Johnny Carson was a household staple for over 3 decades. From 1962 to 1992 he brought his cool persona, sharp wit, and lovable demeanor into our living rooms. He felt more like an old friend. Carson was the veritable king of late-night talk.
Whether you were a fan of Letterman or Leno back in the day or Jimmy Kimmel or Conan O ‘Brien today, they all have taken cues from Carson, who was the clear ground-layer for the entire genre of late-night talk shows that are now a staple of evening television.
Despite being a comedic beacon of the small screen and having such a cheery approachable personality that drew in a very diverse audience, Carson was apparently not the same man off-screen as he was when the cameras were rolling.
Turns out, he had long-standing grudges and feuds that wouldn’t be put to rest including one with Bob Hope, who happened to be a frequent guest on the show and even a guest host for several episodes.
We’re going to show you some little known facts about one of the greatest talk shows of all time.
Stick around till the end of the video to find out about Johnny’s shocking feud and falling out with Joan Rivers. You won’t believe why the two friends abruptly became enemies.
Facts Verse Presents: Secrets of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson
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Johnny gets his start
The Tonight Show got its start In 1954 with Steve Allen behind the desk. That torch was passed over to Jack Paar, who took the helm of the later night talk show between 1957 and 1962. It was initially filmed at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan and ran from 11:15 pm all the way till 1 AM. That timeslot would later be cut down to 60 minutes.
After Paar’s last show in 1962, there was a 6-month gap before Johnny Carson had his first episode on October 1st. In that first episode, his guests included the singer Rudy Vallee, actor and filmmaker Mel Brooks, singer Tony Bennett, and the lovely Joan Crawford. What a line-up!
Carson Set the Stage for Years to Come
Even though the idea of a late-night talk show wasn’t a new one, the format that Johnny Carson laid out with his own take on the show was revolutionary. The same basic structure is still followed to this day with The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.
When the work you did still lives on 60 years later through many incarnations, it’s safe to say that you’ve left behind a strong legacy.
Carson always started out each show with a stand-up monologue that consisted of about 2 dozen one-liners. He avoided sounding played out and stale by never saying more than three things about a specific subject. Then there were always a few sketches and guest interviews where he talked to some of the hottest people in the realms of entertainment, politics, and even the sciences. The show always wrapped up with a musical performance or a stand-up routine from one of comedy’s greatest.
If that formula sounds familiar, that’s because every late-night talk show host since has followed that same basic pattern for decades.
Carson’s producer helped him become who he was
Fred de Cordova became the producer of The Tonight Show in 1970. He was promoted to the position of Executive Producer in 1984. Cordova worked with some of the greatest comedians and actors in the industry.
Carson and Cordova’s relationship would become strained in 1991 when Carson was taking extra long to finish an episode. He was honoring the life of his son Richard, who had just died in a vehicular accident. Cordova gave the sign to Carson that he needed to wrap it up quickly and that he was taking too long. This was met with the fury of Carson, who banned him from the set for the rest of the show’s run until it ended in 1992.
Cordova retained his title of Executive Producer but he and Carson’s relationship would never be the same.
The most frequent guest-star
Even though it’s well known that the two had a bit of an ongoing feud, no one had as many guest appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson as Bob Hope.
In fact, he had over 100 guest spots on the show despite their ongoing differences.
Carson definitely wasn’t a huge fan of the iconic comedian. But, because of Hope’s special relationship with NBC, he could basically come on the show whenever he felt like it. It was this presumptuousness that made Carson feel sour towards Hope, who he never felt like was a particularly great entertainer or guest.
Johnny did have respect for Bob Hope’s place in show biz, but he just didn’t care much for his work as a whole. Both Hope and Carson were well-loved by NBC and America’s viewing audiences but they were frequently at odds with each other.
Perhaps it was because their personalities were so similar. Both men were easy-going, fashionable, admirable, and hilarious comedians but also a bit emotionally distant. Carson preferred spontaneous and naturally flowing comedy and had a disdain for Hopes prepackaged, scripted delivery.
As time went on and Hope advanced in age, he eventually lost much of his hearing forcing the two to stick to a script when they were on stage together.
Carson once commented on this fact rather sardonically, saying “If I ever end up like that, I want you to shoot me.”
