The Truth Behind Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show


Johnny Carson is one of the most iconic television personalities in history. He paved the way for the abundance of popular late night shows that are currently on air, and though his public persona was loved by millions, the acclaimed TV host had a darker side.

Unhappily Married

Like many other famous men, Carson burned through his fair share of wives. Four to be exact. It will come as no surprise that he was overheard on his honeymoon telling his fourth wife, Alexis Maas, “We’ve been married for three weeks. If you say something like that again, this marriage won’t last another three weeks!”

Johnny Carson Alexis Maas

A Yacht Of Audacity

On the same honeymoon, Carson’s long time attorney, Henry Bushkin, shared that one of their outings was spoiled by Johnny’s persistent anger due to their yacht captain being six minutes late. Rather than simply getting on the boat and enjoying their trip, Carson reportedly fumed on the dock for three hours, telling the captain, “I didn’t pay $150,000 to have you late in picking us up.” His verbal abuse of the captain continued for the duration of the trip.

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Cry Me A River

In 1987, Johnny Carson cut all ties with friend and one-time lover, Joan Rivers, when she was offered her own late night talk show. Rivers had been a frequent guest on Carson’s show, and had been instrumental in raising the stakes that led to his landmark contract with NBC. Rivers’ show was to air on Fox at the same time as Carson’s, which he took as an insult and refused to speak to her for the rest of his life.

Johnny Carson Joan Rivers

Mommy Dearest

With his charming on-screen personality, one could be forgiven for thinking that Carson had an army of support during his upbringing, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. He hated his mother so much, even going so far as to call her “Lady Macbeth”. He refused to even attend her funeral, simply stating after her death, “the wicked witch is dead.” It seemed she was constantly critical of the late-night host, who once said, “there’s no g*d*** way to please that woman!”

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Mental Strain

Johnny Carson’s interpersonal challenges extended to all sectors of his private life, including his relationship with his son Rick, who struggled with mental illness. While it was common to hide such issues from public spotlight at the time, Carson went so far as to refuse to visit his son during his hospitalizations. Carson seemed to show some remorse after his son’s death in 1991 in a car accident, and paid tribute by sharing some of his photographs on The Tonight Show.

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Explosive Celebration

In another incident involving his son Rick in 1987, Carson managed to pick a fight during a 25th anniversary party for The Tonight Show. Both men struggled with alcoholism, and often turned to violence when they were drunk.  When Rick appeared at the party already inebriated, Carson became embroiled in a screaming match with him. Just as Carson geared up to punch his son, someone else stepped in and physically separated the two, pulling Johnny away from the scene.

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Unfaithfully Yours

While Carson wasn’t shy about his infidelity, in a 2013 biography of Carson’s life, former lawyer Henry Bushkin revealed Carson’s emotional instability with regards to his second wife’s infidelity. Carson suspected that she was cheating on him with Frank Gifford, the football star currently married to Kathy Lee Gifford, and even hired a private investigator to help him break into her apartment. Private eye Joe Mullen recalls Carson weeping into his arm upon finding evidence of Joanne’s infidelity, though she continues to dispute such claims.

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Late Night Heavyweight

Carson was never shy about pushing the boundaries of comedy, even when his jokes were highly offensive to the subject in question. He often teased Raymond Burr about his weight, to the point that Burr eventually refused to return to The Tonight Show. Burr was an actor who headlined CBS’s Perry Mason, before going on to star in NBC’s Ironside. As another employee of NBC, Burr thought it would be bad publicity to get into an on-air feud over Carson’s offensive comments.

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Aggressive Alcoholic

Carson granted few candid interviews over the years, preferring to keep his private struggles close to himself, but in a rare interview with 60 Minutes‘ Mike Wallace in 1979, he spoke a bit about his struggles with alcohol. He would say on air, “I don’t handle alcohol well at all, no. Really don’t.” He continued to say that rather than becoming more happy and fun-loving, he found that his mood would sour upon drinking, and he would often become aggressive towards others.

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Snide Attack

Carson openly criticized fellow NBC host, Tom Snyder, who hosted The Tomorrow Show, which was broadcast immediately following The Tonight Show. His disdain for Snyder, who he called a talentless bore, was an open secret. After a couple of glasses of wine at an LA restaurant, Carson saw Snyder sitting at a separate table, sat down across from him, and then attempted to throttle Snyder by the throat. Carson’s wife and sidekick quickly separated the two, before exiting the restaurant with Johnny in tow.

