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If you’ve ever watched television, you know about The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Known as one of the first late-night talk shows, Johnny Carson started an era that would boom with comedians interviewing celebrities and hosting bits. However, Carson ran into some controversy during his run. Here are some secrets from the set of the show.

Carson’s Mother

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We all have family issues. Johnny Carson was no exception, especially when it came to his mother, Ruth. He said, “She’s the toughest son of a [expletive] of them all. There is no goddamn way to please that woman. She’s Lady Macbeth! My marriages failed because [expletive] me up!” Needless to say, he did not attend her funeral when she died.

Not the Best Husband

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While Carson blamed his mother for his failed marriages, he definitely should take some responsibility. He is known for being cruel to people, especially his wives. He threatened his fourth wife, Alexis Maas, with divorce just three weeks after they married in 1987 due to a certain remark she made.

Death of His Son

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Carson had three sons from his first wife. His son, Rick, struggled with mental illness and was committed to a mental hospital. His father never came to visit. Remember, this is a time when mental illness wasn’t talked about. Unfortunately, he met his demise when his car rolled down an embankment in California.


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It could be said that Johnny had a habit of drinking too much. So did his son, Rick. While on a boat party celebrating 25 years of his show, he and his son drank too much and argued in a screaming match. Carson even tried to take a swing at his son.


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Carson’s alcoholic tendencies got him into some trouble. In 1982, he got a DUI and received three years probation. He also wasn’t allowed to use his car other than to drive back and forth to work.

60 Minutes

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During a 1977 interview with 60 Minutes, Carson owned up to his addictions and let the public in on his personal life. “I don’t handle alcohol well at all, no. Really don’t,” he said. “I have had some wonderful times in the past.”

Johnny and Joanne

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Carson married his second wife, Joanne Copeland, in 1963. They went on their first date in 1960 and became a hot item after that. However, during their marriage, Copeland had an affair with Frank Gifford. They divorced in 1972.

Tell-All Book

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Henry Bushkin, Carson’s lawyer, wrote a tell-all book about the television star. In it, he wrote about the affair between Copeland and Gifford. According to the book, Carson sobbed about the fact that his wife was cheating on him.

Dirty Work

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Carson asked his lawyer to go and find evidence of the affair. After he asked this, Carson went on a drinking binge with 60 Minutes interviewer, Ed McMahon.

The relationship between Copeland and Gifford has never been confirmed.

Least Favorite Guests

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Carson had many guests on his show. Some he liked, others he didn’t. He claims that the worst guest he ever hosted was Bob Hope. ‘There was nothing spontaneous about Hope. He was a guy who relied on his writers for every topic. Johnny was very quick on his feet. Very well read. He was a guy who learned Swahili, learned Russian, learned astronomy. He appreciated people who he felt engaged with the real world. There was nothing to talk to Bob about,” writer Andrew Nicholls said.

Hope’s Inconvenience

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Bob Hope proved to be a major inconvenience to Carson. As he grew older, he lost his sight and hearing. Carson had to make a special effort to read specific questions in a certain order to Hope or else he would answer the wrong one. “If I ever end up like that, guys, I want you to shoot me,” Carson said once.


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Carson was notorious for the women he hung around with. He always had a woman on his arm. After his divorce from Joanne, he took up with Playboy model, Angel Tompkins. He had many infidelities when it came to his marriage.

Insensitive Jokes

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Carson was known for telling insensitive jokes, especially fat jokes. Carson had no qualms about pointing out someone’s weight in front of millions of people on television.

Lost Deal

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In 1980, Carson inquired about buying the Aladdin Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. However, he decided not to buy it and it went to Wayne Newton. However, in the media, Carson was portrayed as “losing” the deal, which he did not like. This started a feud between Newton and Carson.

Wayne Newton

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“Johnny Carson is a mean-spirited human being. 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,” Wayne Newton said on Larry King Live. Finally, after Carson made one too many jokes about Newton, Newton confronted him with a threat to fight unless he stopped. Carson never made a joke about Newton again.

Tom Snyder

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Carson hated Tomorrow Show host, Tom Snyder. Carson thought of Snyder as someone with no talent and even went on a drunken tirade about Snyder in a restaurant one night. Not very professional.

John and Joan

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After John Davidson and Joan Rivers guest hosted Carson’s show, they both received their own shows. Carson wasn’t happy about this at all since Joan’s show would be competing with his. He never spoke to Joan again.

The Affair

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Before the feud between Rivers and Carson, Rivers revealed in her book that the two had an affair while she was married to Edgar Rosenberg. This raises the question if the affair brought on intense feelings about the feud over her talk show.

