Johnny Carson was a household name for several decades. The comedian and host of The Tonight Show entered the homes (through television sets) of millions of Americans each weeknight and was a beloved icon of the late-night talk show format. He truly set the bar.
But there were many aspects about his past people didn’t know about — grudges he held, controversies between him and other celebrities, and facts about his personal life he kept hidden. No person is perfect, but we tend to hold individuals like Carson up to higher standards, so for many, these facts are quite shocking…including the guest on the show that Carson couldn’t stand.
Rude Comments To A New Wife
A wedding honeymoon is meant to be a time for couples to connect and enjoy each other’s company. But Carson, who was notorious for being crabby and even sometimes cruel to others in his private, apparently was in a sour mood on his honeymoon with fourth wife Alexis Maas.
While the two were on a yacht trip during their honeymoon in 1987 in Italy, Carson, apparently upset with a comment Maas had made, remarked to her, “We’ve been married for three weeks. If you say something like that again, this marriage won’t last another three weeks.” Ouch!
Strained Relationship With His Son
Johnny Carson had many personal relationships that were strained, including within his own family. Among his four wives, he only had children with his first. One of his sons from that marriage, Rick Carson, had suffered from mental illness, which back in those years was a subject that was kept quiet. Rick eventually ended up in a mental hospital, and Johnny, perhaps embarrassed by it, refused to see him.
The two had been estranged up until June of 1991, when Rick’s vehicle fell off of a cliff on the roads nearby the town of Morro Bay, California. He did not survive the 125-foot drop. Carson spoke about his son after the incident on his show.
Carson Fought With His Son
Carson’s relationship with his son Rick didn’t fare much better in the years after he was in a mental hospital. Both Rick and Johnny were known to be drinkers, and when NBC threw Carson a 25th anniversary party aboard the Queen Mary, Rick got drunk…and Johnny got mad.
According to witnesses, Johnny found Rick and immediately became aggressive with him, shouting at his son. It could have gotten worse: Johnny had put his hand in a punching motion, but someone stopped him from hitting Rick before he was able to do so.
Drunk Driving Charges Followed Him
Speaking of Johnny’s drinking problems, it was no secret that he was a lover of booze (it also was no secret that he could get incredibly angry and aggressive when he drank). This became public knowledge (and public record) in 1982, when Johnny was caught drunk driving in his car, a DeLorean. He pleaded no contest to the charges, and was sentenced to three years of probation, which included limited use of any vehicle — he was only allowed to drive to and from work. He also had to take a mandatory alcohol program to address his abuses of the substance.
Carson Knew He Had A Problem With Booze
Carson wasn’t in denial about his problems. He knew he was a drinker, and he knew that it was problematic. In the midst of his career, he acknowledged it, and sometimes he even joked about it on his show, so the audience was well-aware of what he was going through, even though he was typically private about it for the most part.
In 1977, Carson appeared in an interview with 60 Minutes. On that program, he was forthright with his addiction. “I don’t handle alcohol well at all, no. Really don’t,” he said. Even though he knew it was a problem, however, it didn’t stop him from imbibing.
Johnny’s Second Wife, Joanne Copeland
Johnny’s second marriage didn’t go as well as either he or his wife, Joanne Copeland, had probably planned. Johnny met Joanne while she was working as a flight attendant in 1960 — Johnny was hosting the game show Who Do You Trust? at the time (the game show’s title should have been an omen). They married in 1963, but their marriage only made it through 1972, as Copeland had an affair with football player Frank Gifford (Carson also had affairs during this time, too).
Still, the couple split up in a somewhat amicable way: Copeland was still supportive of Johnny’s TV career, even during their tumultuous relationship and after they parted ways.
Henry Bushkin’s Allegations
Joanne Copeland’s affair with Frank Gifford wasn’t well known at the time, but became knowledge in the public in 2013, when Carson’s former lawyer, Henry Bushkin, wrote a book about the sordid details of Johnny’s life.
Henry made many allegations, some of which have been criticized. He said that Johnny had asked him to photograph Joanne with Frank in order to get evidence of the affair. Bushkin also claimed Johnny had been wearing a revolver during his hip around this time, not explaining why he had possession of the gun. Bushkin wrote also that Johnny was heartbroken over the affair, sobbing about his wife cheating on him.
