Maas (his fourth wife) in 1987, they honeymooned on a yacht in Italy. Carson soon became irritated and blamed his new wife.

“We’ve been married for three weeks. If you say something like that again, this marriage won’t last another three weeks,” he said.

He Wasn’t the Best Dad Either

Carson had three children from the first of his four marriages. Sadly, one of his kids, Rick Carson, had a psychiatric condition. Little was known about treating the mental disease at the time, meaning the Carson family had Rick committed to a psychiatric facility.

A photo of Johnny Carson with his first wife and their sons.
Jody Wolcott, Johnny Carson, Christopher, Richard, Cory. Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images

His father couldn’t see him. However, their relationship improved when Rick was discharged. But, on June 21, 1991, Rick Carson was driving near Morro Bay when his car plunged 125 feet down the cliff. Rick died in the crash. His father subsequently delivered a touching tribute to his son on his show.

Johnny Had Mommy Issues

Like everyone else, Johnny Carson had family problems. Despite his prominence and wealth, Carson was constantly at odds with his producers, family, and personal relationships. Still, he believed there was a good reason why. For one, he blamed his cold-hearted mother, Ruth, for his harshness.

A picture of Carson with his siblings.
Source: Pinterest

“She’s the toughest son of a ***** of them all,” Carson said. He also blamed her for his failed marriages. “There is no god**mn way to please that woman. She’s Lady Macbeth! My marriages failed because she ****** me up!”

Carson didn’t attend his mother’s burial. He said, “The wicked witch is dead.”

A Drunk With a Nasty Attitude?

Carson was a terrible drunk who blamed his mother Ruth for his bad behavior. He also infamously reacted badly when others drank. On one occasion, NBC threw a grandiose 25th-anniversary party for him in October 1987. His son Rick was there and got drunk.

A photo of Carson arriving at an event.
Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

When Carson checked on him, both father and son got into a screaming brawl in front of important guests, network officials, media, and friends. Carson was the aggressor in the heated argument and was about to punch his son until he was restrained. Shocking? We don’t think so.

Johnny Wasn’t NBC’s First Choice

Johnny Carson almost didn’t host “The Tonight Show.” NBC first offered Bob Crane the chance to replace the departing anchor, Jack Paar. This was because Crane had a reputation as a successful radio and TV personality, while Carson was just a newbie and unknown at the time to ABC. Studios want to hire experienced anchors.

A photo of Carson hosting “The Tonight Show.”
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Luckily for Carson, Crane declined the opportunity to take on the role because he wanted to pursue acting. It didn’t seem to be a bad decision because Crane went on to star in “Hogan’s Heroes,” which would become his most prominent role while Carson took over “The Tonight Show!”

He Didn’t Connect With Guests

For his part, Carson preferred to remain distant from his visitors. He never interacted with them before or after the show. Even if they were familiar or were one of his friends, Carson would still wait a day to see them. He wanted everything spontaneous!

An image of Carson on stage.
Source: YouTube

This behavior was unlike other late-night show hosts of his time, such as Mervin Griffin, Dick Cavett, and Mike Douglas. Also, he never pretended to like the interviews. Carson only laughed when genuinely amused, and he would famously cut an interview short if a guest didn’t impress him!

He Was in Love With Pageants

Most people don’t know that Carson loved the pageants, particularly the Miss Universe and Miss America pageants. He even hosted the “Miss Universe” in 1962 and had a good relationship with Bert Parks, who was the host of “Miss America.” Parks famously sang “There She Is, Miss America.”

Carson and his wife attending an event.
Photo by Jim Smeal/Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

In 1979, the producers of “Miss America” sacked Parks, believing he had grown too old for the role. Many people, including Carson, weren’t excited when Parks was fired, to say the least. Carson even led an on-air push to reinstate Parks, but his campaign was not successful.

Johnny Carson Had to Quit Drinking…for a While

Carson had an alcohol problem. Eventually, authorities issued him ultimatums. In fact, a misdemeanor charge of drinking and driving against him was dropped in 1982. As a result, he received three years of probation, had to complete an alcohol program for drivers, and could only drive himself to and from work.

A portrait of Carson.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

During an interview with “60 Minutes,” the legendary show host admitted to a huge error he made: “I don’t handle alcohol well at all, no. Really don’t,” he shared. “Oh, Ed [McMahon] and I have had some wonderful times in the past,” Johnny Carson added.