The Sex Tape

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Joan Rivers confessed to seeing Carson’s private parts. She said, “I saw it in real life. How do you think you got on the show?!” She later revealed that Carson showed her a sex tape he had made with one of his wives.

Toilet Paper

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Carson’s joke about a shortage of toilet paper sparked chaos when his viewers feared that they would run out of toilet paper and emptied store shelves. This panic created an actual shortage of toilet paper. Carson apologized a month later.

“Here’s Johnny”

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Carson sued a portable toilet company named Here’s Johnny because that was the phrase he used to introduce himself on his show each night. The lawsuit took over ten years when Carson was ultimately awarded the phrase. The company is still fighting to get their name back.

Mr. Rogers

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As one of Carson’s skits, he played an evil Mr. Rogers. The real Mr. Rogers didn’t approve of the skit, especially because he liked to spread the message of kindess and love.

Sinatra’s Personal Favor

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Frank Sinatra was responsible for putting together President Ronald Reagan’s Inaugural Gala in 1981. He asked Carson to host the event. When Carson found out that the request came from Reagan, he said, “Ronnie does know that I answered my country’s call once already, doesn’t he?” Carson was referencing his time serving in WWII. He hosted the gala, however he wasn’t very happy about it.

The Future of TV

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Carson passed away alone in 2005. Though he is the King of Late Night, he was concerned about the future of television. Peter Jones said, “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. He had said he was sickened by what was going on, and was glad he got out when he did.”

Richard Little

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Richard Little claimed that Carson hated him in his memoir, Little by Little: People I’ve Known and Been. Apparently, Richard was kicked off the show because Carson didn’t like his impressions of him. Carson was able to dish out insults, but wasn’t one to take them. Carson’s lawyer claims that Richard “brought out the worst in Johnny.”

Carol Wayne

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You know Carol Wayne as the “Matinee Lady” from Carson’s show. She played a ditzy blonde woman, which earned her a typecast. It was because of the show that her career plummeted.

Carol’s Downfall

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Carson asked for his show to be cut down to one hour instead of an hour and a half. This resulted in getting rid of Carol’s part. This was the start to financial hardship, which resulted in her becoming an escort to make money.

Carol’s Death

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Carol was on vacation with Ed Durston in Mexico, who left her alone on the beach. Days after he left, her body was found in about four feet of water, fully clothed, with no alcohol or drugs in her system. Her death still remains a mystery.

A Strange Connection

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Art Linkletter’s daughter died when she fell from the six-floor of an apartment building. Linkletter suggests she died from flashbacks from using LSD. The strangest part is that Diane was with Ed Durston the night she died. Ed wasn’t charged for the two deaths, but that doesn’t make him innocent.

Jack Paar

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Jack Paar hosted the Tonight Show from 1957 to 1962 before he abruptly quit in the middle of filming. When his joke was censored he said, “I am leaving the Tonight Show. There must be a better way of, uh, making a living than this. You have been… peachy to me always.”

Johnny Walks In

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Jack Paar left the country after his walk off but came back to host the show for two more years. He decided to leave for good due to the hectic schedule, which left a door open for Johnny Carson.

Bert Parks

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Bert Parks made his mark as the host of the Miss America pageant. However, in 1979 he was fired due to his old age. Many people were furious over the firing, especially Johnny Carson. Carson tried to get Parks his job back, but was unsuccessful.

Tape Leaked

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Remember that sex tape Carson showed Joan Rivers? In 2014 someone got their hands on it and spread it around the Internet.

Stab at Politics

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It’s pretty common for late night talk show hosts to comment and make fun of current politics. However, when Carson was hosting, it wasn’t done. Carson made fun of Gary Hart, who ran for the democratic presidential nomination in 1987 for having an affair on a boat trip with Donna Rice.

Monkey Business

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One of Carson’s jokes was about the name of the boat Hart and his mistress were on, “Monkey Business.” This scandal lost Hart the nomination. Greg Dawson, a tv critic said, “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? Is this a great democracy or what?”

Younger Crowd

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Johnny had musical guest Morrissey on his show in the 1990’s and Bill Cosby as his interviewee. Unfortunately, his fans that night were all younger and there to see Morrissey, not Carson or Cosby. Carson struggled to entertain that night.

Sexual Harassment

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There are rumors that circled for years that Carson sexually harassed women on the show. However, nobody came forward with lawsuits.

Sally Field

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Sally Field spoke of her relationship with Johnny Carson. She described their relationship as “the octopus and the reluctant little guppy.” This implied that Carson was very handsy with her.