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Potty Mouth

In 1977, a port-a-potty company wanted to use “Here’s Johnny” as their slogan. Carson quickly filed a lawsuit against them, which resulted in a legal battle that lasted for a decade. Though Carson won the suit and prevented the company from cashing in on his catchphrase, Earl J. Braxton, head of the company was again barred from using the phrase when he tried to register it in 2006, a year after Carson’s death, and nearly 30 years after the original lawsuit.

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Inaugural Embarrassment

In 1981, Frank Sinatra requested that Carson host the Inaugural Gala in honor of Ronald Reagan. Carson was a reluctant host, and “appeared to be visibly coming out of his skin” at an inaugural luncheon for congresspeople. Carson constantly criticized Sinatra’s planning of the event, even going so far as to call it “a three-ring circus.” His unsavory attitude during the event caused a rift between him and his friend Sinatra, which only an apology from the president himself was able to mend.

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Drunk Martin

Another incident that occurred during the ill-fated 1981 Inaugural Gala, was Johnny’s refusal to introduce Dean Martin when the latter showed up to the party already drunk. After asking Martin if he knew where he was, Martin allegedly asked Carson to serve him lamb chops. Carson’s response was “I’m not the g*d*** maitre d’. I’m hosting…not serving.” Carson had preciously interviewed a seemingly drunk Dean Martin in a joint appearance with Bob Hope on The Tonight Show in 1975.

Johnny Carson Dean Martin

Rumors Of Wrongdoing

While rumors of men harassing women have recently become headline news, such allegations were often covered up or disregarded in the past. There were many such allegations rumored to have been perpetrated by Johnny Carson, though due to his savvy lawyers, none of the cases ever got off the ground. The allegations come from a variety of sources, including some of his female guests, as well as women he worked with during his time as a television host.

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Political Consequences

Gary Hart was the front-runner 1988 for the Democratic party nominee, until Johnny Carson exposed his participation in an alleged affair with another woman. Though the affair was discovered via a private eye who followed him as he entered another woman’s home, it was Carson’s show that made it headline news. Carson was one of the first talkshow hosts to engage in political criticism, which was far less common then than it is today. Hart’s presidential aspirations were dropped when he subsequently suspended his campaign.

Gary Hart

Bedroom Broadcast

In 2014, 9 years after Carson’s passing, TMZ uncovered a tape of him and his first wife, Jody, engaging in explicit acts. They offered to sell it back to his estate, who declined their offer immediately. The tape is now in the possession of a private collector, as it could not be sold for legal reasons. Still, it may not even be Carson’s only explicit tape, as his 3rd wife Joanna allegedly found one of him and another women, before proceeding to break every fragile item in the house.

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Buying Happiness

While all of Carson’s wives seemed to know about his infidelities, they each handled it in a different way, and three out of his four marriages ended in divorce. With his third wife, Joanna, Johnny would make up for his cheating by buying her lavish presents. He bought her her own Rolls Royce Corniche, an apartment at The Pierre, as well as diamonds and other expensive jewelry. When they ultimately divorced, their settlement was 80 pages long, and Joanna received $20 million worth of assets.

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Hidden Assets

According to one-time flame, Joan Rivers, whose affair with Carson took place during her marriage to long-time partner Edgar Rosenberg, Carson boasted quite the physical asset. The subject was raised when reporters caught her at LAX in 2014, and she answered with her typical candor. “I saw it in real life. How do you think you got on the show!?” She followed up her statements by commenting on the tapes he had made in the bedroom, expressing her interest in watching them.

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Joan’s Deal

Despite their later feud, Joan Rivers was a close friend of Johnny Carson for the better part of his career. In 1979, Carson was ready to say goodbye to The Tonight Show. As soon as word got out that his contract was ending, Joan Rivers and husband Edgar Rosenberg arranges a secret meeting at their Bel-Air home between Johnny and top execs at ABC, Fred Pierce, Elton Rule, and Tony Thomopoulos. They were there to discuss just how much more ABC could pay Johnny.

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Peacock Panic

NBC was panicking that they would lose their biggest star. They said if he left the show, they would lose $50 million in advertising money, for which they would have wanted to sue him for at least $100 million. The problem was that Johnny’s contract had ended long ago, as California law states that no one can be held under contract for over 7 years, a common practice of Hollywood studios in the early days of film. Johnny and NBC went to court over his contractual commitments.

