From his humble beginnings in Nebraska to his meteoric rise to the top of the late-night talk show circuit, Johnny Carson's impressive career in television and entertainment has earned him a permanent place in the hearts of many. There is no denying the impact Johnny Carson had on TV and comedy, but few know the personal details about the iconic star that really made him stand out from other celebrities of his time.
The TV Icon
Johnny Carson was an icon of late-night television. He was the host of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson for 30 years, from 1962 to 1992. During his three decade career, he won six Emmy Awards, a Peabody Award, and was even awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. But the details of his personal life, which weren't publicized much while he was alive, may surprise even his biggest fans.
His Legacy Can't Be Exaggerated
Carson was known for his casual, conversational style of interviewing and interacting with his guests. He was also known for being especially quick-witted and a talented improviser. It’s certainly no exaggeration to say that he set the standard for all late-night TV talk show hosts to come. And it was his humble beginnings that gave him the skills he needed to be the ultimate interviewer and host.
But Who Was He?
Many people may know about Carson’s career and legacy, but less known perhaps is the story of his childhood and rise to fame. There are also countless interesting behind the scenes stories about Carson during the many years he hosted The Tonight Show. Let’s explore some true facts about Hollywood legend Johnny Carson.
Johnny Carson was born on October 23, 1925 in the small town of Corning, Iowa. He had two siblings, one younger and one older. While still a child, he lived in Avoca, Clarinda, Red Oak, three small towns all located in southwest Iowa. When he was eight years old, Carson’s family moved to Norfolk, Nebraska.
His Childhood Was Full of Magic
As a youngster, Carson was fascinated by magic and card tricks. He began by practicing his tricks on his family members and eventually put on magic shows under the stage name “The Great Carsoni.” He was paid a few dollars per show, thus beginning his career in show business.
He Took Up Boxing In The Navy
Carson graduated from high school and then joined the United States Navy in 1943. During World War II, he was assigned to the USS Pennsylvania in the Pacific. While in the Navy, Carson took up boxing and remained undefeated with a 10-0 record. Many of his boxing matches were fought aboard the USS Pennsylvania.
He Was Sawed in Half By Orson Welles
While in the Navy, Carson had a brief run-in with Hollywood legend Orson Welles. Welles’ Mercury Theater Wonder Show was putting on a performance for the sailors. Actress Rita Hayworth was apparently unavailable for a stunt in which she was supposed to be sawed in half by Welles. So Carson filled in for her, getting sawed in half by Orson Welles himself.
His College Years Shaped His Future
When the war ended, Carson enrolled in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he joined a fraternity and continued practicing his magic skills. He initially studied journalism but then switched his major to speech and drama. Carson’s goal at the time was to pursue a career in either comedy writing or radio.
Humble Career Beginnings
Carson graduated college in 1949 and quickly began his career in broadcasting. His first job was an internship with a radio and television broadcaster in Omaha, Nebraska. Before long, he was hosting his first TV show. He developed a popular running gag in which he would interview pigeons on the roof of the local courthouse and ask them if they’d seen any corruption going on.
The Move to Los Angeles Was Tough
A woman in Omaha enjoyed Carson’s routine and recommended him to her brother, who worked at a CBS-owned TV station in Los Angeles, California. From 1951 to 1953, Carson hosted a low budget TV show called Carson’s Cellar that developed a reputation among comedy fans and people in Hollywood.
His Big Break
One fan of Carson’s show was the comic Red Skelton, who hired Carson to be a writer. When Skelton was one day unable to perform on TV, Carson filled in for him, proving that he could be a great TV host. It wasn’t long before legendary entertainer Jack Benny hired Carson to appear on his programs.
Being A TV Host Wasn't In His Plans
Carson continued to develop a reputation for being a talented TV host and soon began appearing on several programs, including Earn Your Vacation and To Tell the Truth. This resulted in Carson receiving his very own show, called The Johnny Carson Show. Unfortunately, the show was not a success and was soon canceled.
Meeting His Legendary Sidekick
Carson’s next job was hosting a game show called Who Do You Trust? It was on this show that Carson would first meet his legendary sidekick, Ed McMahon. As the host of Who Do You Trust?, Carson showed the world his rapport with guests and ability to improvise on the spot.
The Tonight Show Was Turned Down By Many
Then, Carson received the offer that would make him a TV legend, The Tonight Show. At the time, late-night television was not what it is today, and many famous comics of the time turned the offer to host the show. Carson did too, until NBC was able to convince him to sign a contract in 1962.
A Challenging First Year
Carson did not immediately take to hosting a late-night program. His first year as host was a learning experience. But once he became comfortable and found his footing, the show quickly became a success. Carson became an excellent host and the show’s ratings took off, making The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson a hit.
Ed McMahon's Famous Catchphrase
Carson had brought his friend Ed McMahon along with him and McMahon soon became known as the sidekick of The Tonight Show. McMahon created a famous introduction for Carson when he said “Here’s Johnny!” The phrase became iconic and would be referenced in many films and TV shows, including by Jack Nicholson in The Shining.