Finding The Evidence
Bushkin was allegedly reluctant to find the evidence of the affair at first, but agreed to do so, providing Johnny with some of the dirty details. The incident left Carson shook up, and he reportedly went on a drinking bing with his Tonight Show co-host, Ed McMahon.
In later years, Kathie Lee Gifford, who went on to marry Frank Gifford, asked her husband about the affair and whether it happened. Frank told Kathie Lee he “couldn’t remember,” she recounted on the show — a real possibility, as Frank was diagnosed with a brain disease around the same time. Frank Gifford died in 2015.
Johnny’s Worst Guest
Johnny Carson had thousands of guests appear on his program over the years he was the host of The Tonight Show. It’s understandable that he’d not get along with every single one of them. One of the guests he loathed the most was famed comedian, Bob Hope.
What irked Johnny about Bob the most was the fact that Bob came prepared — over-prepared, in Johnny’s mind — every time he came on the show. He even had prepared jokes written out. It didn’t seem genuine to Johnny. Johnny “appreciated people who he felt engaged with the real world,” Carson’s former co-head writer, Andrew Nicholls, once said. “There was nothing to talk to Bob about.”
Johnny Lost His Patience
As time went on, Bob Hope continued making appearances on The Tonight Show, but it was clear his age was becoming an issue. Hope had difficulties with hearing, and sometimes couldn’t hear Johnny’s questions. He also gave Johnny notes, and requested that the host ask questions in order (lest Hope give an answer to a different question).
It was so bad, and Hope’s health was deteriorating at a rate that was so noticeable, that Carson allegedly vented to his staff about it. “If I ever end up like that, guys, I want you to shoot me,” he told one of his writers.
Johnny’s Cheating Heart
Johnny Carson was reportedly heartbroken about his second wife, Joanne, cheating on him, which was the catalyst for their eventual split. Truth is, Johnny got around himself. During their divorce proceedings, he sometimes hosted a Playboy model named Angel Tompkins at his residence, even though he was warned that doing so could hurt him in the divorce.
Carson’s, either infidelity wasn’t limited to after the divorce started: during their marriage, Joanne reportedly knew he was cheating on her due to his behavior he displayed. She suspected as much because he always gave her such high-end gifts, including a Rolls-Royce and diamonds.
Carson Didn’t Like His Mother
“The wicked witch is dead.” That’s what Johnny Carson said when he was asked about the death of his own mother. It may seem callous, but according to Carson, many of his own negative personality traits, and his failed marriages, are due to his own mother, Ruth, whose funeral he refused to attend.
“She’s the toughest son of a [expletive] of them all,” Carson once said about her. He also directly blamed her for why he got divorced so many times. “My marriages failed because she [expletive] me up!” Carson was himself a very rude and condescending individual, but one has to wonder what his mother was really like if he has these kinds of words for her!
Johnny’s Insensitive Fat Jokes
Comedians tend to balk at fat jokes nowadays, especially when they come at someone else’s expense. They’re insensitive, and don’t take into account that sometimes, a person’s weight isn’t something they choose for themselves. There may be genetics at play or other underlying health concerns.
Johnny Carson, however, loved to tell fat jokes. It got so bad that one actor, Raymond Burr, refused to go on the program after making two appearances (in 1968 and 1976) after Carson belittled his appearance. And really who can blame him? If someone constantly made jokes at your appearance would you go on their show?
Carson vs. Newton
Johnny Carson was interested in buying property in 1980 — specifically, the Aladdin Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. But he backed out of the arrangment, and when he did, Wayne Newton and another group of investors bought it instead. The media portrayed Carson as having “lost” the deal, which led him to start making jokes about Newton’s masculinity on The Tonight Show.
In the 1980s, such jokes were generally regarded as direct attacks against a person’s character, and Newton was furious about Johnny’s inferences. Later, Newton responded to Carson by directly confronting him…read on to find out what happened next!
Newton Confronts Carson
Newton was furious with Carson’s jokes on The Tonight Show. He decided to directly confront the late-night talk show host, and appeared at his offices. He threatened to fight Carson physically unless he laid off the jokes. Carson got the hint, and relented.
Years later, during an interview with Larry King on Larry King Live, Newton recounted the feud with Johnny Carson. “Johnny Carson is a mean-spirited human being,” Newton explained. “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.” As we’ve seen on this list so far, Newton’s assessments aren’t that far off the mark.
