Think late-night talk show hosts and the one name that pops up immediately in everyone’s minds is Johnny Carson. And after 30 years of hosting The Tonight Show, it’s no wonder either. Carson was undoubtedly the trendsetter for the late-night format. It was he who started setting the pace of the show with a monologue, followed by a comic sketch, guest interviews, and comic or musical performances. Night after night, audiences tuned in to watch Carson talk about everyday things in his pleasant and quick-witted manner. It was a great way to unwind and end the day.
So now you too should sit back, relax and enjoy these 45 facts about the original influencer, and the king of late-night television: Johnny Carson.
Johnny Carson Facts
1. Magic John
Johnny Carson (born John William Carson) discovered his love for entertaining people when he found a book on magic at a friend’s house. He quickly ordered a magician’s kit through the mail and started practicing his skills on family members. His mother sewed him a cape and he got his first paid gig at the age of 14, when he performed as “The Great Carsoni” and was paid $3 for a show.
2. The Age of Innocence
Carson was born in Corning, Iowa and moved to Norfolk, Nebraska with his family when he was eight. He reportedly had a happy and peaceful childhood. Although he was a shy child, he was courageous enough to make his debut on the school stage and act as a bumblebee. Apart from school plays and his magic performances, Carson worked as a movie usher, sold newspaper subscriptions door-to-door, wrote a humor column in his high school newspaper, and contributed funny anecdotes in his school yearbook.
Even before he hit it big, Carson was a busy guy!
3. Nautical Tales
Carson had been debating whether to become a psychiatrist or a journalist when he was accepted in the United States Navy’s V-12 training program at Columbia University. He eventually became a communications officer and was on the USS Pennsylvania “en route to the combat zone” when the war ended with the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
4. More Nautical Tales
While he was still in the Navy, Carson posted a 10-0 boxing record on board his ship the USS Pennsylvania. He claimed that the highest point in his Navy life was when he performed magic tricks for the United States Secretary of the Navy, James V. Forrestal. Forrestal asked Carson to perform for him after he said he would work as a magician when he was discharged.
Carson was happy to have successfully entertained Forrestal despite the general’s cranky and sophisticated demeanor.
5. Life After Navy
Carson joined the University of Nebraska-Lincoln after being discharged from the Navy. He decided to major in journalism, hoping to become a comedy writer. In fact, his thesis was actually on “How to write Comedian Jokes.” He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Radio and Speech and a minor in Physics.
6. The Radio Years
In 1950, Carson started his broadcasting career at WOW Radio and Television in Omaha. His first TV show was titled The Squirrel’s Nest and his routine was to interview “pigeons” on the rooftops of the courthouse to comment on the shady dealings of the politicians they witnessed from their perch. He later started another show titled Carson’s Cellar on the CBS-owned KNXT.
It was from this show that comic Red Skelton sought him out and asked him to work as a writer for his show on another channel.
7. Mission Television
Skelton once knocked himself out during a rehearsal and Carson was asked to fill in for him. He did it so successfully that he was asked to host a variety show on CBS titled The Johnny Carson Show. And that’s when he made it big, right? Nope, the show bombed. He later moved to New York to host Who Do You Trust? on ABC. This show, on the other hand, did extremely well and became “the hottest item on daytime television” in the six years that Carson was host.
8. Meet the Parents
Carson was born to Homer Lloyd “Kit” Carson—a power company manager—and Ruth Elizabeth Carson (nee Hook). They passed away at the ages of 83 and 84, respectively, and reportedly gave their children a stable, secure life. Some of Ruth’s friends believed that Carson had inherited his sense of humor from his mother, who had a “fine mind” and was a “sharp lady.”
9. Mommy Issues
Unfortunately, despite the general belief that the Carsons were great people who gave their kids a happy childhood, Carson himself did not have a good relationship with his mother. His closest friends believe that this was the reason why he was unable to have meaningful relationships with anyone at all. After his death, Carson’s lawyer and confidante Henry Bushkin wrote a tell-all book, claiming that Carson’s mother never showed him any affection and remained unimpressed by anything he achieved in his whole life.
Sounds like a wonderfully pleasant lady alright…on her death, Carson reportedly declared that the “wicked witch” was dead and did not attend her funeral.
10. Star Gazer
Carson was fascinated by stars and considered himself an amateur astronomer. He owned several telescopes and one of his friends was astronomer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan.
