(Alex Haley Interviews Johnny Carson was originally published in the December 1967 issue of Playboy Magazine. In addition, it was also published within Alex Haley: The Playboy Interviews by Ballantine Books in July 1993.)
Alex Haley Interviews Johnny CarsonAlex Haley Interviews Johnny Carson (1967)
John William “Johnny” Carson (October 23, 1925 January 23, 2005) was an American television host and comedian, known as host of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson for 30 years. Carson received six Emmy Awards including the Governor Award and a 1975 Peabody Award; he was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1987. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1992, and received Kennedy Center Honors in 1993.
“I interviewed Johnny Carson—a very collected, cool person, difficult to reach. We were at the Bel Air Hotel and he was giving his conventional responses, but then we got to talking about his having left Nebraska and that got him to open up. He was in school there and was peripherally running a little radio station—he was everything from general manager to janitor. He told me how he used to spin records and how he would think about wanting to do television shows. He said one day he was writing out a sketch for a show he thought might work on TV and a great revelation came to him—that what he wanted to do was not in Nebraska. Once he realized that, within two weeks he left Nebraska and starred to California with his wife and children. As he was telling me this he became nostalgic. He began dragging his words, remembering. Then Johnny stood up and walked to the window and looked out on Sunset Boulevard as if he was almost seeing a mirage and said, ‘We drove right down there on Sunset.’ He was playing it back to that time. And then he told me about his big break, where he landed a job as an assistant to Red Skelton who, during a rehearsal for his TV show, went through a breakaway door that didn’t break. Skelton was knocked out and Carson had to go on in his place and that was the beginning of the big road in front of him.” ~ Alex Haley.
A Candid Conversation With Television’s Foremost Host, Clown Prince And Raconteur
There are few television personalities as engaging—and none as paradoxical—as Johnny Carson, the suave, boyish, 42-year-old star of NBC’s Tonight Show. Five nights a week, for 90 minutes—under the scrutiny of nearly 10 million viewers and a studio audience of 234—Carson wittily and assuredly converses with guests ranging from Bobbie Gentry to Bobby Kennedy, in a style so ingratiating that the average viewer, according to one psychologist, feels he belongs to the Tonight Show’s “family” and is taking an active part in the proceedings. Out of the camera’s range, however, Carson maintains a passionately private life that has earned him an unenviable reputation as an uptight, lonely misanthrope. The puckish star, who often affects a whimsical naivete while on the air, also proved himself to be an exceedingly tough hombre in his celebrated walkout last April; convinced that NBC had violated his contract by showing reruns during an AFTRA strike, Carson refused to go back to work when the strike ended and won a new contract that reportedly guaranteed him an income in excess of $4 million for the following three years.
Despite occasional charges that the Tonight Show is “verbal Muzak” or that Carson deliberately skirts controversial subjects, the program attracts a hefty 40 percent of the late-evening audience. Recent challengers, such as Joey Bishop on ABC and Bill Dana on the short-lived United Network, have run far behind Carson not only in the Nielsen ratings but in the judgment of the critics. Time has called his show “the most consistently entertaining 90 minutes to be seen anywhere on television.” The main drawing card of the program is Carson himself; a gracious, tolerant host and a quick-draw, sharpshooting ad-libber, he is able to eke laughs even out of mishap—as when a mechanical device refuses to work or when a guest fails to maintain the lively, cocktail-party repartee that is the Tonight Show’s stock in trade.
Carson’s mastery of his craft is the polished product of almost three decades as an entertainer. At the age of 14, as “The Great Carsoni,” Johnny was earning three dollars an engagement for entertaining the Elks and Rotarians of Norfolk, Nebraska—his hometown—with card tricks and other feats of magic; in high school, he was class historian—and an imaginative practical joker. After a two-year stint in the Navy (he once entertained Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal for several hours with his card tricks), Johnny entered the University of Nebraska, where he earned money off-campus as a comedian and radio announcer, met his first wife, Jody Wolcott, and wrote a thesis on comedy. Following a year in Omaha, where he acquired local renown as an offbeat radio personality, he moved to Hollywood and hosted a Sunday-afternoon television show called Carson’s Cellar. In 1954, while writing gags for Red Skelton, he got his first major break: Called upon to substitute for his boss after Skelton was injured in a rehearsal, he won plaudits for his performance—and his own night-time-TV show on CBS; but The Johnny Carson Show lasted only 39 feverish weeks. The producer attributed its failure to Carson’s lack of “power”; Johnny felt that too many people had been trying to give him advice.
After this setback, Carson acquired a manager, Al Bruno, and was promptly hustled off to New York. In the course of the next five years, as host of a daytime quiz show, Who Do You Trust?, he learned to improvise risqué but socially acceptable double entendres and to coax humor out of lady wrestlers, snake charmers and the matrons who comprised the bulk of his viewers and guests. The rest of his time was filled with a heavy schedule of personal appearances on the Ed Sullivan, Perry Como and Dinah Shore shows, stints as a guest panelist on What’s My Line? and To Tell the Truth and even feature acting roles on Playhouse 90 and The U.S. Steel Hour. When Jack Paar decided to step down as ringmaster of the grueling Tonight Show in 1962, he named Carson—who had successfully subbed for him on several occasions—as the only man who could fill his shoes. NBC agreed, but many observers wondered if the new man was really up to Paar. He was—and then some; since he took over Tonight, Carson has eclipsed his predecessor’s popularity; the show is the biggest money-maker on television, with both advertisers and studio tickets S.R.O.; and its host has become the biggest star in television.
In the opinion of many, however, Carson’s success has made him cocky; and his reputed highhandedness has led colleagues to refer to their boss only half-humorously as “The Prince.” True to the image, when he secured his prodigious salary hike last April, he also demanded—and got—a free $1 million insurance policy and more autonomy in the production of the show. One of his first acts after returning to work was to fire producer Art Stark, a friend for 11 years, whose ideas were reportedly too conservative for the star’s taste.
Whatever else success has done to Johnny Carson, it has not made him sociable. In the past, he occasionally went out on the town and—according to some reports—showed up for work hung over from what an associate called “insecurity binges.” Today, however, he and his petite second wife, Joanne, rarely leave their $173,000 duplex in the United Nations Plaza Tower—a posh co-op that also houses such public personalities as Robert Kennedy, David Susskind and Truman Capote. They dine out about twice a month, see an occasional play and attend Giants games during the pro-football season. Carson’s remaining offcamera hours are spent in pursuit of a multitude of extracurricular interests—astronomy, archery, motion-picture photography, scuba diving and flying; he also plays guitar and drums. Recently, to acquire a short film clip for the Tonight Show, he even spun around the track at Indianapolis in Andy Granatelli’s turbine-powered racing car, allegedly banned from the “500” because it was too fast for the competition. On vacations—which add up to a quarter of the year—he plays to record nightclub audiences at a reputed $40,000 a week.
Reporters, eager to capitalize on the irony that such a willing performer should be such a reluctant celebrity, have often characterized Carson as a withdrawn, unaffectionate, even hostile man. One Tonight Show guest has bluntly called him a “cold fish.” Even his old friend announcer Ed McMahon has said that he “packs a tight suitcase.” Though others have risen to his defense—notably, Mrs. Carson, who explained to a writer at some length that Johnny cares very much about people but doesn’t find it easy to verbalize his feelings—few succeed in glimpsing his private life, let alone in reaching him on a personal level.
We decided to interview Carson early this fall, when he was riding high on the wave of public interest that followed his dispute with the network. Always wary of reporters, he regards the public’s curiosity about him as a tiresome irritation that “just goes with the territory.” But during his conversations with Playboy interviewer Alex Haley—which were conducted daily, over the course of a week, both at Carson’s home and in his NBC office—he overcame his reticence and provided us with by far the most candid interview he has ever granted. “At first,” Haley reported, “he was evasive, but by the end of our talks, I had come to like and respect him as a man with the guts to be stubborn about his convictions in a profession where the most common concern is to swing with the ‘in’ crowd, whatever the personal compromise.” Haley opened the discussion by asking Carson about his offscreen image as a loner.
Haley: Recent newspaper and interviews articles about you have focused on the contrast between your affable television image and what they claim is your dour, antisocial personality in private life. Writing in TV Guide, Edith Efron even went so far as to say that “Johnny Carson is a dual personality; pure sweetness and light on the screen—and offscreen, plunged into some Dostoievskyan murk.” How do you feel about this kind of armchair psychoanalysis?