The Tonight Show’s Format Became The Standard
The show soon developed a format that would be repeated many times over its three-decade run. A typical show began with Ed McMahon’s introduction, then a monologue from Carson, then some comedy sketches, and finally appearances by guest celebrities and musicians. This format became a staple of late-night TV and is still used today by most late-night programs.
The New Filming Location
Originally, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson was filmed in New York City, at the famous 30 Rockefeller building in Manhattan. But after 10 years, the show was moved to Burbank, California. The new filming location helped the show access more Hollywood stars, as Burbank is located right next to Los Angeles.
Joan Rivers Was a Frequent Guest Host
As the show continued to air and remained a success, Carson began cutting back on his hosting duties. He started hosting four nights a week instead of five. He also cut the show’s runtime from 90 minutes to 60 minutes. When Carson wasn’t hosting, comedian Joan Rivers became a guest host of the show for three years.
Jay Leno's Famous Takeover
Other than Joan Rivers, other comics and entertainers would sometimes guest host the program, including George Carlin and Jay Leno. Leno became the full-time guest host in 1987, paving the way for his eventual ascendancy to full-time host once Carson retired in 1992. But Jay Leno was not the only future late-night host on the network at the time.
David Letterman Was Primed to Take Over For Carson
David Letterman hosted a show called Late Night with David Letterman beginning in 1982. Letterman’s show aired right after Carson’s. For a while, both Carson and Letterman anticipated that Letterman would take over as host of The Tonight Show when Carson retired. But Leno became host instead, sparking a behind the scenes controversy detailed in the book The Late Shift, which would later be adapted into a HBO movie of the same name.
Throughout the 1970s, Carson was such a successful host that he became the highest paid TV entertainer. His salary at the time was around $4 million per year, which adjusted for inflation would be around $17 million today. Carson also made additional money through his personal appearances at comedy clubs.
The Tonight Show’s Financial Success
One of the reasons Carson had such a high salary was that The Tonight Show earned an estimated $100 million per year, which made up around 15 to 20 percent of NBC’s overall profits. During the height of its popularity, it was easily one of the highest grossing TV shows in existence.
He Turned Down Many Offers
Carson received other offers to star in movies, such as The Thomas Crown Affair, Blazing Saddles, and The King of Comedy, but he turned them all down. Carson was busy hosting The Tonight Show and didn’t make much time for other roles or opportunities. As host of The Tonight Show, he had landed a dream job that was perfectly suited to his talents and interests.
His Daily Routine for the Show
Carson did little preparation for each show. In the morning, he and producer Frederick De Cordova would talk for about 10 minutes to discuss the guests scheduled to appear on the show that night, as well as any planned sketches. Other than this phone call, Carson had no contact with De Cordova until it was time to begin the show.
Debunking Uri Geller
In 1973, Carson took part in a famous segment on his show in which he attempted to debunk the abilities of Uri Geller, an alleged psychic. Carson tricked Geller into thinking he would be interviewed but instead demanded that Geller demonstrate his psychic abilities. Geller, unprepared for the situation, was unable to do so.
Carnac the Magnificent
Throughout the history of The Tonight Show, Carson created and portrayed a variety of characters that would come to be well-known. Perhaps his most beloved character was Carnac the Magnificent, a psychic. Carson, as Carnac, would be presented with an envelope containing a letter. He would reveal the answer to a question written on the letter, then open the envelope and reveal the question.
Wayne Newton Was Never Mentioned Again
Carson would often poke fun at famous entertainers, musicians, and public figures. Sometimes this would upset the targets of his jokes. One such issue developed between Carson and singer Wayne Newton. Carson often made fun of Newton on The Tonight Show, allegedly because Newton successfully purchased a Las Vegas casino that Carson wanted to buy. Eventually, Newton stormed into Carson’s office and demanded that Carson stop with the jokes. Carson laid off Newton from then on.
Drunk Driving Incident
Carson was arrested for drunk driving in 1982. He pleaded no contest to the charges and was sentenced to three years probation, as well as a small fine. For 3 months, Carson was only allowed to drive to and from work. He was allowed to drive to his court-ordered alcohol education classes as well.
Feud with Joan Rivers
Joan Rivers, a frequent guest host of The Tonight Show, was offered her own late-night show with FOX. She accepted the offer and became a competitor to Carson’s show from 1986 until 1987, when Rivers’ show was canceled. As a result of this, Carson refused to ever speak to Rivers again, perceiving her decision to host a competing show as a betrayal.
The Toilet Paper Incident
In 1973, Carson made a joke on air about a toilet paper shortage. Apparently, some viewers took the shortage seriously and bought massive amounts of toilet paper. This caused an actual toilet paper shortage, which resulted in toilet paper being rationed. Eventually, the buying frenzy calmed down and order was restored.
His Surprising Business Endeavors
Carson was involved in a variety of businesses, in addition to his job as a TV host. Aside from attempting to purchase a Las Vegas casino, he was also an investor in DeLorean cars, made famous in the film Back to the Future. He also owned his own apparel company and restaurant chain.