Johnny Didn’t Like Tom Snyder
As we’ve already seen, Johnny Carson had a lot of “spirited” opinions about individuals in the entertainment industry. He even went up against individuals within NBC itself, including Tom Snyder, host of The Tomorrow Show, which aired immediately after The Tonight Show.
Carson’s main beef with Snyder was that he was boring. He also didn’t believe he had a lick of talent. During an outing at an LA bar in the late 1970s, Carson, who had a few glasses of wine by that point, went on a rant about Snyder. Not the best of ways to get on good terms with your co-worker.
John Davidson and Joan Rivers both got their own talk shows. The two were frequent guests of Johnny Carson’s for many years, and when the news of their new jobs reached him, he was furious. Carson viewed their actions as disloyal, especially Rivers’s, as she would be directly competing with Carson’s show on the Fox network.
Rivers recalled their feud while speaking to Larry King in 2009. While she remained friends with Johnny’s co-host Ed McMahon, she recounted that her accepting the new hosting job — which only lasted a year — cost her her friendship with Carson. The two never spoke again, she said.
Joan Alleged An Affair
Carson was livid with Rivers for her taking a late-night hosting gig that was directly competitive with his own. As friends, this is an understandable reaction: it seemed like a betrayal to Johnny. But there may be more to it than that…
According to Rivers in her own autobiography, she and Carson had an affair with one another. The affair allegedly took place while she was married to Edgar Rosenberg, a television producer. Their marriage lasted for 22 years. Edgar killed himself in 1987 — Rivers got her show on Fox two years later, when her feud with Carson began in earnest.
Carson’s Toilet Paper Scare
When you’re the preeminent host of late-night television, you have a large audience, to say the least. So naturally, your words sometimes have consequences. Johnny Carson learned this firsthand in 1973, when he made a joke about a worldwide shortage of toilet paper. This resulted in a “run” on stores, where people flooded markets in order to ensure they would be able to wipe their tushies during the supposed shortage.
Due to the widespread panic, Carson apologized the next month, saying he was sorry for causing the reaction. The New York Times cited the incident later on as a “classic study” of how rumors can spread, and their consequences thereafter.
Here’s Johnny! Not For Use By Portable Toilets
“Here’s Johnny!” The classic catchphrase, said out loud by Johnny Carson’s co-host Ed McMahon every night before the program, is iconic, and many people recognize it as coming from The Tonight Show. So naturally, others wanted to capitalize on it…specifically, a portable toilet company.
In fact, in 1977, Johnny Carson sued a port-a-potty company for using the phrase in their advertising. The late-night host was successful in stopping them from doing so, even though it took more than a decade for him to win his suit. To this day, however, the company is still seeking out legal avenues to use the phrase.
Johnny Imitates Mister Rogers
Sometimes, Johnny did parodies on his show. In one instance, it didn’t go so well, as Johnny went after everyone’s favorite neighbor, Mister Rogers. Johnny did a skit where he played a similar character, but instead of being friendly and nice, he asked kids to steal money from parents in order to help his show continue on.
That didn’t sit well with the real Fred Rogers, who voiced his disapproval. Johnny got the message loud and clear, and later apologized to the kids’ television host for lambasting his program. There are some subjects that are off-limits, and Mister Rogers appears to be one of them!
Sinatra Calls In A Favor
Frank Sinatra asked Johnny Carson to emcee the Inaugural Gala in 1981. Problem is, Johnny didn’t really want to. But Frank said he would consider it a “personal favor” — as in, if he said no, he’d take great offense to it. Johnny, who served in World War II in the Navy, knew he had to comply, even though he initially replied, “Ronnie does know that I answered my country’s call once already, doesn’t he?”
It was a star-studded affair, but Johnny was clearly miserable. He wouldn’t even introduce Dean Martin during the event, who was visibly drunk. Sometimes, these sorts of obligations are hard for people to attend…even individuals such as Johnny Carson. He belittled Sinatra behind closed doors after it happened.
Johnny’s Grim Views On The Future Of Late Night TV
Johnny Carson passed away in 2005. While many people left tributes to the king of late-night television, expressing how he had forever changed the genre, Carson himself was less optimistic. Apparently, shortly before he passed away, Johnny Carson had dinner with two comedians and expressed to them his disappointment with television.