Carson: I couldn’t care less what anybody says about me. I live my life, especially my personal life, strictly for myself. I feel that is my right, and anybody who disagrees with that, that’s his business. Whatever you do, you’re going to be criticized. I feel the one sensible thing you can do is try to live in a way that pleases you. If you don’t hurt anybody else, what you do is your own business.
Haley: Of course. But off the air—even to many of those who know you well—you seem withdrawn and even hostile. According to reports, longtime associates on the show say that you scarcely speak except as business demands, that you have almost no friends in or out of show business, that you hardly ever go out socially, that you shrink from your own public. Why?
Carson: I think I owe one thing to my public—the best performance I can give. What else do they want from me? As for being sociable, I hate the phoniness in the showbiz world. I know this will be taken wrong, but I don’t like clubs and organizations. I was never a joiner. I think most groups are hypocritical, restrictive and undemocratic. I don’t run with anybody’s herd. I don’t like crowds. I don’t like going to fancy places. I don’t like the whole nightclub scene. Cocktail parties drive me mad. So I do my job and I stay away from the rest of it. Isn’t that my right? Am I not entitled to prefer the enjoyment of my home? Am I not entitled to a private life? I can’t go anywhere without being bugged by somebody. I’d love to just hike out down the street, or drop in a restaurant, or wander in the park, or take my kids somewhere without collecting a trail of people. But I can’t. When you get successful, you just have to quit going out in public as often as you used to. Wherever you go, some clown grabs you and demands an autograph: It’s a pain in the butt. I’ve had a guy in a urinal ask me for an autograph!
Haley: Don’t all entertainers have to put up with that kind of thing?
Carson: Of course. But it doesn’t stop there. Everybody I meet in public seems to want to audition for me. If I ask a guy what time it is, he’ll sing it to me. Everywhere I turn, there’s somebody’s niece who plays the kazoo or does ballet with skin diving flippers. I’ll never forget coming out of a restaurant one night, when this hand reaches from an alley and literally turns me completely around. It was this woman. “I want you to hear my son sing,” she says. And out she shoves this kid—”Sing, Albert!” And he did—right there in the street. I’ve had cab drivers pull over to the curb to tell me about some relative who ought to be on the show. That’s why I’ve got cabophobia—the fear of being talked to death in an enclosed space. But you haven’t heard the worst of it. One night, Ed McMahon and I dropped into a nightclub; we wanted to catch an act there. We had barely sat down when some drunken bruiser comes over and hauls me up by the arm. Right there, I was ready to rip into him; I didn’t care how big he was—but I kept saying to myself: “Don’t!” I could see the headlines if I did. He all but drags me to his table of maybe 15 or 20 friends and he yells to the band to stop so I can entertain them. I told him I was sorry, I was very busy. I had to get up early. Now he’s insulted. “Come on—I promised my friends.” Well, I walked away; Ed and I had to leave—and I’d made some enemies. You can’t win. So you stay away from public situations.
Haley: Have you changed since you became a star, or have you always felt this strongly about guarding your privacy?
Carson: In other words, has success spoiled Johnny Carson? No, I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s you that changes with success—it’s the people around you who change. Because of your new status, they change in relation to you. Let me give you an example. I loved the towns I grew up in as a boy, and after I became a celebrity, I went back several times. I would have had the time of my life seeing the old places and the old faces again, but the attitude of those same people was, “I guess you’re so big we bore you now.” What was I supposed to say to that? Agree with them? They’d be furious. But if I said I was enjoying myself, they’d say I was being condescending. You see what I mean?
There was a “Johnny Carson Day” for me at the last Nebraska Centennial in Columbus, Nebraska. I went. I enjoyed most of it. It was a great honor, and I sincerely mean that. But I have since decided not to go back home again. It’s just too much of a strain. My folks will have to come to New York to see me. I guess people will find all kinds of things wrong with my saying that; they’ll say I’m conceited and egocentric—but I’m just being honest.
Haley: To be honest, are you conceited and egocentric?
Carson: Find me any performer anywhere who isn’t egocentric. You’d better believe you’re good, or you’ve got no business being out there. People are brought up to think, “It’s nice to be modest. It’s nice to hide your light under a bushel.” Well, bullshit! I’ve never bought that. In my business, the only thing you’ve really got is your talent; it’s the only thing you have to sell. If you want to call that conceit, go ahead. I don’t know where you’ll hear that word more than in show business—but it’s often not conceit at all. Often it’s a public compensation for shyness. That’s certainly the case with me. From the time I was a little kid, I was always shy. Performing was when I was outgoing. So I guess I am a loner. I get claustrophobia if a lot of people are around. But there’s a big difference between being a loner and being lonely. I’m far from lonely. My day is full of things I enjoy, starting with my show. Any time my work is going well and I have a relationship with a woman that’s pretty solid, that does it for me.
Haley: Last April, you won a healthy pay raise by going on strike against NBC. Is that one of the reasons you say your work is going well?
Carson: Since when has it been wrong to ask for a pay raise? Have you seen carved in stone anywhere that it’s unfair to bargain for a better deal for yourself? It was made to look as if I’m Jack the Ripper. Some of the columnists figured I was too greedy for a nice, small-town Nebraska boy. Like one letter asked, “How can you do that with people in the world starving?” What in the hell is the logic of that? I explained, time and again, carefully, why I stayed out—but nobody wants to believe you when you take a personal stand about something. The whole thing got written and talked far out of proportion. Look—the reason was simple; at least to me it was. Tonight was and is the biggest money-making show NBC has. It brings in $25 million a year, cold cash; but NBC treated Tonight like some bastard stepchild. We had a ridiculous budget. I hadn’t liked that setup long before the strike. But that still wasn’t the specific issue with me. The specific issue was that NBC directly violated our contract during the strike: They used reruns of the Tonight show without any effort at all to negotiate. My contract stated clearly that any reruns would be negotiated in advance in good faith, to arrive at equitable fees. They knew why I stayed out. They sent me a check for the reruns and I sent the check right back. But finally, NBC and I came to terms. I’m satisfied. I think they are. The show’s doing fine. That’s that.
Haley: Not quite—if you don’t mind our pursuing the subject a bit further. It’s been reported that your new contract will earn you more than $4 million in the next three years. Is that true?
Carson: I won’t tell you—for two reasons. One is that a term in the new contract specifies that neither NBC nor I will make public the details of the contract; I intend to abide by that agreement. Another reason is that in Nebraska, I was raised to consider that it’s not good manners to ask anyone, “How much money do you make?” All I will say is that the new contract calls for an increase in the monies that I receive for doing the show.
Look—do you know that Dean Martin makes a lot more, maybe half again, at least, than I do? But all that means nothing whatever to me. I have no use for eight houses, 88 cars and 500 suits. I can’t eat but one steak at a time. I don’t want but one woman. It’s silly to have as one’s sole object in life just making money, accumulating wealth. I work because I enjoy what I’m doing, and the fact that I make money at it—big money—is a fine-and-dandy side fact. Money gives me just one big thing that’s really important, and that’s the freedom of not having to worry about money. I’m concerned about values—moral, ethical, human values—my own, other people’s, the country’s, the world’s values. Having money now gives me the freedom to worry about the things that really matter.
But I wouldn’t call myself a great deal happier now than when I was earning $47.50 a week in Omaha. You could live on that in 1949 in Omaha. The guys at the station and I used to sit around and yak about how great it would be if we could earn $150 a week. We couldn’t have believed what I make now. We couldn’t have believed where I live now, the job I have—none of it. But I’m still sleeping in a bed; it cost a lot more, but I don’t sleep any better than I did then. And I still like hamburgers—but in all of New York City, you cannot buy one as great as I used to buy at the Hamburger Hut in Norfolk, Nebraska. You see what I mean? Believe me, it’s all relative.
Haley: During your year in Omaha, you often worked six and seven days a week almost around the clock. Doesn’t it please you to be earning a great deal more than you did then, for a great deal less work?