11. Jazz Lover
Carson was also a jazz enthusiast and supported many jazz musicians on his show, including his friend Buddy Rich. He loved playing the drums himself as well.
12. Award Haul
Carson received many awards during his long and illustrious career. He was the recipient of six Emmy Awards, the Television Academy’s Governor Award, and a Peabody Award. He was inducted in the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1987, was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1992, and was given a Kennedy Center Honor in 1993.
13. (Can’t) Stick ‘em with the Pointy End
Interestingly, Carson enjoyed fiddling with pencils on his show. To prevent the possibility of anyone getting hurt, the studio gave him pencils with erasers on both ends. This was also pointed out on the show by his sidekick Ed McMahon, who told him the authorities had taken away pointed objects because they were afraid Carson might hurt himself.
“But how can I write with this?” Carson asked. “There’s no need,” replied McMahon. “You’re a talker. You’re not a writer.”
14. Sidekick Ed
Carson interviewed McMahon in 1957 for the role of an announcer on Who Do You Trust?, which Carson was hosting at the time. The “interview” lasted all of five minutes and consisted of them commenting on a Schubert Theater sign being changed across the street. McMahon was certain that he had blown it and was not getting the job. He was then very surprised when he got a call from the studio a couple of weeks later to confirm that he was in.
15. Here’s Johnny
McMahon would introduce Carson by belting out the phrase “Heerre’s Johnny!” This became a “cultural catchphrase,” with Jack Nicholson echoing it in The Shining. Interestingly, a manufacturer of portable toilets wanted to use this phrase as the brand name of his product, but Carson successfully sued the company and got them to stop.
16. (Un)Happily Married
Carson married his college sweetheart, Joan “Jody” Morrill Wolcott in 1948. The marriage was marked by infidelities on both sides and was a volatile, unhappy affair. They had three sons, Richard, Christopher, and Cory. They got divorced in 1963, and she lost her case for an increase in her alimony in 1990.
17. Private Demons
Carson battled alcoholism for most of his life. Initially, he was just considered to be fond of his drink, but later it became clear that he had a far more serious problem than had previously been believed. Unfortunately, his son Richard inherited this from his father and they had a rocky relationship because of it.
They almost came to blows at the 25th anniversary of The Tonight Show onboard a cruise ship, and when Richard was admitted in a hospital for his mental health, Carson refused to go visit him.
The father-son story had a heartbreaking ending when Richard passed away while on a drive in California. He had reportedly stopped to take some pictures, and his car toppled over a ridge. He fell 125 feet to his death. Carson was understandably devastated and paid tribute to his son on The Tonight Show.
19. Mind Your Language
Carson taught himself Swahili, which he used to speak when he went on trips to Africa after his retirement. I kinda wonder what else he would’ve accomplished if he’d retired a little earlier!
20. Married Again
A few months after his divorce from his first wife, Carson remarried. His new wife was Joanne Copeland and he had reportedly been involved with her long before his divorce was finalized. This marriage did not last a full decade, and they were divorced in 1972. She ended up receiving $6,000 from Carson every month for the rest of his life—giving him even more opportunity to make alimony jokes.
21. Third Time’s (Not) The Charm
The same year as his second divorce, Carson married Joanna Holland. She was a former model, and the marriage took place secretly in the afternoon of The Tonight Show’s tenth-anniversary party. This marriage also ended in divorce around 11 years after they got together. Holland received almost $20 million in cash and property in the divorce.
22. The Final Wedding
Carson married Alexis Maas in 1987. This marriage lasted until his death in 2005, although there had been indications that it might not even last a few months in the beginning. Reportedly Carson took offense to something innocuous Maas said on their honeymoon and told her that they’d been married three weeks, but if she said something like that again “this marriage won’t last another three weeks.”
She either never said anything to offend him again, or he learned to live with what she did say.
23. Twister Tempest
The original influencer, Carson made the board game “Twister” go viral when he played it on his show in 1966 with Eva Gabor. Sales of the game soared the very next day!
24. The Great Toilet Paper Crisis
Carson’s influence was so huge that he created a toilet paper crisis by just joking about it. In 1973, in jest, Carson alluded to an alleged toilet paper shortage in the markets. This created such panic in his viewers that people began to buy and stock up on toilet paper, creating an actual shortage in the market. Stores and manufacturers had to ration supplies until the alarm ended and Carson apologized for his role in starting the brouhaha.