The End of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson Was Epic
After 30 years of hosting The Tonight Show, Carson decided to retire from show business. Although he considered David Letterman to be the best choice to replace him, the network decided to go with Jay Leno instead. Nonetheless, Carson maintained a friendship with Letterman over the years and would sometimes send him jokes that Letterman would use on air.
His First and Last Guests
Carson’s very first guest on The Tonight Show was legendary comedian Groucho Marx and his very last guest was actress and singer Bette Midler. Marx introduced Carson to TV audiences for the first time, while Midler sang a song when Carson exited the show for the final time.
The Tonight Show’s Longevity
The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson was a mainstay in American culture for three decades. The show was on the air so long that it aired during seven different presidential administrations: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush.
Missing Tonight Show Tapes
Some tapes containing episodes of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson were lost in a fire at NBC’s archives, causing the permanent loss of original copies of segments featuring John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and Ayn Rand. Tapes for the show were later stored in a working salt mine in Kansas to perverse them.
Johnny's Retirement Was Quiet
Carson retired and largely withdrew from public life. He occasionally appeared on other shows, such as The Simpsons or The Late Show with David Letterman. But for the most part, he stayed out of the spotlight. Carson spent his retirement enjoying life and traveling, until his death in 2005.
Johnny's International Adventures
During retirement, Carson was fond of traveling, especially to Africa. Not only did he visit Tanzania and many other African nations, but he also taught himself how to speak Swahili. An odd coincidence is that a man named Johnnie Carson would later serve as United States Ambassador to several African nations.
The Death of a Legend
Carson died in Los Angeles in 2005 due to respiratory failure. He was cremated and his ashes were given to his wife. Following his death, many TV shows paid tribute to Carson’s legacy, such as The Late Show with David Letterman, The Simpsons, and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
His Influence on Comedy
Carson’s impact on comedy was significant and many comedians, actors, and TV hosts have cited him as one of their biggest inspirations. Among those who have expressed admiration for Carson include David Letterman, Jay Leno, Robin Williams, Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen DeGeneres, Joan Rivers, Conan O’Brien, Bill Maher, Ray Romano, Mel Brooks, Steve Martin, and Jimmy Fallon.
Private Political Views
Carson largely kept his political views private, as he believed that expressing them publicly would hurt his career as an entertainer. In his private life, Carson was a moderate who opposed the Vietnam War and supported liberal abortion laws. But he also served as the host of Ronald Regan’s 1981 Inauguration and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George H. W. Bush.
Many Marriage and Lots of Children
Carson was married four times in his life. His first marriage to Jody Wolcott ended in divorce in 1963, shortly after he began hosting The Tonight Show. Carson had three children with his first wife: Christopher, Richard, and Cory. Tragically, Richard died in a car accident in 1991. His second marriage to Joanne Copeland ended in 1972.
His Secret Marriage
His third marriage to Joanna Holland was at first a secret until Carson announced it during a party, shocking his friends and co-workers. He and Joanna later divorced in 1983. His last marriage occurred in 1987, when he wed Alexis Maas. This marriage lasted until Carson’s death in 2005.
His Director Brother Stayed Behind The Scenes
Johnny’s brother, Dick Carson, was a well-known TV director and producer for many years. Dick worked on The Merv Griffin Show in the 1970s and later directed or produced over 3,200 episodes of the famous and long running game show Wheel of Fortune. Dick died in 2021, at the age of 92.
His Famous Friends
Carson was close friends for nearly 50 years with his TV sidekick Ed McMahon. He was also friends with the famed astronomer Carl Sagan, in part due to his interest in astronomy. He was also friends with legendary jazz drummer Buddy Rich, writer Gore Vidal, and tennis player John McEnroe.
His Secretive Poker Club
Carson was a member of an exclusive poker club called the Hollywood Gourmet Poker Club. Other members included Martin Short, Chevy Chase, Carl Reiner, Neil Simon, Barry Diller, and additional Hollywood studio executives and movie producers. The club would meet once a month to play cards, with a reported buy-in of $1,000.
He Donated Millions To Charity
Johnny established the charitable organization, the John W. Carson Foundation, in 1981. He donated $156 million to the foundation, which is dedicated to providing services for children, health, and education. Carson also made significant contributions to organizations that helped further education, the arts, and cancer treatment. His foundation remains one of the most well-funded in Hollywood history.
His Offstage Personality
Despite being a TV host who was extraordinarily good at interacting with his guests, Carson was well-known for being shy and introverted in his personal life. This surprised many people when they met him for the first time. Some of Carson’s friends believed that he was incapable of socializing with people unless there was a camera in the room.
A Lifelong Loner
According to Carson’s longtime friend and attorney Henry Bushkin, Carson was such a loner and isolated from most people that when he died in 2005, nobody arranged a funeral or memorial service for Carson. Despite his popularity with the public, according to Bushkin, Carson had difficulty maintaining close personal relationships.
Carson was a heavy smoker throughout much of life, smoking as many as four or five packs of Pall Mall cigarettes every day. His smoking habit caused some health issues later in life, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and a severe heart attack in 1999 that almost took his life.