Carson: Maybe it looks easy to a lot of people, but sitting in that chair will take more out of you than if you were chopping down trees all day. I spend seven and a half hours on the air every week. I think anyone who does this show ought to get an Emmy just for showing up. I’m serious. It’s not the physical strain: It’s debilitating mentally. In fact, I’ll tell you something: My biggest anxiety is about the day I’ll know I’ve reached a point where I can’t bring the show anything more that’s new. I was 42 this October, see? Physically, I have no concerns; but mentally, it’s one of those shows where you’re working from wake-up in the morning until you go to bed, and then even in bed. The pressure is to keep it from getting dull. I believe we give more honest humor and entertainment in one week than most prime-time shows in a season. But think about trying to keep that up, five nights a week, and maybe you’ll appreciate the strain. And that’s just strain about the overall planning; then you add the strain of each show when you’re on the air. When that red light goes off at the end, I get up from that chair already planning the show for the next night. If it looks easy, I’m doing my job. It both bugs me and pleases me when people tell me how relaxed I make the show look. Great! Maybe the public figures I’m getting well paid for it, but it’s the toughest job in television. Listen—understand that I’m not complaining. I love the show; otherwise, I wouldn’t be there. I’m just saying it’s tough.
Haley: You said your workday begins when you wake up. Would you describe a typical day for us?
Carson: Well, I get out of bed at nine or 10 in the morning. And I’m not one of those who spring up yelling, “Yippee! Another day!” I’ll grumble and sulk around a couple of hours, reading newspapers and trying to pick out an idea I might do something with on the show. But I don’t really start functioning until noon or later; then about two I go to the studio and the pace begins to quicken. Planning the time slots for this guest, that guest, rehearsing the skits, trying to anticipate what could go wrong with some physical participation I want to do—like the time I dueled with a fencing master. Or the time I did a snake dance with Augie and Margo. Or when I try out gadgets or toys. Or the times I’ve done exercises with Debbie Drake. She’s great fun. One of my good lines came with that. Debbie and I had just lain down on the exercise mats, side by side, and it popped into my head to ask her, “Would you like to leave a call?”
Haley: Are all of your ad libs spontaneous and unrehearsed?
Carson: Very few of them are. Ad-libbing isn’t very often the instant creation of a good line. More often it’s remembering something you’ve used before and maybe making a quick switch to fit a fresh situation. Once I had Red Buttons on and he was getting into an involved analysis of politics, so I told him finally, “You’re kind of a redheaded Dr. Schweitzer tonight, aren’t you?” and Red started being his funny self again. Now, that’s a situation bit I’ve used many times. Every comedian has a bag full of them. I remember once a woman on Who Do You Trust? telling me at great length, too great length, about a pregnant armadillo. She was about to bore the audience, so I asked her, “How come you know these things if you’re not an armadillo?” They’re usually old bits, but they work like brand-new if people laugh. Like the time we had this Latin Quarter showgirl on the show. She walked on in one of those poured-in dresses, with her hair done up in some exotic style. I said, “I suppose you’re on your way to a 4-H Club meeting,” and the audience cracked up. That’s the humor of the ludicrous, of extreme contrast. I’ve used it many times before and I know I will many times again.
Haley: Apart from the skits and your participation bits and, in a sense, some of the ad libs, how much preparation is involved in each show?
Carson: The minimum that’s safely possible. That’s part of the formula. I have little or no advance contact with guests, for instance, unless they’re involved in some skit. And the writers prepare my opening bit—that first 10 minutes after I walk on. But I edit what they give me until I’m entirely comfortable with it, using something topical I’ve found in the papers, if I can. Then the necessary staff people and I plan a rundown of the show. By the time all this is done, it’s six p.m., and we start taping the show at 6:30. Then I’m on my own. So the objective is spontaneity within a planned framework; but for the most part, we’re winging it. My job isn’t to hog the show. Ideally, I’m the audience-identification figure, the catalyst. When I’ve got a guest who’s going great on his own, I let him go. If he looks good, I look good. Sometimes, of course, the chemistry isn’t right, or something will go wrong, and I’ll have to change the pace or pull a switch during a commercial or a station break. Like one time Peter O’Toole came on. I think everyone was sure he was drunk. I thought he was, too. I’d ask him a question and he’d reply something incoherent or completely unrelated, as if he was off in some other world. So I put on a commercial, and while it was running I asked Peter if he was OK, and I found out the trouble. He had just flown in from London to do the show and, because of that long haul, he was just blind with exhaustion. So while the commercial was still on. I said, “Well, Peter, why not just cut?” He agreed and left without another word. When I came back on. I explained it to the audience and everything was OK. But that sort of thing is a rarity, thank God.
All too often, though, a guest will either clam up or be vapid and bland, and I’ll have to cut it short and come on next with a bullwhip demonstration, or some skit I can do on a moment’s notice, to wake us up—or wake up the audience. Sometimes I can get us going again by coming up with a good gag keyed to what a guest is talking about. Like once during the New York World’s Fair, I got off one that the Moroccan Pavilion had a belly dancer, but the Fair’s business was so bad she had a cobweb in her navel. Another time, Mr. Universe was on, explaining the importance of keeping yourself fit and trim. That sort of thing can get deadly dull, of course, and I was feeling for a good gag when he told me something like. “Remember, Mr. Carson, your body is the only home you will ever have.” And I said, “Yeah, my home is pretty messy. But I have a woman come in once a week.” Can you imagine the mail I got on that one? But nearly anything you say, you can’t help offending somebody out there. If I say “naked,” if I use the word “pregnant,” I’ll get probably 500 letters complaining that I’m hastening national immorality. A lot of them are from nuts—you can tell that—but many are from perfectly sincere people who happen to think that practically anything is immoral. Let me do a sketch about the President or about a rabbi and there’ll be a storm of criticism.
Haley: Do you let this kind of reaction affect your choice of material?
Carson: You can’t afford to. The only time I pay attention to audience mail is when it contains something I find possible to use for the show’s benefit. You can’t let an audience run your show for you. If you do, soon you won’t have any audience.
Haley: Do you feel the same way about television critics?
Carson: I try never to let them bug me—but I’m not always successful. Nobody likes to be zinged; but whatever they say, I will continue to do what I think our show should do. I see little that I feel is constructive in what most TV critics write—about my show or anybody else’s. One of the main reasons is that few television critics really know much about television. Too many of them are ex-sportswriters and ex-gardening columnists, completely unfamiliar with the medium. They haven’t bothered to learn what makes it work. There are a few TV critics I respect: Jack Gould here in New York; and on the Coast, Hal Humphrey. But most of them are on a level with Sidney Skolsky, who once wrote that I wasn’t Jack Paar. I could have told him that. I felt like wiring him that neither was he any H.L. Mencken. I often feel that I’d like to give all the critics just three hours a day of TV time and say, “All right, you’re so bright, now you fill that three hours, every day.” You’d hear less from them about what’s wrong with television.
Haley: What’s your reaction to Newton Minow’s celebrated indictment of television as a vast wasteland?
Carson: Sure, there’s a lot of chaff on television. No doubt of it. But let’s not forget a fundamental fact about this medium. It starts in the morning, about six a.m., and goes off anywhere from one to three a.m. Where are you going to find the people to write consistently fine material 19 to 21 hours a day, 365 days a year? A Broadway play that’s going to run for 90 minutes can take a year or more to get written, by the biggest playwrights in the business; then it can spend months and months on the road, being tested every night and changed daily; they can bring in the best script doctors in the country—and yet that play can still open on Broadway and bomb out the first night. How can you expect television to do any better—or even as well—when it’s showing more in a week than appears on Broadway all year? I’m not defending the medium just because I’m in it: I’m just trying to explain that television has an impossible task. Why should it be the job of television to educate or edify or uplift people? This is an entertainment medium. I have never seen it chiseled in stone tablets that TV is philanthropic. Is it television’s job to improve people’s minds—when the libraries are full of empty seats? Are we supposed to provide instant education?
There are lots of things I’ll knock the industry for—including the fact that there’s too much junk on the air. But there are a lot of fine programs, too. And I think television is steadily working to improve its programming; the competition is so hot, it guarantees that. Another thing people so often entirely overlook when they’re criticizing is that this still is a very young industry. My first TV broadcast was when I was at the University of Nebraska. I was playing a milkman in a documentary called, believe it or not, The Story of Undulant Fever. You know what the broadcast range of that show was? The cameras were in the university theater’s basement and the screen was up in the auditorium—and that was the first television at the university. And that was in 1949: that’s how young television is. So I don’t go for this general rapping of the television industry. How long, how much longer, have the newspapers and the interviews and the movies been around? Does television offer any more junk than they do? Does television feed its viewers anything like as much rape and lurid details? Yet television is always being knocked in newspaper and interviews editorials. I’m not against the press, but that sort of attack is not only unfair but hypocritical.
Haley: Do you share, at least, the general view of the press that television’s commercials could stand both improvement and diminution in number?