Johnny-Boy Was a Ladies Man

Carson, like many other powerful men, had no problems seeing other women. He was dating Playboy model Angel Tompkins while going through a divorce with his second wife, Joanne. He was constantly told that if his wife’s lawyer found out, he may lose the divorce settlement.

Joanne speaks during an interview.
Joanne. Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Carson’s response was simple:

“[expletive] him. A stiff [expletive] has no conscience.”

Joanne, on the other hand, was aware of her husband’s infidelity during their own marriage. Although she was constantly showered with gifts, including a Rolls Royce and diamonds, Carson’s unfaithfulness put a strain on the marriage.

He Started Switching Things Up

Johnny Carson struggled with alcoholism, as he told “60 Minutes.” Thankfully, he was able to overcome his addiction. Unfortunately, it was a bit too late because many had already disliked him. In fact, several celebrities from the 1960s and 1970s remember him in their biographies as a “mean drunk” behind the scenes.

A portrait of Angel Tompkins.
Angel Tompkins. Photo by Stanley Bielecki Movie Collection/Getty Images

As mentioned earlier, Carson’s drinking habits saw the biggest change in 1982. He was caught driving his DeLorean while drunk. He pleaded no contest and was given a three-year probationary term. He had to take part in an alcohol program and only drive to and from work he couldn’t have passengers.

Popularity Has Its Power

In the 1970s, “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” was one of the most popular television programs. NBC made over $55 million every season during the height of the show’s success, which is well over $200 million today! NBC put Carson in control of scheduling reruns throughout the offseason.

A still from “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”
Source: YouTube

He became accustomed to having anything he wanted. Carson would threaten to switch networks on the producers if he didn’t get what he wanted, knowing that NBC would never want to lose $55 million a year. When that threat became less effective, he started threatening to retire!

He Made Insensitive Jokes

Fat jokes were common then, and Carson used them often on his show. In fact, he used it so much that it caused problems with NBC actor Raymond Burr to the point where Burr became so enraged that he refused to appear on “The Tonight Show.”

A portrait of Raymond Burr.
Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Wayne Newton famously remarked on live television…

“Johnny Carson is a mean-spirited human being…. And for some reason, at some point, he decided to turn that negative attention toward me. And I refused to have it.”

Newton later barged into Carson’s office and threatened him with a fight unless he stopped. He stopped.

Many Talking Points From a Johnny Carson Sex Tape

With his many affairs, it was unsurprising when a Johnny Carson sex tape began to surface and circulate in certain circles in 2014. According to several reports in the media, it was taped by one of his wives and showed a younger Carson with dark hair.

A photo of Johnny Carson and his first wife.
Photo by Darlene Hammond/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

According to TMZ, the tape was up for sale to his estate, but the estate declined to buy it and threatened to sue if it was leaked. For legal concerns, the seller could only sell it to private collectors rather than businesses. Only stills are able to be found.

Carson Takes a Stab to the Hart

Current events were used as comic fuel by Carson on his show, just as they are by comedians today. Carson was said to have had an impact on a presidential campaign as early as the 1980s. Gary Hart was running for the Democratic nomination against Michael Dukakis.

Donna Rice speaks to the media.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

But he withdrew due to an affair with Donna Rice. The two went on a boat ride, and a photo of them was published in The New York Post. Carson let loose with his jokes, driven in part by the name of their ship: Monkey Business.

The Worst Guest on the Tonight Show

Carson welcomed thousands of guests during his 30 years on “The Tonight Show,” including numerous repeats. As a result, it’s no surprise that the host had his favorites and least favorites. Carson felt that comedian Bob Hope, a popular favorite, was The Tonight Show’s worst guest.

A picture of Bob Hope and Carson during an event.
Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

Unbeknownst to the audience, Hope arrived with a manuscript full of jokes. Carson, on the other hand, disliked it. He criticized Hope for never having a meaningful conversation with him.

“There was nothing spontaneous about Hope…” Andrew Nicholls, Carson’s former co-head writer, often said about the writer.

The Pretty Blonde Lady

Carol Wayne was a model and actress best known for her appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” She was cast as the “Matinee Lady,” a sassy blonde bombshell comic figure. While other actresses were used on occasion to fill in for Wayne, she was more popular with the audience.

A still of Carson and Carol Wayne in a still from the show / A picture of Carol Wayne.
Source: Pinterest

She even played a role in “The Red Skelton Show!” However, Carson wanted the show’s run time reduced from ninety to sixty minutes just as Wayne was beginning to enjoy fame. Carson predictably got his way, and the Matinee Lady skits were axed. It was the beginning of Wayne’s decline.