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Smooth Silverman

Top NBC exec, Fred Silverman managed to smooth things over with Carson at the New York Friars Club dinner honoring Carson as Entertainer of the Year. Though Bob Hope joked about just how much NBC was buttering up Johnny to keep him on, Silverman made sure to make a speech paying homage to the magnitude of Carson’s TV presence. Silverman called Johnny, “the entertainer of our time” and “the best friend TV ever had”. Carson was so touched by the tribute, he called NBC immediately.

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His Reign Continues

Once Johnny was no longer angry with NBC, he felt more inclined to sign another contract extension with them, with several concessions. Johnny’s main requests including owning and producing The Tonight Show going forward. He also managed to score a $25 million a year contract that only obligated him to work 37 weeks of the year. Cumulatively, he only worked for one hour a night, 3 nights per week, and was earning $50,000 for each episode alone. It was the deal of Johnny’s dreams.

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Mafia’s Most Wanted

In 1970, Carson found himself the target of mob boss when he started flirting with the mafioso’s girlfriend one night. While he was trying to persuade the girl to leave with him, her  boyfriend arrived and was not pleased. The mobster and his friends threw Carson down a flight of stairs, before the bar owner intervened. The hit on Carson’s head was cancelled only after his agents at William Morris cut a deal with Joseph Colombo, who just asked the NBC favorable cover an upcoming Italian-American rally.

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Tough Crowd

In the 1990s, younger fans following rising music star Morrissey flocked to Carson’s show to see their favorite artist perform. On this occasion, Carson’s other guest was Bill Cosby, who wasn’t entirely unknown to young fans, and his humor did not manage to capture the teens’ attention. Both men struggled to entertain the discerning audience, only to find that none of their jokes were landing well. It was an awkward night for both the comedians and the crowd.

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Delorean Deal Breaker

When John Delorean started the DMC in 1975, Johnny Carson was one of its largest investors. The failed company is often remembered for its DMC-12 model complete with gull-wing doors, immortalized in the Back to the Future films of the 80s. The company began to experience severe financial difficulties in the early 80s, despite the capital invested by Carson, and ultimately went under in 1982 after Delorean was charged for trafficking cocaine. Though the allegations were later proven false, the damage was irreparable.

Johnny Carson Delorean

Driving M.Johnny

In another alcohol related story, Johnny was caught driving his Deloreon in 1982 after having a few drinks. In the subsequent court case, he pleaded “no contest” to the charges. His sentence was 3 years of probation, as well as a class for drivers with drinking problems. During that time, he wasn’t allowed to drive his car for pleasure, he could drive to work and drive home, nothing more. He was also restricted from driving with any people or animals in his car.

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Under The Sea

Among the many women Carson dated throughout his lifetime, one was none other than a young Sally Field. In describing their relationship in an interview with Andy Cohen, she called them “the octopus and the little guppy,” referring to how handsy Carson was during their tryst. Considering their 20 year age gap, it’s not surprising Fields seems to describe herself as a reluctant participant, as she also reported that she was unsure of how to turn down his advances.

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In The Heart Of Texas

According to Bushkin’s biography of the late night great, Carson had yet another mistress, this time down in Texas. While Bushkin was negotiating a real estate deal near Houston, Texas for a project involving the Willowbrook Mall, Carson decided he wanted to get in on the action. This was mostly an excuse to go visit the mistress he dubbed “Miss Texas”. Though the deal ultimately faltered, Carson ended up with 93 acres to earn a bit of extra cash on.

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Bothered And Belittled

Among the many enemies Carson cultivated over the years, another seems to have been Richard Little, who wrote about Carson’s animosity towards him in his 2016 memoir, Little by Little: People I’ve Known and Been. In the book he writes that Carson banned him from The Tonight Show because he couldn’t stand Little doing impressions of him. Henry Bushkin wrote that “Richard seemed to bring out the worst in Johnny” though some would blame the tension between the two on Johnny’s rampant alcoholism.

Richard Little

Arabian Feud

In 1980, Carson instigated yet another bitter battle with a star, this time over the purchase of the Aladdin Casino and Resort in Las Vegas. Carson’s competitor was Wayne Newton, and the two men were making competing offers of around $100 million for the property, but Carson’s volatility got the better of him yet again. Though he had all but clinched the deal, Carson backed out, and Newton was able to purchase the casino for significantly less than his opening offer. Portrayed as the “loser”, Carson forever resented Newton.