25. Politically Yours
Carson was a Liberal but did not like talking about politics on his show. He felt it was a divisive conversation, and he did not want to lose any of his viewers because of his own political views. He felt strongly about racial equality and opposed the Vietnam War, but tried to keep things breezy and light on air. That in itself would be a political statement in today’s world.
26. No Fat Jokes
Raymond Burr was frequently a target of Carson’s “fat” jokes. While body-shaming was not as frowned upon then as it is now, Burr was unhappy with being the butt of such humor and boycotted the show.
27. Not Mr. Rogers! Anyone but Him!
Carson also played an evil Mr. Rogers on his show. His version of Mr. Rogers was teaching kids about the birds and the bees using dolls and wanted them to steal money from their parents to keep his show on air. The real Mr. Rogers was unimpressed by this act and Carson later apologized for making fun of him.
It turns out it takes an honest-to-god saint to get an apology from Johnny Carson.
28. A Tale of Two Networks
At one point, Carson had some issues with NBC, and as soon as ABC realized, they offered to double his pay if he left NBC and joined them. NBC wouldn’t give up without a fight, so they courted Carson with an offer of $25 million a year, gave him ownership of his show, decreased its duration, and reduced the number of shows he had to do in a year. Talk about being an invaluable employee!
29. Guests, Hosts, and Guest Hosts
There were many guest hosts on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Most notable of these was Joey Bishop, who hosted the show more than anyone else—177 times! Joan Rivers was also a perennial guest host from 1983-1986, and icons like Jerry Lewis, David Letterman, and Frank Sinatra all took their turns behind Johnny’s desk.
30. Failed Investment
Carson was one of the main investors in the DeLorean Motor Company, which was famous for its time machine in the Back to the Future trilogy. Sadly, the company did not do well and lost all the money that had been invested in it.
31. Gues(t) Who?
Johnny’s first guest on The Tonight Show was Groucho Marx. His last guest—who sang him off—was Bette Midler. The guest he most wanted on the show was Cary Grant, but Grant never agreed to appear. Carson also desperately wanted Bill Boyd as a guest, but although Boyd was a big fan, he was uncomfortable coming on the show and feared it might hurt his image, so he never did either.
32. Hopelessly Difficult
Carson had an extremely rocky relationship with one of his biggest guests. Considering the 100 plus appearances Bob Hope made on The Tonight Show, one would imagine Carson was a big admirer of the comedy legend. On the contrary, he did not enjoy hosting Hope at all and resented that he could come on whenever he wanted. NBC had a long-running relationship with the comedian, which allowed him to “write his own ticket on the network.”
The two men were very different, with Hope relying on his writers for all his jokes and Carson playing it by ear. The latter did not like following a script all the time but had to, especially when Hope grew hard of hearing and couldn’t tell if Carson changed a question, answering what had been scripted even if it did not make sense.
Carson reportedly told his team that if he ever ended up like Hope he wanted them to shoot him. Slightly extreme, but the man does not sound like the most level-headed person you’d know.
33. From Manhattan to Burbank
The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson started off from 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York City and continued to be filmed there until 1972, after which production was moved to an NBC studio in Burbank, California. The show continued to be shot there until its end in 1992. Carson felt the facilities were much better in California and he liked living there because he enjoyed playing tennis and going to the beach whenever he wanted.
He also appreciated having a house with yard, which wasn’t possible in New York.
34. Carson IRL
Although Carson displayed an extremely friendly, witty, and pleasant persona onscreen, he was actually a very shy and private person. He did not find it easy to socialize or make small talk, and his lavish Malibu residence only had a single bedroom. If any friends or family visited, they would stay in a guest house across the street.
35. Between Paar and Leno
Carson’s predecessor was Jack Paar, who hosted The Tonight Show for five years until 1962. Paar was a controversial figure because of his political leanings and sense of humor, and Carson’s apolitical stance led him to be viewed as very much Parr’s opposite. When Carson retired, he was succeeded by Jay Leno—but many people agree he wasn’t happy with the decision. It is believed that Carson felt David Letterman would have been a better choice, as he went on Letterman’s show twice, and would frequently send Letterman material for his monologues as well. He did none of this for Leno.
36. A Silent Affair
Once he retired, Carson mostly stayed away from the public eye. He did appear in a few cameo roles, the most famous of which was when he voiced himself on The Simpsons in 1993. His last appearance was on The Late Show with David Letterman, but although he came on stage to a standing ovation and sat behind Letterman’s desk, he left without addressing the audience at all. He later said he hadn’t spoken because of “acute laryngitis.”