“If I Ever End Up Like That…”

Bob Hope was once everyone’s favorite “Tonight Show” guest, and he appeared at least once a season. His hearing and vision began to deteriorate as he got older, and the years passed. Hope’s guest appearances on “The Tonight Show” were increasingly difficult as he struggled to understand Carson’s queries.

A still of Bob Hope and Carson during the show.
Source: YouTube

This irritated Carson. So, he started asking questions Hope had prepared responses for. When he asked a question out of order, Hope would sometimes answer with a completely different answer.

After one such occurrence, Carson reportedly said, “If I ever end up like that, guys, I want you to shoot me.”

Johnny Carson Had Some Incredible Tricks up His Sleeve

According to IMDb TV, Carson’s desk was his beloved toy. His desk was a MacGyver’s dream, with buttons performing all sorts of things.

“On the right of Johnny Carson’s desk were controls to a weather machine that made the backdrop rain, snow, or cast a bolt of lightning.”

A studio portrait of Johnny Carson.
Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images

In addition, the show used substitutes for swear words. It began broadcasting behind the live stream. So the show could dub over Carson’s or anyone else’s profanity. So they started using nonsensical terms to swear. In one episode, Carson exclaimed, “holy shit,” but instead, viewers heard him proclaim “holy palooga!”

Carson Was Interested in a Hotel

Carson planned to buy the Aladdin Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas in the early 1980s. However, a rival company led by singer Wayne Newton acquired the property in the late 1980s before Carson could achieve his goal. Of course, the media flocked to the face-off between the two celebrities.

Wayne Newton attends an event.
Photo by Gabe Ginsberg/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Carson was furious when he was depicted as having “lost” the deal. So, on “The Tonight Show,” he mocked Newton. He targeted Newton’s manly image, which the singer had focused on for years. At the time, discussions about sexuality and masculinity were delicate. This sparked a high-profile rivalry between the pair.

Derisive Comments From All Corners

Tom Snyder hosted “The Tomorrow Show,” which followed “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” on NBC. “The Tomorrow Show” was labeled an “electric kool-aid talk show” that featured hippies and controversial figures like John Lennon. The show was a hit, inspiring Tom Snyder to create “The Late Late Show.”

A still from “The Late Late Show.”
Source: YouTube

But not everyone liked the show. Carson openly despised Snyder and his show. Carson reportedly saw him as a no-talent bore. One time, many witnessed Carson on a rant at the popular Los Angeles Café, Chasen’s, about how much he loathed Snyder.

The Toilet Paper Frenzy

Imagine if the world suddenly ran out of toilet paper. That would be crazy, wouldn’t it? In 1973, when Carson joked about a toilet paper shortage during his show, it caused panic. As millions watched Carson portray the shortage as serious, panic buying of toilet paper erupted across America!

A picture of Carson from “The Tonight Show” / A toilet paper image.
Photo by Keystone Features, Getty Images / Jonathan Kitchen, Getty Images

Customers emptied stores, triggering a shortage that went on for weeks. Also, retailers and producers had to ration toilet paper and wait till the panic subsided. The New York Times later labeled this a “classic study” of rumor dissemination! Carson apologized for the turmoil.

Rivals Joan Rivers and Johnny Carson

Carson was enraged when former Tonight Show guests Joan Rivers and John Davidson got their own talk shows. He reportedly resented it and thought it was a betrayal to him. He felt they shouldn’t immediately compete with “The Tonight Show” when they first guest-hosted it.

A photo of Joan Rivers starring an episode from The Tonight Show.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

During the 1986-1987 season, Rivers’ show on Fox competed with Carson’s. But Rivers simply couldn’t compete with the late-night king, and her show was axed shortly after. But Carson felt the damage was done already. According to Rivers, once she got her own program, Carson stopped talking to her.

A Dark Secret From the Past

The conflict between Rivers and Carson was only the beginning of their drama. Rivers claimed in her autobiography that she and Carson had an affair when she guest-hosted “The Tonight Show.” And, according to Rivers, that happened while she was still married to Edgar Rosenberg!

Joan Rivers speaks to the media.
Photo by Jamie McCarthy/WireImage for The Weinstein Company/Getty Images

Rivers refused to answer fans’ numerous questions in her book. It would be interesting to know if Carson’s exclusion of Rivers from his life was due to their personal relationship or her loyalty to the show. But unfortunately, we’ll never find out, and one can never really tell with Carson.