Filmmaker Peter Jones explained. “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,” Jones said. “He had said he was sickened by what was going on, and was glad he got out when he did.”
Johnny And Richard Little
Famous impersonator Richard Little wrote a memoir in 2016 called “Little by Little: People I’ve Known and Been.” Within the book, Little accused Johnny of banning him from The Tonight Show because of his disliking his impersonations of him. Essentially, Johnny could give out the jokes, but he couldn’t take them personally.
Many may agree with Little’s impression of Johnny having a “thin skin” but there were others who weren’t too keen on Little’s act either. Henry Bushkin, who wrote a biography about Carson, also suggested that Little’s impersonation of Johnny “brought out” the worst of what he was like.
Carol Wayne, an actress and a model, was well-known for her work as a ditzy blonde on The Tonight Show. She also appeared on programs like The Red Skelton Show doing similar character work. But her life appears to have been directly impacted, in a negative way, due to a decision by Johnny Carson. Apparently, after Johnny asked to make the show a 60-minute variety program rather than a 90-minute one, it resulted in Carol’s character being cut from the show, more often than not. The decision may have ultimately led to her downfall, including a life of drugs and eventually her death…
Carol Falls On Hard Times
The shortening of the show led to the creation of Late Night With David Letterman. However, for Carol Wayne, it meant her character was all but written out of The Tonight Show completely. It led her down a dark path, where she found herself facing difficult economic situations.
To cope with it all, Carol turned to drugs and alcohol, and allegedly became an escort to help make payments on her rent and other bills. Eventually, she began a relationship with Edward Durston, a used car salesman. The two went on vacation to Mexico, where an argument between them led Ed to leave Carol alone on a beach…
Days later, after Ed Durston had left Carol Wayne alone on the beach, she wound up missing. Her body was eventually found in shallow waters along the beach. There were many peculiar circumstances to her death. For starters, there weren’t any drugs or alcohol in her system. So how could she have drowned in such shallow waters? Many believed that Durston had something to do with her death, but he had left the area a while before she had died. Was she killed when the two separated, or many hours (days?) afterward? No one knows for sure, and the death remains a mystery.
Jack Paar Walks Off The Tonight Show
Johnny Carson wasn’t the only controversial host of The Tonight Show. Many people don’t realize, but he wasn’t even the original host of the program. Sometimes, that’s hard to remember, given how long he hosted.
Jack Paar was the second host of the show, from 1957 to 1962. Many controversial moments aired on the program while he hosted, including an interview with Fidel Castro. But when he made a joke about a toilet being confused for a wayside chapel — and when the censors didn’t allow the joke to air — that was it for Paar, who left the program mid-air. “There must be a better way of making a living than this,” he said.
Paar Returns, Only To Depart Again
Jack Paar did agree to return to the show a month later, but only stayed on for about two more years. It wasn’t the same for him, and it’s believed that his controversy over his joke being censored made a lasting impression on him, though publicly Paar said it was the schedule that made things difficult for him to keep going on.
When one door closes, another opens, and when Paar left, that meant someone else had to take his place to continue on with The Tonight Show. That person ended up being Johnny Carson. (And you thought the Conan/Leno issue was controversial!)
Johnny Tries To Save Bert’s Job
Johnny Carson had a lot of pull in the entertainment industry, but he wasn’t always successful when he made requests of others. One incident in particular demonstrates this. Bert Parks was the Miss America host for over 20 years — he’s the person who famously sang “There She Is, Miss America.” But in 1979, he lost his job. The pageant wanted a younger host to pull in that age demographic at the time.
Carson, like many others in Hollywood, was upset with the decision. He even led an on-air campaign to try and get Bert his job back. Ultimately, however, the pageant got its way, and Bert was out.
Carson’s Sex Tape
Celebrity sex tapes are not an uncommon thing nowadays, though they still are scandalous when the come about. In 2014, nine years after Carson’s death, a sex tape he made with one of his wives was discovered. Initially, it was offered by the person who had it in their possession to the Carson estate to buy, but they refused to do so. They also threatened to sue the individual if the tape got released. Ultimately, it was probably sold to some other private seller. The tape, had it been released while Johnny was alive, would have undoubtedly made the star furious.
Late-night hosts belong to an exclusive club, and they have many things in common with one another. One of those things seems to be directing their comedy toward politicians. Carson was no stranger to this. In the late 1980s, Gary Hart was running for president. A rising star in the Democratic Party, he ultimately decided to back out suddenly when it was revealed he had an affair.
