The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson was absolutely one of the most successful and influential late-night shows in American history, paving the way for the late-night talk shows of today and making JC a household name for over three decades. However, Carson wasn’t always the charming man on the screen we were all familiar with. There were many aspects about his past that few people know, and for those who tend to hold individuals like Carson up to higher standards, these 12 facts are quite jaw-dropping…
Carson had lots of strained personal relationships, including within his own family. One of his three sons from his first wife, Rick Carson, suffered from mental illness for years, eventually ending up in a psychiatric hospital. However, Carson flat out refused to see his son, for these issues brought on a sense of shame and embarrassment for him.
Carson was notorious for being crabby and even cruel to others in his personal life, which extended to his treatment of his wives. While he and his fourth wife, Alexis Maas, were on a yacht trip during their honeymoon in 1987 in Italy, he got upset with her and remarked publicly: “We’ve been married for three weeks. If you say something like that again, this marriage won’t last another three weeks.”
It was no secret that Carson was a lover of alcohol, and he would get incredibly angry and aggressive after he drank. He was even once caught drunk driving his Delorean in 1982, which led to a suspended sentence of three years. After that, he was restricted in his use of vehicles and forced to take a mandatory alcohol program to address his substance abuse.
Carson was never in denial about his problems. He knew he was a heavy drinker, and the problems that it caused. He acknowledged it in the midst of his career, and sometimes he even joked about it on his show. In an interview with 60 Minutes in 1977, Carson was forthright in admitting his addiction, “I don’t handle alcohol well at all, no. Really don’t.”
Carson met Jody Wolcott, who later became his first wife, when they were in college. The two tied the knot at a very young age and had three boys together: Cory, Ricky, and Chris. They divorced in 1963, as their marriage couldn’t survive Carson’s rising fame – and his wandering eye as well.
Carson then met and quickly married his second wife, Joanne Copeland, who worked as a stewardess, as well as a TV hostess. During their marriage, Copeland had a long standing affair with sports figure Frank Gifford while Carson himself had numerous infidelities. Their nine-year marriage ended in 1972, and the couple split up in a somewhat amicable way: Copeland was still supportive of her ex-husband’s TV career, and she even helped preserve his TV legacy.
Thousands of guests had appeared on Carson’s program over the years, and one of those he loathed the most was famed comedian Bob Hope. Hope came on the show over-prepared every time, and even had jokes written out. As a result, Carson had to stick precisely to the notes Hope gave him; otherwise, if he asked a question out of order, Hope might answer a different one. Reportedly, Carson once told his writer, “If I ever end up like that, guys, I want you to shoot me.”
Carson blamed all of his personal coldness and failed marriages on his terrible, heartless mother, Ruth. “She’s the toughest son of a [expletive] of them all,” Carson said, “There is no goddamn way to please that woman. She’s Lady Macbeth! My marriages failed because she [expletive] me up!” When Ruth died, he refused to attend her funeral and said, “The wicked witch is dead.”
Comedians tend to balk at fat jokes nowadays, as weight gain can often be attributed to underlying health conditions or genetics, rather than personal choice. However, Carson was no stranger to fat jokes. Raymond Burr even refused to go on the program after his second appearance because Carson kept making fun of his weight. Well, no one could blame him for that.
Carson hated Tom Snyder, the host of The Tomorrow Show, which immediately followed Carson’s show on NBC. Although Snyder gained national fame from his show, Carson still regarded him as a talentless bore. During an outing at an LA bar in the late 1970s, Carson even went on a tirade about how much he hated Snyder after only a few glasses of wine.
When the news broke that former Tonight Show guest hosts John Davidson and Joan Rivers’ new jobs – both of them got their own talk shows – reached Carson, he was furious. Carson viewed their actions as disloyal because their shows were in direct competition with his own show. As Rivers claimed while speaking to Larry King in 2009, Carson never spoke to her again.
Everyone knows that a preeminent host of a late-night television show with a broad audience should mind his Ps and Qs, but apparently, Carson didn’t do so. When Carson joked on Tonight Show about an alleged shortage of toilet paper, he had no idea that panic buying and hoarding would ensue across the nation. Consumers emptied stores, causing a real lack that lasted for weeks. Carson later apologized in January 1974 for the incident, which The New York Times called a “classic study” of how rumors spread.