Johnny-Boy at It Again

In 2013, Carson’s former lawyer, Henry Bushkin, published a revealing biography of his client. The book uncovered a lot about Carson’s second wife, Joanne Copeland. Bushkin claimed Copeland had an affair with football legend Frank Gifford. Carson and Copeland separated after he found out about their relationship.

A portrait of Carson and Joanne.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Later, Gifford married Kathie Lee, who is popularly known today as Kathie Lee Gifford. Kathie addressed the claims on “The Today Show” in 2013. In response to the claims, Frank responded, “he couldn’t remember,” and then, “maybe?” The couple married in 1986, 15 years after their relationship began. Sadly, Frank died in 2015, so there’s no way to verify this allegation!

There Are No Butts

Sometime after the popular toilet paper frenzy, a portable toilet chose a clever name that referenced the panic. In fact, the corporation called their portable toilets “Here’s Johnny.” It was used to introduce Carson on “The Tonight Show,” hence it belonged to NBC and the host.

A picture from the portable toilet.
Source: HistoryGarage

So, Carson sued the manufacturers of the Here’s Johnny toilets. After more than a decade of legal battle, the host claimed he had a right of publicity in that phrase. The Eastern District of Michigan US District Court found that the corporation could not use the expression. Strangely, the corporation is still fighting for the name!

A Failed Guest Appearance

In the 1990s, moody pop artist Morrissey was just beginning his career and got a spot on “The Tonight Show.” Unfortunately for guest Bill Cosby, the audiences at home and even in the studio tuned in to see Morrissey and not the two comedians. The joke was on who now?

A still from Bill Cosby and Carson during the show.
Source: YouTube

Worse, Morrissey’s popularity was approaching Beatles-like obsession. During the course of the show, Carson’s monologue sunk, and he clearly struggled with the younger audience. And Cosby trying to change the stand-up to suit the younger audience didn’t work either. The pair were left frustrated by the “youth” of their time!

The Jokes Were Off-Course

From 1957 through 1962, Jack Paar co-hosted the “Tonight Show before Johnny Carson.” His tenure on the show was marred by controversy, including an interview with Fidel Castro and kicking an intoxicated Mickey Rooney off the show. Finally, NBC deleted a sexist remark that Paar made, which was the final straw.

A photo of Jack Paar.
Photo by Weegee/Arthur Fellig/International Center of Photography/Getty Images

The following Monday, Paar abruptly exited the show right there during the broadcast.

“I am leaving the Tonight Show,” Paar said in the middle of the show. “There must be a better way of, uh, making a living than this. You have been…. peachy to me always.” Then, he just walked away!

When One Door Closes, Another Opens

After leaving the set right in the middle of the broadcast, Jack Paar decided to go one step farther and leave the country! NBC persuaded him to return, although he only stayed for two years before leaving finally. Paar still continued to host for several years.

A studio portrait of Carson.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

But it is believed that his original outburst played a crucial role in his final resignation. Fortunately, Paar’s departure allowed Johnny Carson to begin his famed Tonight Show run. That led to Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, and finally Jimmy Fallon, the current Tonight Show host.

Another Character: A Mystic From the East

Carnac, a “mystic from the East,” was one of Carson’s most iconic Tonight Show characters. Carson introduced the character in 1964. Carnac would emerge from behind the curtains, clad in a turban and a cloak, to the sound of Indian music. Carnac would then stumble to the desk.

A still of Carson as Carnac in an episode from the show.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Ed McMahon would then introduce him by saying, “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.” How interesting is it to be considered the one with the best answers?

Rogers Isn’t Welcome in This Neighborhood

One rule most of us would agree on is: don’t mess with Mr. Rogers. Carson performed a Mr. Rogers impression on one of his shows. Except Carson was a bad Mr. Rogers who wanted kids to steal money from their parents to keep his program going.

A picture of Fred Rogers entertaining children.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

As one might expect, the real Mr. Rogers, Fred Rogers, was displeased. He thought this was the opposite of what he wanted to achieve on Mr. Rogers Neighborhood: love, kindness, and neighborly care. Carson later apologized to Mr. Rogers for mocking his character and for the skit’s offensive nature.

The Johnny Carson Farewell

On May 22, 1992, more than fifty million people from all over the world tuned in to watch Carson’s final Tonight Show. While on stage, Carson assured both the studio and television audiences that he was one of the “luckiest people in the world.”