Carson: Well, I wouldn’t say there are too many commercials. After all, the time has got to be paid for. The stations must make some money in order to continue programming, and the only way to do this is by selling products for sponsors. I think we have to recognize that and live with it. Every half hour we have just three one-minute network commercials: the others are within local station breaks. My gripe with commercials is that so many irritate me with their haranguing and shouting and overselling; and I think some commercials violate good taste. I go up the wall every time I catch that commercial with the kids bragging about “22 percent fewer cavities”! I happen to like and use the toothpaste, but I hate their commercial. And I’m sick, sick, sick of stomach acids going drip, drip, drip. Nor do I feel TV is the place to advertise relief for hemorrhoid sufferers. If I ran an agency that made commercials, my credo would be, “Be enthusiastic, but be quiet—and honest.” I would love to see believable soap ads, like: “This soap won’t get you a girlfriend, boyfriend, wife or husband—but it’ll get you pretty clean!” I really think that would sell trainloads of soap. The advertising agencies should be called to task when they make phony claims and violate good taste and when they overemphasize sex and social-acceptance pitches, and status and snob pitches. Television advertising can’t be avoided, but it could be a hell of a lot more honest—and more palatable.
Haley: For most TV sponsors, the fate of a show is decided by its popularity rather than its quality, by means of rating systems that have been widely attacked not only for their life-or-death importance to network programmers but for the inadequacy and inaccuracy of their audience samplings. How much stock do you place in them?
Carson: I’m reminded of the story about this gambler in a small-town saloon who is taken aside and told that the wheel he’s playing is crooked. He says, “I know, but it’s the only wheel in town.” The industry seems to want a yardstick, and I guess the ratings are the only one they can find. I don’t know how accurate they are, but I’d hate to think that a random sampling of 1200 viewers gives a true national picture. I’m certain that people aren’t watching what they tell the pollsters they watch. People often want to project themselves as some kind of intellectuals, so they’ll say they watched the news, or some forum, or the National Educational Network show, when, in fact, they watched Bonanza or The Flying Nun. You know? One thing I’m sure of: Ratings certainly don’t indicate if people are buying the sponsor’s product. But I’m glad I have the ratings I get—accurate or not. Anybody would be. I don’t concern myself too much about them, though, because one show will be up, another one down. If you start worrying about a particular show, chances are you’ll do worse the next. What really counts, is how your ratings average out over, say, six months. I never worry about an individual program after it’s over. That was yesterday; what’s tomorrow?
Haley: The Joey Bishop Show went on opposite you several months ago. Do you feel that Bishop represents a threat to the Tonight Show popularity?
Carson: To tell you the truth, I don’t think anything about it. I don’t worry about what Joey Bishop is doing. When his show was ready to open, people asked me about it, and I told them I knew it would be the noble thing for me to say that I wished him much success; but honesty compelled me to admit that I hoped he would fall on his face. That’s how any performer feels about his competition; and if you hear anybody say different, he’s lying in his teeth. I think people will have much more respect for you if you’re honest. But no competition is going to bother me in the sense that I’ll lose any sleep over it. I look at it as professional golfers do. When he’s out there in some tournament, Palmer isn’t worrying about Nicklaus, or any of the rest. Any pro golfer will tell you that’s the surest way to lose. I give all my concentration to what I’m doing. Some viewers will go for Mike Douglas, some for Merv Griffin, some for Bishop, some for me. Nobody is ever going to walk away with the whole television audience; there’s plenty for everyone.
Haley: In many cities, the Tonight show competes with one or more of the controversial new talk shows that are emceed by combative, opinionated moderators such as Tom Duggan, Alan Burke and Joe Pyne. Do you ever watch them?
Carson: I am not a fan of those shows. I think their format, their whole approach, is a substitute for talent. They insult people. They’re rude. It embarrasses me to watch that kind of prodding and goading. I don’t think they’ll last, because the public will get fed up with them. People will see the deliberate controversy for what it is.
Haley: The Tonight show, under your control, has been criticized for deliberately avoiding controversy. Is there any truth to that?
Carson: Well, bullshit! That’s my answer. I just don’t feel that Johnny Carson should become a social commentator. Jack Paar got into that, being an expert on everything happening. So did Dave Garroway and Steve Allen and Godfrey. Who cares what entertainers on the air think about international affairs? Who would want to hear me about Vietnam? They can hear all they want from people with reason to be respected as knowledgeable. Controversy just isn’t what this show is for. My number-one concern, and the concern of NBC, is a successful Tonight show. I’m not the host of Meet the Press. I think it would be a fatal mistake to use my show as a platform for controversial issues. I’m an entertainer, not a commentator. If you’re a comedian, your job is to make people laugh. You cannot be both serious and funny. One negates the other. Personally, I want to be a successful comedian. Audiences have proved time and again that they don’t want a steady diet of any entertainer airing his social views—especially if he’s a comedian. When a comic becomes enamored with his own views and foists them off on the public in a polemic way, he loses not only his sense of humor but his value as a humorist. When the public starts classifying you as thoughtful, someone given to serious issues, you find yourself declassified as a humorist. That’s what happened to Mort Sahl. He was one of the brightest when he began; then he began commenting humorlessly on the social scene in his shows. How many shows has Mort lost now? I think he realizes this now—and he’s starting to get funny again. Like most people, of course, I have strong personal opinions. I might even be better informed than the average person, just because it’s my business to keep up on what’s happening. But that doesn’t mean I should use the show to impose my personal views on millions of people. We have dealt with controversial subjects on the show—sex, religion, Vietnam, narcotics. They’ve all been discussed, by qualified guests, and I’ve taken stands myself. But it’s only when the subject rises naturally. I won’t purposely inject controversy just for the sake of controversy. It would be easy, if that’s what I wanted. I could get in the headlines any day by attacking a major public figure like Bobby Kennedy or by coming out in favor of birth control or abortion. But I just don’t see it, and I don’t play it that way. I won’t make this show a forum for my own political views.
Haley: Isn’t it possible for you to air your social and political views without abandoning your role as a comedian? Can’t you comment humorously and satirically rather than seriously on current issues?
Carson: It should be—because that’s the essence of comedy at its best—but that’s not the way it works in practice, at least not on television. Americans, too many of them, take themselves too seriously. You’re going to get rapped—by the viewers, by the sponsors and by the network brass—if you joke about doctors, lawyers, dentists, scientists, bus drivers, I don’t care who. You can’t make a joke about Catholics, Negroes, Jews, Italians, politicians, dogs or cats. In fact, politicians, dogs and cats are the most sacred institutions in America. I remember once somebody stole the car of Mickey Cohen, the racketeer, with Cohen’s dog inside, and I said on Steve Allen’s show that the police had recovered the dog while it was holding up a liquor store. Well, the next day this joker telephoned and said, “I don’t want you should joke about Mickey Cohen,” and I told him the joke was about his dog. “That compounds the felony,” this character said. “You just better watch your step.” Look—a comic has got to tread on some toes to be funny, but he’s got to be careful how many toes he steps on, and who they belong to. I think the biggest rap mail I ever got was once when a girl said on the show that we should send Elvis Presley to Russia to improve our Soviet Union relations, and I said, “I don’t know about Russia, but it might improve relations here.” Presley fans tore me up. You can’t say anything about practically anything that can be considered someone’s vested interest. Once I planned to air a joke about how the government ought to be run like Madison Avenue would run it. Write ads like, “You can be sure if it’s the White House.” But I was told, “No, can’t kid the government.” Well, why not? Another time I was intending to kid the phone company a bit, and I couldn’t—because the Bell Telephone Hour was on the same network. If you plan to stay in television, you just have to adjust to these taboos, however ridiculous they are. But I must say that the timidity of the censors really floors me sometimes. For instance, it’s touchy, touchy if you say “damn” on TV. Once, in 1964, somebody brought a dog on my show that actually said “Hello.” It stunned me so that I blurted, “The damn thing talks!” Well, that word got blooped from the sound track before the show was aired. I say that any adult who gets offended at hearing “damn” or “hell” ought not to be watching television—or reading books. These same people, interestingly enough, seem to have no similar objection to the amount of violence on TV; otherwise, you wouldn’t see so much of it. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s OK to kill somebody on television as long as you don’t say “damn!” as you strike your victim down.
Haley: In its recent cover story about you, Time interviews clucked editorially about what it felt was your taste for bathroom humor. Do you feel that’s a justified criticism?