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Dethroning The King

While Johnny was the “King of Late Night,” he had another royal admirer in Elvis Presley. The night of the rock and roll legend’s 40th birthday, he allegedly tuned into Carson’s show, as his nightly routine. Already down about his age, he recalled Carson calling him “fat and forty” in mentioning Presley’s birthday. Though tapes of the broadcast prove Carson only made a harmless jab about Elvis wearing “orthopedic blue suede shoes,” the damage was already done.

Elvis Presley

Hollywood Forgery

After Carson graduated high school, the legends goes that he hitchhiked to Hollywood and got himself into all sorts of trouble. Rumor has it that he saw a taping of Jack Benny’s radio show, which he credits as influencing his comedic timing, before supposedly danced with Marlene Dietrich at the Hollywood Stage Door Canteen. Carson is also said to have incurred a $50 fine after he was arrested for pretending to be a midshipman, but no one can say for sure.

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Bombing The Blonde

A regular feature on Carson’s show was model, Carol Wayne, who played the ditzy “Matinee Lady.” Though her character was a fan favorite, when Carson began to push for cutting the runtime of the show down from 90 minutes to 60 minutes, Carol’s role as a regular was cut. She found herself tight on cash in the following years and began to cope with alcohol and illegal drugs. In order to make ends meet, she allegedly began working as an escort.

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Unsolved Mystery

Most credit Carol Wayne’s firing from The Tonight Show as the event that led to her ultimate downfall.  After she ended her run, she was found dead in the shallow waters of Santiago Bay, Mexico, where she had been vacationing with Edward Durston. Although Durston reportedly left the hotel several days before Wayne was found, her drowning was particularly suspect as she reported hated water and couldn’t swim. While drugs and alcohol were the suspected culprit, her autopsy came back clean.

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Newton Slaps Back

Following their Las Vegas real estate war, Carson continuously poked fun at Wayne Newton on The Tonight Show. Eventually, Newton got fed up with the abuse and decided to take matters into his own hands. After discussing just how mean Carson was on Larry King Live, Newton rushed into Carson’s office one night and threatened to beat him up if he didn’t stop his verbal crusade. Surprisingly, Carson took the threat seriously and dropped jokes about Newton from his act.

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Juvenile Hijinks

Johnny’s love of performance was apparent from a young age, when he started performing magic tricks for friends and family, after finding a book on tricks at a friend’s house. Following the discovery, he purchased a mail-order magic kit and annoyed his family incessantly. By 14, he was performing locally for $3 a show, calling himself “The Great Carsoni”. He began to gain steam on the local circuit, even performing his magic act for fairs and picnics in the Norfolk, Nebraska area.

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Repulsed By Reality

Before his 2005 death, Carson supposedly had dinner with Garry Shandling and Jerry Seinfeld. During the meal, Johnny apparently went on a rant to the two comedians about the state of television today. He told the pair he was “sickened” by reality television and the kind of tabloid fodder it was peddling to its viewers. He continued by expressing satisfaction that he had retired long before the reality television format had become the new normal for the medium.

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It’s Saturday Night!

As Johnny decided he wanted to take more time off during the week, the late night air time needed to be filled by something else. During the weekends up until 1975, The Best of Carson would air during his usual 11:30 time slot, but in his push to host fewer nights of the week, he requested the network air the show during the week instead The network had to scramble to develop a new show to fill the Saturday night slot, and thus Saturday Night Live was born.

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Crazy For You

To break free from the older Carson’s clutches, actress Sally Field shared in her interview with Andy Cohen on Watch What Happens Live that she didn’t know how to escape from Johnny, so she eventually told him that she needed to be hospitalized for mental instability. She said, “I couldn’t figure out how just to say I’m really am just not into this.” Considering his reaction to his own son’s hospitalizations, it’s not exactly surprising that the excuse worked.

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Caesar’s Crusade

Former lawyer, Henry Bushkin, recalls another Johnny tantrum in his biography about the late-night legend. In 1976, Bushkin locked Johnny into a deal with Caesar’s Palace, where he would headline 8 weeks a year, in exchange for $250,000 a year plus best accommodations. But the mishaps began immediately when the driver intending to pick Carson up went to the wrong gate, which earned him a verbal beat down in exchange. Johnny then threw a second tantrum after discovering that his suite was not quite ready upon his arrival.