A still from Carson’s final show.
Source: YouTube

“I found something I always wanted to do, and I have enjoyed every single minute of it,” he said, with tears in his eyes. “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.”

He Was Skeptical About the Future of TV

When Carson died in 2005, tributes came from practically every country. Carson died alone, leaving millions of fans and friends heartbroken. Fortunately, he left a lasting legacy. But Carson was worried about television’s future. According to filmmaker Peter Jones, Carson dined with Garry Shandling and Jerry Seinfeld.

A general view of “The Tonight Show” filming set.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

He expressed his displeasure with the direction that television was taking in the 21st-century, with its tabloid nature and reality TV crap.

“He had said he was sickened by what was going on and was glad he got out when he did,” Jones added. Carson was proud of his works.

Carson’s Jokes for Letterman

Johnny Carson left “The Tonight Show” in 1992 and settled down. In 2005, it was revealed that he still watched late-night shows and stayed in touch with acquaintances like David Letterman. According to his trusted friend, Peter Lassaly, he read the papers every day.

A picture of Letterman on “Late Night with David Letterman.”
Photo by Paul Natkin/WireImage/Getty Images

He even still managed to come up with a lot of jokes. He also added that if Carson was still working, the jokes would have been in one of his monologues. Instead, the jokes went to Letterman, who would often use them in his own monologues!

Different Allegations, But All Went Quiet

For several years, different accusations circulated that Johnny Carson was a perpetrator of sexual harassment against his female colleagues as well as the guests during his time on “The Tonight Show.” Carson denied the allegations, and this could have meant the end of his career. But in the end, no lawsuits were filed.

A photo from “The Tonight Show.”
Source: Pinterest

This was notably due to the passage of time and the fact that Carson had experienced lawyers on his side, a team who would bring down America to keep their client safe. While Carson’s death eliminates the chance of direct justice, former guests have spoken out about their experiences.

The Octopus and a Reluctant Guppy

As part of her appearance on “Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen,” Sally Field shared her memories of her time with Carson. In response to Andy Cohen’s question on how she would define the relationship, Field responded with the phrase “the octopus and the reluctant little guppy.”

A photo of Sally Field speaking on stage.
Photo by Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images

Andy Cohen clarified, “He was all hands with you.” According to reports, the two dated, but Field stated that she was not at all interested in him. She just couldn’t figure out how to say no to him. Others rumored that it would be a relationship of convenience anyway.

The Tonight Show’s First Episode Is Lost Forever

No video exists of Carson’s first Tonight Show appearance. We would have definitely loved to see it. On Oct. 1, 1962, Carson was introduced by Groucho Marx, and his introduction and first monologue are photographed and recorded. “Don’t go to Hollywood!” Marx advised Carson in the first episode.

A television publicity still announcing the show’s premiere.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

One of the host’s first jokes on the first episode was declaring, “I want my nana!” The oldest black and white video recording that still exists is dated November 1962. The oldest color recording of the show is from April 1964 and features guest Jake Ehrlich, Sr.

Bette Midler’s Most Emotional Moment

On Carson’s farewell broadcast, Bette Midler and the talk show host sang an impromptu duet of “Here’s That Rainy Day.” She also sang “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road),” which made Carson cry. No footage of them across the set from each other has ever been shown.

Carson and Bette Midler pose for the press.
Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

Her performance captivated the audience, and Midler, Carson, and special guest Robin Williams took a second bow when filming ended. Midler later recalled that appearance was one of her most emotional moments in life. We are struggling to hold back the tears too! Such awesomeness.

Making History With Harry Belafonte

Carson frequently had guest hosts for a week at a time when he was on vacation or wanted a night off. Harry Belafonte made history and hosted the show for a week in 1968. He was the first African American to host any talk show.

A still of Harry Belafonte and Carson on “The Tonight Show.”
Source: Tumblr

Belfonte hosted big-name guests — Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. On April 2, 1979, Kermit the Frog headlined the show. Many of his Muppets co-stars came to support him. Among others, one of them was Frank Oz, who voiced Fozzie Bear and Animal.

Remembering a Legend of TV

After his death in 2005, Carson’s friends reflected on his impact.

“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,” actor and comedian Steve Martin said.

David Letterman makes a tribute to Johnny Carson onstage.
Photo by Vince Bucci/Getty Images

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.”

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