Carson: That’s one of the two things in that whole article that I resented. The other line I didn’t like was that I had divorced my first wife. I didn’t; she divorced me. I didn’t initiate it. The way they put it made it sound like I was the kind of guy who made it big and then got rid of the one who had stuck with him all the way. Anyway, about that bathroom-humor bit. I think the writer didn’t use the word he intended; I think he meant double-entendre jokes—because toilet humor I don’t like at all, not from me or from my guests.
Haley: Then you do indulge in double-entendres?
Carson: Occasionally, yes—but without striving for it and without violating what I consider good taste.
Haley: The rap letters you’ve said you receive from viewers imply otherwise.
Carson: There’s a lot of hypocrisy in audiences. I’d never dream of telling even on a nightclub stage, let alone my show, some of the jokes that are told in a lot of the living rooms from which we get those letters! If you can’t talk about anything grown-up or sophisticated at midnight without being called immoral and dirty, then I think we’re in trouble. After all, by the time we go on the air, the children are supposed to be in bed asleep. I can’t just prattle about what I had for lunch and expect people to tune in every night. We’d be dead soon if we got dull enough not to get letters; we have to get in something now and then that’s provocative. Take comics. You can’t have Sam Levinson on all the time, talking about kids and school. You have to liven things up occasionally with somebody like Mel Brooks. Mel can get close to the line, on the line, or he’ll edge beyond it: He may offend, but when he’s going great, really winging, he’s near a genius. There are some guests, of course, who make a fetish of blue material. But if I once feel that, you won’t see them on my show again. Nor will I let a guest say something blue that I can sense in advance—especially if it’s just to be blue. But I’m not going to worry about it if something happens to slip—and it can just as well be me as a guest. Even when no double meaning is intended, that pious bunch out there in the audience will make up its own and write in about it. That’s more of a commentary about them, in my opinion, than it is about us.
Haley: Many of those same people, and their journalistic spokesmen, seem to feel that the sexual suggestiveness—and overt erotica—they perceive on television, in movies, interviews and books is evidence of a moral decline in society at large. What’s your reaction?
Carson: Well, if you’re talking about sexual morality, I wouldn’t agree that it’s declining, but it’s certainly changing. Young and old, we are very much in the process of taking a fresh look at the whole issue of morality. The only decline that’s taking place—and it’s about time—is in the old puritanical concept that sex is equated with sin. You hear the word “permissiveness” being thrown around; right away, in so many people’s minds, that translates to “promiscuity.” But it just ain’t so. You read about college administrators deploring the dangers of too much permissiveness on campus. The fact is that the biggest problems in this area are being experienced at colleges that are persisting in the old tight disciplines and trying to oversee every student activity that might hold any potential for sexual contact. It doesn’t work, of course. At one school I know about, in the men’s dorms, they’re permitted to have female visitors only for one to two hours in the early evening. All that means is that if a couple wants to go to bed, they can’t do it in the afternoon. On campuses with very little administrative supervision, there are no problems at all. Giving students latitude for personal freedom doesn’t result in everybody jumping into the hay with everybody else. They’re still just as selective about whom they have sex with. It’s not promiscuity; it’s just that private behavior is left up to the individual. I’m for that. Whether you agree or disagree with Madalyn Murray on the subject of atheism, you’ve got to admit she has a point when she said in her playboy interview, “Nobody’s going to tell me I’ve got to get a license to screw.” It’s ludicrous to declare that it’s wrong to have sex with anyone you’re not married to. It’s happening millions of times every day. If the laws against it were enforced, we’d have to build prisons to hold four fifths of the population.
Haley: When you talk about the ludicrousness of laws and mores forbidding sex outside marriage, do you mean pre- or extramarital sex?
Carson: Premarital. Some may consider it old-fashioned, but I feel that very few people can have sex elsewhere and still maintain a good marriage. It’s tough enough to keep up a good, solid marital relationship even when both partners are completely faithful.
Haley: How do you feel about such groups as the Sexual Freedom League?
Carson: For some, they seem to work, but for me, I pass. I simply couldn’t imagine engaging in anything like that. At the same time, I recognize there are all kinds of sexual deviations in this world; they are real needs for a lot of people, or they wouldn’t be doing whatever they do. As long as it’s this way, I think we ought to come to grips with the fact that there never can be any successful legislation against private, nonexploitive sex. I don’t want to start sounding like some boy philosopher, but our sex laws seem to be predicated on the puritanical assumption that all sex—especially any variations from the marital norm—is dirty and should be suppressed. At the same time, our national obsession with sex seems to be predicated on the belief that sex constitutes the entire substance of the relationship between man and woman—and that’s just as sick as feeling that it should have no part in human relationships. It’s a damn healthy part of a good relationship, that’s for sure. But it’s just a part, and we seem bound and determined to make it unhealthy.
Haley: How would you suggest we go about ridding society of these hang-ups?
Carson: We need to start with the kids. We need to completely overhaul not only our own neurotic values but the abysmal sex education in our schools. When anthropologist Ashley Montagu was on my show not long ago, he said—and I couldn’t have agreed with him more—that in any sexual relationship, adult or otherwise, married or unmarried, the key word is responsibility. We have to teach our young people to ask themselves. “Am I ready to assume the responsibility of a sexual relationship?” Even the clergy are openly saying this to youth now. They’ve quit, most of them, trying to sweep sex under the rug, as if it doesn’t happen. Look at the high school girls who are getting pregnant. It’s a little late to give them a good sex education. That’s why I feel that it should start early, say in the fourth grade. I don’t mean the whole clinical picture then, but a stress on the responsibility involved. When I was a kid, they called it “hygiene.” They talked about sperm and vulva, and everybody giggled. No teacher ever said a word to us about the complex role of sex in our life with other people. Nobody told us it wasn’t dirty, that it could be and should be pleasurable and that sex is a vital necessity to most people. It’s the lack of this kind of open and honest education about sex that causes so many kids to grow up with sexual hang-ups. As it is, they’re having to find things out by themselves—largely in rebellion against parental example. Kids are experimenting sexually and discovering that they don’t wake up rotted or damned in the morning, like they’ve been told by their parents and their clergyman. Young people see adults wife-swapping and philandering, and yet piously maintaining that sex is sacred and counseling them hypocritically about the “sinfulness” or “immaturity” of intercourse outside marriage. Like their parents, kids flock to see James Bond and Derek Flint movies—outrageously antiheroic heroes who break all the taboos, making attractive the very things the kids are told they shouldn’t do themselves. Well, they’re figuring “Why can’t I?” and they’re not buying the adult advice anymore. Why should they? They’re seeing a war that nobody wants, and the frightening prospect of a World War III that would incinerate us all. If anybody is capable of doing that, it’s the adults, not the young people. The vast majority of us don’t want to face the fact that we’re in the middle of a sweeping social revolution. In sex. In spiritual values. In opposition to wars no one wants. In opposition to government big-brotherhood. In civil rights. In basic human goals. They’re all facets of a general upheaval.
Haley: One of the most conspicuous facets of that upheaval has been the exodus of thousands of young people out of society and into hippie communities. Do you feel they’ve chosen a viable alternative to the square society they find unlivable?
Carson: No, I don’t. They seem to be involved in some kind of search for identity, but I don’t think they’re going to find it—not in Haight-Ashbury, anyway. Most of them, to me, seem lost and floundering. They’ve removed themselves from society, yet we see that they continue to expect society to provide them with necessities like medical help and food.
Haley: Many of them are provided for by the Diggers. Don’t you find that a reassuring evidence of self-reliance?
Carson: How sustained do you think that will be? Aren’t they doing it as a kind of kick? Let me see them continue looking after the hippies for a few years; then maybe I’ll look at it differently.
Haley: The hippie movement is linked in the public mind with usage of psychedelic drugs. How do you feel about this trend?
Carson: I think it’s one of the most frightening things youth, or anybody else, could possibly get involved in. We just don’t have enough authoritative information yet about how dangerous it is to tamper with the mind—but even what little we do know should be enough to give them pause. Don’t they know about the high ratio of genetic defects—known already, this early? These drugs are so new that research has just barely scratched the surface of the damages they can cause. Already, we know about chromosome debilitation. We see hospital emergency wards filling with young people, some not yet 20 years old, completely wigged out! Nobody ever tells them the facts. All they hear about is how they can take these chemicals and expand themselves, find themselves. Bullshit! Who have we yet seen emerge from the drug culture with any great new truths? Timothy Leary? A brilliant man, obviously. But what’s the philosophy he expounds? “Tune in, turn on, drop out.” I wouldn’t let him on my show. I wouldn’t let him spout that nonsense.