The New York Post even published pictures of him with the “other woman,” Donna Rice, when the two took a boat trip together. Johnny was among the many hosts of late-night television to crack a few jokes at Hart’s expense.
Hart’s Monkey Business
The jokes seemed to write themselves for Carson and his team of writers. It helped that the name of the boat Gary Hart and Donna Rice were on was called “Monkey Business!” At the time, Carson’s jokes were looked upon humorously, and many critics opined that his brand of humor could have a direct influence on the election.
“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?” television critic Greg Dawson quipped. Carson’s jokes helped pave the way for other comics to joke about future sex scandals among politicians in the years ahead…
Problems With A Younger Audience
The first rule of comedy is to always know who your audience is. Unfortunately for Carson, sometimes his guests — and even his musical acts — can play a role in changing who his audience (usually a reliable, older demographic) might be.
Carson (and guest Bill Cosby) were flabbergasted when they couldn’t relate to the audience one night in the early 1990s. That was because the audience, a much younger age group, had come to see the singer Morrissey. Many of Carson’s monologue jokes failed to land that night, and he and Cosby had difficulties getting laughs during the interview segment as well.
Johnny’s alcohol abuse was a known secret in Hollywood. So, too, were rumors of his relationships with women. It was believed by many that Carson frequently used his celebrity status as a means of getting away with sexually harassing guests and workers on his set who were female.
A lawsuit was never brought about against Carson, but that may be because of how powerful he was in the entertainment industry at the time — Carson also had a strong legal team. It’s possible, as the MeToo era continues on, that more voices may speak out against his behavior. Only time will tell…
Sally Field’s Description
Some women have spoken out about their interactions with Johnny Carson in the past. Actress Sally Field, for instance, was recently interviewed by Andy Cohen, who hosts the program Watch What Happens Live. When Cohen asked her what her relationship with Carson was like, she explained it was comparable to “the octopus and the little guppy” — that is, Carson was “all hands” with Field, as Cohen put it.
Field and Carson did date for a short while, but the actress later explained that she was in a difficult situation with the king of late-night — she wasn’t all that interested in him, and didn’t know how to say no to him when he asked her out.
Sally Field’s Excuse To Johnny
Sally Field had a solution for how to fend off people who she didn’t want to date. The performer said she had to employ this strategy with Carson, too. Whenever someone came onto her and they couldn’t get the hint, she would “tell people I lost my mind,” she said to host Cohen.
Field recounted how this worked with Carson. “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.'” As we saw earlier, Carson had an estranged relationship with his son, who had mental hardships himself, so this likely resonated with him, one way or another.
Bob Crane Almost Hosted The Show
Johnny got The Tonight Show gig after Jack Paar left the show in 1962. He wasn’t necessarily the first choice to take over, however. Actor Bob Crane was actually asked about taking over the show, but turned it down because he wanted to pursue acting roles rather than variety show hosting duties. That move assured Carson the role as host, and Crane’s starring role on the hit sitcom Hogan’s Heroes.
Crane himself died in 1978, after he was murdered in his hotel room in Arizona. It’s still a mystery who murdered Crane, as DNA testing determined in 2016 it was an unknown suspect, not an individual Crane’s family members had long suspected.
We already mentioned how Johnny Carson was arrested for drunk driving while in a DeLorean vehicle in the early 1980s. There’s a reason why he was in that type of car: Carson, who was friends with John DeLorean, was an investor in the car company.
DeLorean himself had a controversial end to his career as a car designer. In 1982, he was arrested for allegedly trafficking tens of millions of dollars of cocaine. Although he was later acquitted of the charges, he was unable to recover from the negative publicity. Both men probably wish the car really could drive back in time…
Interactions With Guests
Johnny Carson’s cold shoulder was well-known in Hollywood circles. Even on the set of his show, he didn’t like to mingle with his guests, rarely visiting with them before or after their interviews on the program. Orson Welles once appeared on the show, and recalled how staffers of the program said they were surprised that Carson talked to him before they recorded.
That’s kind of how Johnny rolled. It was a visible trait of his, visible on the program itself — he didn’t force laughter for guests telling jokes, choosing only to laugh if he was genuinely amused. He also could cut an interview short, if he was uninterested.