Talk about disappointing your fans. This episode surely must take the cake.
37. Au Revoir Johnny
Carson hosted his last show on May 22, 1992. His guests the night before—on his second last show—were Bette Midler and Robin Williams, but on his last night, he did not invite anyone from show business. The audience consisted only of friends, family, and crew members. Carson ended the show sitting on a stool at center stage. He thanked McMahon, Doc Severinsen, his crew, and his viewers and said he was very lucky that he got to do what he loved. He wrapped up the show with the words “I bid you a very heartfelt goodnight.”
More than 50 million people tuned in to watch him say goodbye. That’s way more than the number of viewers who tuned in to HBO to watch the Game of Thrones series finale. In 2011, Johnny’s ultimate episode was ranked number 10 on the TV Guide Network Special: TV’s Most Unforgettable Finales.
38. Comedic Mentor
Carson introduced many iconic comedians on his show. If he found someone funny, he would invite them to join him for a chat on his couch. Almost every person who got called to the couch went on to become a famous comedian. Some examples are Joan Rivers, Jerry Seinfeld, Jim Carrey, and Ellen Degeneres. Carson was obviously a great judge of comic aptitude.
39. Smoking Kills
Carson was a heavy smoker. He often smoked on TV in the early episodes of his show. He reportedly smoked up to four packs a day for most of his life, and it eventually caught up to him. On January 23, 2005, Johnny Carson died due to respiratory failure at the age of 79.
40. Bombastic Bushkin
Henry Bushkin was Carson’s personal attorney for 18 years. He was also Carson’s friend, confidante, tennis and walking partner, and much more. He reportedly assisted Carson’s break-in of his second wife’s apartment to gather proof that she was cheating on him. Bushin drank with him, traveled with him, and basically enabled Carson in doing whatever he wanted…until he was fired over something minor in 1988.
Until he was fired, Carson had referred to Bushkin as his closest friend, and would talk about him on his show as “bombastic Bushkin.”
41. The Bushkin Revelation
In 2013, Bushkin published a book about his former boss, titled Johnny Carson. He wrote about their time together and unveiled Carson as a cold, sullen, unhappy person who was unable to form meaningful relationships with anyone, and any women especially, because of his own relationship with his mother.
Doc Severinsen, Carson’s bandleader, disagreed with Bushkin’s account and claimed that not only was Carson a good boss and a fair man, he was also always keenly aware of whatever was going on, and that was probably why he had dismissed Bushkin. He said that Bushkin had only written the scandalous book to make money.
42. The Rivers Fiasco
Carson disliked what he perceived as disloyalty, and he was famous for holding a grudge. He got extremely upset when Joan Rivers, whom he had single-handedly propelled to stardom and who was a frequent guest host on The Tonight Show for three years, was offered to host her own late-night show by Fox. The show only lasted a year, but was given the same time slot as Carson, and he saw her as a direct competitor.
Rivers said he never talked to her again from the day he discovered she had accepted the offer, and she wondered if things might have been different if she had informed him herself and sought his blessings.
43. The Rivers’ Rumors
Rivers later mentioned that she and Carson had been involved in a short fling while they were working together. There is no proof to this story, which she admitted to after his death. However, if true, it might be a reason for his anger at her “betrayal.”
44. Producer Problems
Fred de Cordova started working as a producer on The Tonight Show in 1970 and stayed on until Carson’s last episode. However, his relationship with Carson had soured a year earlier after an incredibly callous moment from Cordova: While Carson was paying tribute to his son after his death in 1991, Cordova motioned to him that he needed to hurry up and speed things along.
Carson was absolutely furious, and things never went back to normal afterward—while he kept his title, Cordova wasn’t even allowed on set.
45. The One with Wayne Newton
Not everyone was a fan of Carson’s sense of humor—it can’t be denied he could be cruel and cutting when he wanted to. In 1980, Carson was interested in buying a hotel and resort in Vegas. However, he either backed out, or lost the deal to a group led by singer-entertainer Wayne Newton. The media portrayed this as a loss for Carson and win for Newton, which annoyed Carson so much that he started making jokes on his show targeting Newton’s masculinity.
Newton was understandably upset, and after trying to get in touch with Carson several times, he walked into Carson’s office and threatened to beat him up if the jokes did not stop. Spoiler alert: they did. Years later, Newton opened up about the whole episode on Larry King Live, declaring: “Johnny Carson is a mean-spirited human being. And there are people that he has hurt that people will never know about.”