Haley: In condemning the use of chemical turn-ons, do you classify marijuana along with LSD and the other psychedelics?
Carson: No, I don’t put marijuana in the same bag with LSD or any of the hard narcotics. People are wrong when they say marijuana isn’t addicting, though. I’ve known people who use it, known them all my adult life, and I know they are at least psychologically addicted. But it’s just a mild stimulant, actually. And I think that the laws against its use are repressive out of all proportion. But that doesn’t mean I’d want to try it myself—or any of the other hallucinogens; it’s tough enough to navigate in this world without drugs. It may not seem like much of a world to the kids, but it’s the only one we’ve got, and dropping out of it isn’t going to solve anything.
Haley: Many young people, of course, far from dropping out, have become activists in the student-protest movement, intent on changing society rather than abandoning it. How do you feel about this kind of rebellion?
Carson: I feel that any of us has the right to dissent from what we don’t like. But to what extreme do we wish to carry it? I think students ought to have the right to protest, but not to the point of anarchy—like that Berkeley situation. I got the impression that they often didn’t know just what it was they were protesting against. Essentially, there was just a small, hard-core leadership throwing around words like “Freedom!” and “Rights!” What rights are they talking about? What about other people’s rights? When they brandish four-letter placards and shout “Fuck!” at free-speech rallies, what the hell are they proving except how sophomoric they are? As for the burning of draft cards, I think it’s stupid and pointless—though no more stupid and pointless than the war itself. It’s unlike any war we were ever in. An undeclared war. An unpopular war. And it keeps going on and on. I’m a father with a boy coming out of high school next year, and I don’t look forward to his marching off over there. I don’t think anybody dissenting against this war has any business being called “un-American,” but I still don’t see burning draft cards. I’m all for the right to dissent; lots of things need to be changed. But I think we have to respect some boundaries, some limits, if we don’t want to wreck the country. It can happen a lot quicker than people think if too many dissents and rebellions get out of perspective—and out of hand.
Haley: Do you think the Negro riots pose that kind of danger?
Carson: They certainly do—if we don’t do something to end them once and for all; and I don’t mean with more tanks. The big thing on television now is show after show, special after special, about the reasons for the riots. Presidential commissions are formed, committees of mayors and police chiefs convene, to investigate the causes and the culprits. That’s ridiculous. The why of the black revolution is no great mystery. What’s sparked it all, of course, is desperation; and it’s tragic that most whites can’t seem to grasp that simple fact. Negroes saw the Civil Rights Act passed 10 years ago—yet they haven’t really seen much since then in the way of enforcement. Why? Because too many whites are in favor of integration and equality only so long as it never touches them, only until some Negro makes a move to buy into their block, until they find themselves competing with Negroes for the same jobs. This isn’t to say that there hasn’t been some progress in the past decade; but it’s been too little and too slow—just enough to give Negroes a taste of freedom and equality, but not enough to make either a reality. So the discontent and frustration erupt into violence. It’s understandable, but we all know it’s not going to solve anything. The exhortations of extremists like Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael—urging Negroes to arm themselves and get Whitey—may not be designed to win friends and influence people, but they’re not going to win freedom for the Negro, either. They’re just going to result in massive retaliation by whites and ghastly carnage on both sides. So-called moderate leaders like Martin Luther King deplore these tactics, too—but what does he propose as an alternative? A guaranteed annual income of $3200 for all Negroes. He says it’s a compensation, an overcompensation, to make up for what’s been done to the Negro, for what the Negro has been deprived of, in this country. That’s all well and good, but where’s that money going to come from? If anybody is given any sum, somebody else has got to provide it. Black or white, if you’re not working and I am, then if you receive $3200, I’m providing it. That’s just replacing one injustice with another. Negro leaders call on the government to appropriate $50 billion to “erase the ghettos”—but that’s not going to solve anything, either, not by itself. You could gut Harlem today and rebuild it tomorrow but unless we do something to uproot the injustices that created the ghetto, all we’ll have built, at a cost of billions, is a nicer cage. This obsessive emphasis on money, money, money—just money—simply isn’t the answer. And neither is this pressure that’s being applied by civil rights organizations, when a job is open for which a Negro and a white are equally qualified, to give that job automatically to the Negro, just because he’s a Negro. Fundamentally, that’s both condescending and subtly demeaning to that Negro. The problem isn’t going to be solved by reverse favoritism any more than it is by giveaways. It comes down to just one basic word: justice—the same justice for everyone—in housing, in education, in employment and, most difficult of all, in human relations. And we’re not going to accomplish that until all of us, black and white, begin to temper our passion with compassion, until we stop thinking in terms of more guns and more money and start listening to more realistic and responsible leaders—leaders who will begin, however belatedly, to practice what they preach: equality for all.
Haley: Speaking of political leaders practicing what they preach, what was your reaction to the widely publicized transgressions of Congressman Adam Clayton Powell and Senator Thomas Dodd?
Carson: Well, whatever else they did, they became victims of an ethical double standard: the public’s pious condemnation of its elected officials for conduct it condones in private life. However unjustly and hypocritically, people expect those in positions of public trust to be as spotless as a minister. I certainly think we have the right to expect our politicians to uphold their vow of office with honesty and integrity—but only if we apply those same ethical standards to ourselves. As long as we shrug at the kind of corporate espionage and financial hanky-panky that goes on in business, as long as we take for granted the kind of tax-loophole sleight of hand and expense-account padding that goes on in everyday life, we’ll get exactly the kind of public officials we deserve.
Haley: In the three years since President Johnson’s re-election, a great deal has been said and written about the credibility gap—particularly in regard to the disparity between his professions of peaceful intentions in Vietnam and his continued escalation of the war. How do you feel about it?
Carson: Well, I have to admit that at times I find myself with the very uncomfortable feeling that the public isn’t getting all the information it ought to, that we’re not being told what’s really happening—but not just in Vietnam. I’d say it started, at least for me, with the U-2 incident. The government denied and denied and denied—and then the truth came out. The most recent instance, of course, was the revelation of CIA spying on college campuses by hiring students as undercover agents to report on so-called subversive activities. I get the feeling that George Orwell may have been right when he predicted that Big Brother might be watching all of us someday. It’s not very reassuring about the ideals of those we entrust with the power to promote and protect the interests of this country.
Haley: Let’s talk about the qualifications of those who run for public office. How do you feel about the trend toward ex-show-business personalities in politics—men who, like George Murphy and Ronald Reagan, win elections almost entirely on the strength of their affable screen images?
Carson: I couldn’t care less about a candidate’s previous occupation, as long as it was something respectable. I don’t care if a hot-dog vendor gets to be President. He had to be voted in there by the people, who had other choices. We’ve had doctors, lawyers, automobile executives, even ex-haberdashers in public life and I haven’t heard any complaints about their backgrounds. What makes them any more or less qualified than an actor? Why should a movie star be treated as if he’s diseased or something just because he decides to run for office? He could have the clap and it wouldn’t necessarily affect his abilities as a political leader. A politician should be judged by his performance in office, not by his former livelihood. If he does an incompetent job, the public can always throw him out. The night after Shirley Temple announced her candidacy for Congress, we did a skit on the show about “The Good Ship Lollipop” and had a little fun at her expense; but I certainly don’t think the fact that she once played Little Miss Marker should disqualify her for office. Who knows? She might make a pretty good congresswoman—certainly no worse than some we’ve seen.
Haley: On your show a few months ago, New York’s Governor Rockefeller suggested that you consider running for Congress yourself—as a Republican candidate for the Senate against Bobby Kennedy. What do you think of the idea?
Carson: No, thanks! Even if Governor Rockefeller hadn’t been saying that with tongue in cheek, I wouldn’t have the slightest interest in running for public office. I’d rather make jokes about politicians than become one of them. Once on the show, somebody asked me where tomorrow’s comedians were coming from, and I told him, based upon my recent observations, from the Democratic and Republican parties.
Haley: Your own origins as a comedian could hardly be more unlike the familiar showbiz story that begins on the Lower East Side and ends on the Great White Way, with stop-offs en route on the vaudeville-burlesque-Borscht Belt circuit. You’ve never talked much about your personal background on the air or off, other than to say that you’re from the Midwest and that you were once an amateur magician. Would you like to fill us in on the rest?