A wide range of guests
In the early days, Carson had all the prolific politicians of the day on his show including RFK, Hubert Humphrey, and even Richard Nixon. By the 1970s, he focused less on politics and more on the entertainment industry. The show continued to follow this new formula for the rest of its tenure.
He was always a diplomat. He very smartly remained politically neutral during his monologues, interviews, sketches and comedy routines in fear of taking a side and alienating his ginormous audience.
Johnny had an endless stream of uber-famous guests. George Carlin, Drew Barrymore, Robin Williams,
Joan Rivers, Jerry Seinfeld, Drew Carey, and Garry Shandling are just a few folks that saw monumental gains in their respective careers from appearing on Carson’s stage.
Johnny kept it all business
As chatty and friendly as Johnny Carson seemed when the cameras were rolling, he would rarely go out of his way to socialize with his guests before or after the show. This business-only mindset would even be extended to guests that he had known for many years.
It kind of makes sense, though. He spent several hours a day having to talk to folks and portray this persona that everyone had come to expect. It has to be a bit overwhelming to be that familiar face every single day – especially on your off days.
There was one particular time that Johnny broke his own rule and went out of his way to greet a guest before the show – much to the shock and awe of his staff. That shocking event took place on September 23rd of 1976 when Hollywood legend Orson Welles was his guest. Carson was a huge fan of the Citizen Kane star and had to make sure he got a word in with him before the taping.
Carson had pencils with erasers on both ends
Johnny was quite the fidgeter. He always needed something in his hands and his object of choice were good old fashioned pencils. Apparently there was some concern from producers that these sharp pointy objects could prove to be dangerous, either to Carson himself or one of his guests.
So just in case any pencils went flying and suddenly became a harmful projectile, his staff swooped in and replaced all of his regular writing implements with pencils that had erasers on both ends. It’s a good thing that Carson was more of a talker than a writer.
From New York to the Golden Coast
Even though the show was originally filmed in front of a live audience at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York City, it made the jump from the Big Apple to the West Coast in 1972 when NBC moved production to Burbank, California. The show continued the rest of its tenure there until it finally came to an end in 1992.
Special Guest Hosts
Johnny Carson had quite a few friends that stood in as a Guest Host when he needed a break. Joey Bishop was his most frequent guest host and appeared 177 times. Joan Rivers hosted 93 times and John Davidson and Bob Newhart both hosted 87 times. Other notable backups were David Brenner, Mclean Stevenson, Jerry Lewis, David Letterman, and even big-name stars like Frank Sinatra, Burt Reynolds, and Sammy Davis Jr.
Joan Rivers was his permanent guest host in the early 80s and Garry Shandling was the choice pick for 1987-88. Jay Leno was then his permanent guest host, rounding out the final years of the show before the torch was passed to him.
Joan Rivers and Carson’s Falling out
As we already mentioned, Joan Rivers was a significant player on The Tonight Show. She was a frequent performer, guest, and host. In 1986 however, Rivers took the job as host of The Late Show which was Fox’s offering in direct competition to The Tonight Show.
Carson was furious. He felt betrayed by Rivers because she never informed him of her intentions to join the show and she never asked him for his seal of approval. Their relationship came to an abrupt end. Even in 1991 when Carson’s son passed away in that car accident and Rivers felt it fitting to send Johnny a loving letter expressing her condolences, Carson snubbed her.
Like we said before, he was well known to hold grudges.
Another feud happened in 1981 when Frank Sinatra asked Carson to host Ronald Reagan’s inaugural Gala. Carson felt like he was being unfairly pressured into doing the even and then later on he found out that it was Reagan who was making the request but that he sent the request through Sinatra. The divide only grew from there and to add insult to injury, Dean Martin showed up to the event absolutely hammered which pushed Carson’s buttons even further.
We could go on and on about The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. It was one of the finer pieces of late-night TV to ever hit the airwaves. But now we would love to hear from you! Who was your favorite late-night host from yesteryear? Are you a Johnny Carson fan through and though ar are you into Leno or Letterman? Or maybe someone else is your favorite man behind a desk. Let us know what you think in the comments section. Before you go, don’t forget to hit the like button and to subscribe to our channel.