Sally’s Struggles

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Sally Field admits to having a hard time turning people down, like Johnny Carson, on the Watch What Happens Live show. She figured out a way and would “tell people I had lost my mind.” She said, “I told him I was having a breakdown and being sent away. I couldn’t figure out how just to say I’m really just not into this.”

Bob Crane

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Producers looked at Bob Crane to replace Jack Paar on the show. However, Crane took a job on Hogan’s Heroes instead. Bob was murdered in his hotel room in 1978. The murder was never solved.

John DeLorean

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Carson invested in John DeLorean’s car company, DeLorean Motor Company. However, DeLorean was arrested for drug trafficking, which resulted in the loss of Carson’s great investment.

No Mingling

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Carson wasn’t known for hanging out with his guests. Instead he would only interact with them while they were filming. Orson Welles is the only one who received Carson’s attention off the air.


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Carnac was a character Carson created for the show. Carnac was a “mystic from the East” and would come out in a turban with an envelope. McMahon would introduce him, “No ones 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.”

Playing by His Own Rules

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Carson had a lot of pull in his network since his show raked in the most money during the 1970’s. If the network didn’t give him what he wanted he threated to switch to another one that did.


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When Carson demanded for shorter episodes, NBC had to find something to fill the leftover time. So, they created SNL. The show was so successful that it still runs today and turns out some of the best comedians of our time.

Lost Forever

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Carson didn’t see a point in archiving shows since he turned one out every night. So, the earliest episodes from the show are gone forever. There are only 33 episodes that remain from 1962 to 1972.

The First Episode

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The only thing that remains from the first episode is the picture of Carson and Groucho Marks shaking hands. The recording of the episode was cleared so they could reuse the tape.

Ed McMahon

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Ed McMahon was seen as Carson’s sidekick, but it wasn’t always that way. Their first meeting was “about as exciting as watching a traffic light change.” The two turned out to be good friends and worked very well together.

The Shining Line

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McMahon’s famous phrase, “Heeere’s Johnny!” will forever be remembered in pop culture thanks to Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of Jack Torrance in The Shining.

Undefined Role

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“My role on the show never was strictly defined. I did what had to be done when it had to be done. I was there when he needed me, and when he didn’t I moved down the couch and kept quiet. I did the audience warm-up, I did commercials, for a brief period I cohosted the first fifteen minutes of the show and I performed in many sketches,” Ed McMahon describes.


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It turns out just because you’re famous doesn’t mean you’re rich. McMahon struggled with money when his home was foreclosed on in 2008 and was being sued by Citibank.

Donald Trump

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Donald Trump offered to help McMahon out with money back when he was known for his real estate business.

Ed’s Laugh

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Just a year after his home was foreclosed on, Ed McMahon died at the age of 86. “It is impossible, I think, for anyone to imagine The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson without Ed McMahon. Ed’s laugh was really the soundtrack to that show,” Conan O’Brien said.

Harry Belafonte

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When Johnny Carson needed some time off, he would have guest hosts come on the show. For a week, Harry Belafonte hosted the show. This was the first time an African-American ever hosted a television talk show.

Jokes for David

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After Carson retired from the talk show in 1992, he kept in touch with friends like David Letterman. If he ever came up with a new joke, he would send it to Letterman for his own show.

Carson’s Quotes

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Johnny Carson left us with some pretty memorable quotes.

“If life was fair, Elvis would be alive and all the impersonators would be dead.”

“I know a man who gave up smoking, drinking, sex, and rich food. He was healthy right up to the time he killed himself.”

“Democracy means that anyone can grow up to be president and anyone who doesn’t grow up can be vice president.”

Quit While You’re Ahead

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Carson could have kept going with the show, but he wanted to quit while he was ahead. “Everything comes to an end; nothing lasts forever. Thirty years is enough. It’s time to get out while you’re still working on top of your game, while you’re still working well,” he said.

Bette Midler

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Bette Midler was Carson’s last guest on the show, alongside Robin Williams. During her performance of “One for My Bab (and One More for the Road)” Carson teared up. Midler would go on to say that it was the most emotional moment of her life.

The Final Show

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Carson’s final show was on May 22, 1992. “I found something I always wanted to do and I have enjoyed every single minute of it. 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 said.

Johnny Carson’s Legacy

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Johnny Carson passed away in 2005 and left us with a great legacy. Steve Martin said, “All of us who grew up with 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. His occasional touch of boyish naughtiness made America a sweet and kind place to be, and he without doubt enriched our nation.” There are many good things to say about the late comedian and King of Late Night.