Carson: Well—I was born in Corning, Iowa. No cracks, please. I’m the product of a typical middle-class upbringing. My father was then a lineman for the power district; that means a guy who climbed up and down telephone poles. Later on, he became the power district’s manager, and he has since retired. We moved around to different small towns—places like Clarinda, Shenandoah, Avoca. I started school in Avoca, Iowa. I think I was eight when we moved to Norfolk, Nebraska, a town of about 10,000. I will never forget looking down on Main Street from a fourth-floor hotel window there, thinking how high up I was and marveling at so much traffic down in the street.
I think it was that same year I first realized I could make people laugh. I played Popeye in a school skit—you know, imitating him, with that funny voice. My sister Catherine and my brother Dick [now Carson’s director] and I grew on up through high school there in Norfolk. We had a big frame house in town. It was a typical small-town Midwestern boyhood. Dick and I fished and skinny-dipped in the Elkhorn river, and summers the family would vacation at a lake in Minnesota. I was at a friend’s home one day when I picked up an old book I saw: Hoffman’s Book of Magic. It described all the standard tricks and how to make some of the equipment yourself, and there was an ad for a kit of stuff from a mail-order place in Chicago. So I sent away for it, and the stuff came, and I couldn’t think about anything else but making things and working with the magic. I ordered every catalog advertised and read them from cover to cover, and spent every quarter I could get for more stuff. Finally, one Christmas I got this magician’s table with a black-velvet cover. I have never since seen anything more beautiful than that was to me. The next thing was ventriloquism. I bought a mail-order course, also from Chicago, for $15.
Haley: When did you first realize you wanted to be an entertainer?
Carson: I just can’t say I ever wanted to become an entertainer; I already was one, sort of—around our house, at school, doing my magic tricks, throwing my voice and doing the Popeye impersonations. People thought I was funny; so I kind of took entertaining for granted. I was full of card tricks, too. Around the house, I was always telling anybody I saw, “Take a card—any card.” It was inevitable that I’d start giving little performances. My first one was for my mother’s bridge club. They thought I was great; and I felt great, making my mother so proud, you know? And after that I went on to give shows at Sunday-school parties, church socials, anywhere they’d have me. I was 14 when I earned my first fee for my act—three dollars from the Norfolk Rotary Club. Then I began to get a fee like that at picnics, county fairs, 4-H Clubs, service clubs, chambers of commerce. I was billed as “The Great Carsoni,” wearing a cape my mother had sewed for me. In school, I was into every activity except sports. I went out for football, but the first time I ran with the ball and got tackled, the next thing I remember is the coach looking down in my face and asking if I was all right. He recommended that I give my full extracurricular time to other activities. I was in every school play, wrote a column for the school paper, everything. I got pretty good grades, but most of my effort was directed elsewhere.
By 1943, when I graduated from Norfolk High, I was making pretty fair pin money with my act. Funny thing, though, I still didn’t have any intention of entertaining as a serious career. I was still very small town in my outlook. It would be another three or four years before I’d find out that the Catskills weren’t a dance team. I was still playing with the idea of becoming a psychiatrist, an engineer or a journalist. And I had decided on engineering when I entered college. But the war was on, you know, and I was accepted for a V-12 program that would get me a Naval Air commission; but they sent me to Columbia University’s midshipman school instead; there just weren’t any flying training openings then. I got my ensign’s commission and went to the Pacific on the battleship Pennsylvania. I had dragged a footlocker of gear for my act with me and I entertained the officers and men every chance I got. In the comedy bits, mostly, I’d knock officers; the enlisted men loved that. Later, when I was at Guam, I did the same thing there.
Finally, when I got out, I entered the University of Nebraska, this time trying journalism. I thought it would help me learn to write comedy. But that who-when-where-why-what bit couldn’t have bored me more, so I switched to radio and speech. It was while I was at the university that I got my first radio job for $10 a week at the local station, WOW, for playing in a comedy Western called Eddie Sosby and the Radio Rangers. It came on three mornings a week and I had to get permission to be 15 minutes late those mornings for my Spanish class. Then, in my senior year, I did a thesis on comedy. I analyzed the best comics then performing and taped excerpts of their performances to illustrate things like timing and sequence, building punch lines, recognition devices and running gags, things like that. Comedians like Fibber McGee and Molly, Jack and Mary Benny, Rochester, Ozzie and Harriet, Milton Berle and Bob Hope. When I got my A.B. degree in 1949, I went straight to my first job, $50 a week for doing anything and everything at WOW. I did commercials, news, station breaks, weather reports, everything.
I guess the next thing was my first marriage—to Jody. We’d been going together several years. Soon my first son was born, Chris. Meanwhile, I got a radio show, The Squirrel’s Nest I called it, and I picked up $25 on the side for magic acts I’d do anywhere I could. In Omaha, I remember, there was a group campaigning to get rid of pigeons, which were accused of defacing city hall. I came on my radio show with “Equal Time for Pigeons,” imitating the birds cooing their side of the story and pleading for mercy; we won a reprieve: The campaigning was dropped. Doing just about anything a Jack-of-all-trades in radio could do, it was almost automatic that I would eventually go on WOW-TV.
All the time, I kept thinking in the back of my mind about where I was headed, in a career way. I was getting along well enough where I was, but at the same time, I knew that I could never go very far as long as I stayed in Nebraska. The action and the opportunities were all either in New York or California. So I got a cameraman friend to shoot a half-hour film of me doing a little bit of everything I could do. When a vacation came up, I packed the wife and kids in our beat-up Olds, with a U-Haul trailer, and we took off for California. When we arrived in San Francisco, I knocked at every radio and TV door; at most of them. I couldn’t even get inside. They’d say, “No openings, sorry.” So we went on into Los Angeles—looking like something out of Grapes of Wrath driving down Sunset Boulevard. Same kind of hearty welcome.
But finally, a childhood family friend, Bill Brennan, who had gone into radio sales in LA, successfully recommended me for a staff-announcer job that had opened at KNXT, a local station. I went there and did everything except sweep out the place. When I could find the time, like on nights when I was disc jockeying, while the record was playing, I was sitting there in the booth putting together an idea for a TV show. See, I had made an agreement with myself when I got to LA—that if I didn’t have my own show after a year, I was going to move on to New York. I was never one who believed in “waiting for the breaks.” I believe we make our own breaks. Well, the CBS people finally looked at my idea and gave me a spot they had open locally on Sunday afternoons. You won’t believe the budget—for each show, $25! I wrote my own scripts, mimeographed them and acted in them—and got pretty fair newspaper notices. On one show, I had a friend rush past the camera on the air and I announced, “That was my guest today, Red Skelton.” Well, Skelton heard about it and really did turn up for one of my shows. Then some others did, including Fred Allen. Skelton and I really got on well, and finally he offered me a job writing for his show. I grabbed it.
I guess you’d call it the proverbial big break when the telephone rang one day and somebody told me Skelton had been hurt in a rehearsal. He was supposed to walk through one of those breakaway doors, but the door hadn’t broken and Red had been knocked cold about 90 minutes before showtime. I had always been doing bits and cracking gags around the office and they wanted to know if I could make it to the station and go on for Red. I don’t know how I got there in time, but I did. And I made cracks about Red getting hurt and said, “The way I fell out here, I think Red’s doctor ought to be doing this show.” Well, it came off all right. I got good notices. And that got me my next job—The Johnny Carson Show. That was my first big lesson. It ran out its contracted 39 weeks in 1955 and then folded. That’s where I learned that if you get too many cooks involved, that if you don’t keep control, you’re going to bomb out, and there’s nobody to blame but yourself.
Haley: Will you explain what you mean by that?
Carson: I mean that it was primarily through my own naiveté that the show failed. I had built the show initially around a format of low-key skits and commentary on topical subjects—something rather like the Tonight show. We got good reviews, but the network people felt the ratings should have been higher, and I let them start telling me what to do. “We’ve got to make the show important,” they told me. How would they go about doing that? With chorus girls! They were going to make me into Jackie Gleason! I’d come rushing on in a shower of balloons, with chorus girls yipping, “Here comes the star of the show, Johnny Carson!” And the rest followed in that vein. I let myself be a poor imitation, and that’s sure, swift death for any entertainer. But I think if nobody ever fails, he never has successes. The show flopped—but to me only in the sense that it went off the air after 39 weeks. I learned the hard way that you have to go with your decisions.
Haley: Do you consider that show your greatest failure?