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Pushing Boundaries

Despite his volatile nature in his private life, Johnny managed to maintain the good will of his audience, allowing him to push boundaries and open doors for others. Most notably, he once let Harry Belafonte host his show for an entire week in 1968. Belafonte’s stint behind the desk was the first time an African American had ever hosted a talk show. Belafonte had the opportunity to interview several notable guests that week, including Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King.

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Bombastic Bushkin

In 2013, Carson’s long-time lawyer published a book about his 18 years working with Carson, a scathing tell-all that revealed the talk show host’s darker nature. Their working relationship began in 1970, when Carson hired the newcomer to help him break into second wife Joanne’s apartment. However, Carson severed ties with the young shark in 1988 when they disagreed as to the future of Carson’s production company, despite his years of loyalty and savvy financial deals in the face of Carson’s temper.

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Unimpressionable Interviewer

Unlike his peers on the late-night comedy circuit, Carson was never affable with his guests. He never visited with them before the show and would never cater to their egos. According to the production crew, Carson didn’t even seem to enjoy interviewing guests very much and would only laugh if he truly thought they were funny. Furthermore, when Johnny was displeased or bored with a guest, he would immediately end the interview, even if his guest was mid-sentence.

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Missing The Action

After Johnny’s supposed post-high school jaunt to California, in 1943 he enlisted in the Navy and went into V-12 Navy College Training Program first at Columbia University, followed by Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi. Though Carson was commissioned as a communications officer decrypting secret messages, he never quite made it over to the combat zone. He was on a ship heading to the Pacific when they got news of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which ended the war.

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The Johnny Meal

Sometime in the mid 60s after Carson was already a well-established star, he joined forces with the Swanson family to establish a fast-food franchise, aptly named “Here’s Johnny’s!” Other than piggy-backing on Carson’s popularity, the main draw of the restaurant chain was that its food would be ready in half the time of an average fast-food joint. “Here’s Johnny” seemed to run into financial trouble fairly early on, as the managing company was sued for $78,000 in back-payments by 1974.

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Broken And Alone

When Carson passed away in 2005 from respiratory failure at the age of 79, there was a tremendous outpouring of love and sadness from his fans. Though his fourth and final wife was still in his life at the time, Bushkin reports in his 2013 biography that Carson was otherwise alone, estranged from many friends, including Bushkin, who had tried to maintain close ties with him over the years, in spite of his difficult nature, as well as much of his family.

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Bobbing Blindly

Long standing guest on The Tonight Show, comedian Bob Hope, proved to be more work than Carson bargained for in his later years. As his eyesight and hearing began to fail, Carson was locked into a predetermined script, as Hope would have learned the interview script before hand, and couldn’t accurately respond to deviations, since he couldn’t necessarily hear them. Carson once told a writer, “If I ever end up like that, guys, I want you to shoot me.”

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Paper Privilege

Carson’s cultural influence was such that even joking about there being a shortage of toilet paper on his show in 1973 managed to spark an actual shortage. Though Carson made the comment in jest, viewers didn’t realize that and became anxious that they would be left high and dry on the throne. Stores were emptied of their stocks of toilet paper in the ensuing panic, which lead to an actual shortage. Stores were forced to ration their rolls until the panic died down several weeks later.

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Playboy Problems

Even while in the midst of a bitter divorce with his second wife Joanne, the same wife he suspected of infidelity, Carson refused to give up his womanizing. He would often spend the night with a Playboy model named Angel Tompkins. His lawyer at the time, Henry Bushkin tried to warn him that his behavior could jeopardize a settlement if his wife’s lawyer ever found out, which Carson utterly disregarded, as he let his physical desires be his guiding principle.

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Carson’s Most Hated Guest

In spite of the number of appearances Bob Hope made on Carson’s show over the years, Johnny Carson complained often about the comedian to his staff. While Carson’s style was heavily improvisational, he hated that everything Hope did had to be pre-scripted. Johnny had the ability to speak off the cuff about nearly any topic and felt that Hope’s reliance on writers was an impediment to genuine conversation, thus making Carson feel like there was nothing to talk about.

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Mr. Roger’s Enemy

Johnny Carson managed to alienate even Fred Rogers, when he satirized Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. Carson played a mean-spirited version of Roger’s character, encouraging children to steal from their parents. Rogers publicly expressed displeasure at the distortion of his message.

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