Carson: Professionally it was. Personally, no. That was when I was divorced from my first wife. That’s the lowest I’ve ever felt, the worst personal experience of my life. We’d been married 10 years—since college, in fact. And children were involved—three sons. I think that’s the worst guilt hang-up you can have, when children are involved. But divorce sometimes is the only answer. I think it’s almost immoral to keep on with a marriage that’s really bad. It just gets more and more rotten and vindictive and everybody gets more and more hurt. There’s not enough honesty about marriage, I think. I wish more people would face the truth about their marital situations. I get sick of that old rationalization, “We’re staying together because of the children.” Kids couldn’t be more miserable living with parents who can’t stand each other. They’re far better off if there’s an honest, clean divorce. I’m happy to notice that my boys don’t seem to be negatively affected by mine. I think they’re getting along fine. I’ve got a very good marriage now. For a long time, I went around feeling guilty about the failure of the first one—but you can’t go on forever like that, just nursing your hurts. Some friends here in New York had been talking with me about Joanne before I ever saw her. Finally, I telephoned her and we made a date over the phone. I met her with her father at Eddie Condon’s and we hit it off great, right away, and it went on from there.
Haley: After the low point you described, when The Johnny Carson Show went off the air, did things begin to improve professionally?
Carson: Not by a long shot. I still had a lot more to learn—this time about the people who are supposed to give a performer so much help in this business. There I was: My show was closed. I was out of work. That kind of news flies throughout the show-business world with the speed of light. You’re out. You’re dead. But I’ve got a family to keep eating and every day I’m expecting to hear something from the agency that handled me. But I hear nothing. So I go over there. “Look,” I told them, “I can get myself some kind of an act together. Get a couple of writers to work with me.” You know what they said? “Sorry, Johnny, we can’t do that.” So I went home and wrote the act myself, and I went out personally and peddled it and finally got myself a date in Bakersfield at a place called The Maison Jaussaud, making $400 a week. But I was still naive. I was hoping that some of the top agency people would come to see me. They didn’t. They sent two junior members who sat at a table, then left. Nothing. Zero.
This was about the time I dropped back financially until I had to borrow from my father. I decided I had to go to New York. I couldn’t do any worse there and I might do better. So I borrowed more, from a bank that was good enough to let me have it. And in New York, finally I got the chance to go on Who Do You Trust?. Now, do you want to guess what happened? When I get solid on that show, really doing all right, here come this agency’s top guys. Big deal—old buddy-buddy, let bygones be bygones, no hard feelings, let’s forget the past. “How about our representing you again? We’ve got it all figured out how to shoot you straight to the top.” I listened until they finished their spiel and then I said, “Thank you, no, gentlemen. Where were you when I needed you?” Anyway, I finally went with another agency, MCA, one of the giants. I was doing fine now, getting the treatment they call “servicing the client.” I remember one day I was getting ready to leave their office to do the show, and this agency man makes moves to go with me. I asked him, “What are you doing?” He said, “Don’t you want me to go to the show with you?” I told him I thought I could make it alone. What I felt like telling him was, “You want to do something for me? Iron my shirts.” I don’t even like to think about it. But now, I don’t even have an agency. MCA dissolved, you know. I’ve got a lawyer who handles most of my affairs. I’ve learned. Agencies play the percentages. You make it, they’ll take 10 percent. When I needed ’em, nobody was there. I’ll never forget it. I’m just telling it the way it is. If somebody wants to call that being a loner, if somebody wants to call that being vindictive, then so be it!
Haley: How did the break come from Who Do You Trust? to the Tonight Show?
Carson: In my first four years on Who Do You Trust?, I’d been offered all kinds of situation-comedy shows, but I had turned them down for one or another reason. And I had been doing guest spots, and I had filled in for Paar on Tonight, and I had done pretty well as his replacement. It was NBC that came up with the offer for me to replace Paar permanently. I turned it down, cold; not many people know that. I just wasn’t sure I could cut it. I just didn’t feel I could make that jump from a half-hour daily quiz show to doing an hour and 45 minutes every night. I was doing fine in daytime TV; I was solid and secure. And I felt I’d be stupid to try to replace Jack Paar. But I kept sitting in for him. And then, some months later, NBC made their offer again; Jack was nearer to leaving the show. Somebody had to replace him. My manager got on me, insisting that I owed myself the opportunity of reaching the big night audience. And NBC said they would wait until I finished my contract on Who Do You Trust?. While all this was going on, I was gradually building more confidence in myself—the more I thought about it. Nobody could tell me; I had to tell myself I could do it. And finally I did; I accepted the offer. Everyone I knew had some advice after that. One group told me I was nuts to try replacing Paar, but that made me all the more determined. Others became instant producers and told me, “Here’s how to handle that show….” That bugged me; I’d been through that in California and lost a good show because of it. I had cab drivers, waiters, everybody giving me advice.
Two things were in the back of my head: One was that I wasn’t going to be any imitation of Jack Paar; I was going to be Johnny Carson. The other thing was that I wanted the show to make the most of being the last area in television that the medium originally was supposed to be—live, immediate entertainment. I knew it wasn’t going to be any sauntering in and sitting at a desk and that’s all. The main thing in my mind that I had going for me was that I’d done nearly everything you could in the industry—but at the same time I knew that thinking that way was a danger. If I went out there with every critic waiting, and if I did everything I knew how to do, it would look like deliberate showing off, like trying to say, “Hey, look at me—I’m so versatile!” I had to fight that natural temptation to go out there and make some big impression. Finally, I decided that the best thing I could do was forget trying to do a lot of preplanning. I didn’t want to come out with something that smacked of a month’s preparation, because I wasn’t going to be able to keep that up every night. It all boiled down to just going out there and being my natural self and seeing what would happen.
Haley: What happened, of course, was one of the most remarkable successes in television history. But you mentioned going out there and being your natural self. Do you, really?
Carson: Are we back to that—my reputation for being cold and aloof, for being a loner and living in a shell and all that crap? Look, I’m an entertainer; I try to give the public what it wants while I’m on the screen, and I’m completely sincere about it. If I don’t happen to be a laughing boy off the screen, that doesn’t make me a hypocrite or a phony. In any case, what I am and what I do on my own, it seems to me, is nobody’s business but mine. As long as I don’t commit any crimes, you have no right to judge me except by my performance as a professional. On that level, you’re welcome to think whatever you want about me. But there’s only one critic whose opinion I really value, in the final analysis: Johnny Carson. I have never needed any entourage standing around bolstering my ego. I’m secure. I know exactly who and what I am. I don’t need to be told. I make no apologies for being the way I am. I’m not going to run around crying that I’m misunderstood. I play my life straight—the way I see it. I’m grateful to audiences for watching me and for enjoying what I do—but I’m not one of those who believe that a successful entertainer is made by the public, as is so often said. You become successful, the way I see it, only if you’re good enough to deliver what the public enjoys. If you’re not, you won’t have any audience; so the performer really has more to do with his success than the public does.
As for myself, I’ve worked ever since I was a kid with a two-bit kit of magic tricks trying to improve my skills at entertaining whatever public I had—and to make myself ready, whenever the breaks came, to entertain a wider and more demanding public. Entertainment is like any other major industry; it’s cold, big business. The business end wants to know one thing: Can you do the job? If you can, you’re in, you’re made; if you can’t, you’re out.
I knock myself out for the public—five shows a week, 90 minutes a show; and most of every day goes to working on that 90 minutes. It takes more out of me than manual labor would, and I simply won’t give any more of myself than that. I demand my right to a private life, just as I respect that right for everybody else. The Tonight staff knocks themselves out with me; then they go their way, I go mine, and we get along fine. I make the major decisions. That’s my responsibility.
I’m doing the best I know how. I’ve put my whole life into whatever you see on that screen. But whenever the day comes that I think it’s my time to go, I’ll be the first to tell the network to get somebody else in that chair. And when I do, they’ll be saying, “Who could follow Carson?”—just like they said, “Who could follow Paar?” Well, believe me, somebody can—and will. The public is fickle, and you can be replaced, no matter how good you are. Until that happens, I’m going to go on doing my best. I like my work and I hope you do, too—but if you don’t, I really couldn’t care less. Take me or leave me—but don’t bug me. That’s the way I am. That’s me. That’s it.
(The above interview by Alex Haley is presented under the Creative Commons License. It first appeared in the December 1967 issue of Playboy. © 1967 Playboy Enterprises International, Inc. © 1993 by Ballantine Books. All Rights Reserved.)