When Johnny Carson Opened Up, Briefly

To be a star in the world today is to make yourself available to outside eyes, constantly. One must maintain a social media presence, be open to press interviews and promotion for new projects, all while attempting to stay off of the gossip sites for the wrong reasons. But before this modern age, it was possible to control how off the radar you were, to some degree. There would always be paparazzi and the like but if you kept your head down, you could be a bit of a gatekeeper when it came to your own image. And one guy who generally kept the gate shut most of the time was Mr. Johnny Carson.

Since his death in 2005, Carson’s legacy has been examined many times by those who knew him with varying degrees of insight. This is not one of those pieces. Instead, today we look at the story that Carson himself chose to tell in 1979, on what was at the time one of the most well-known and most-accessed sources for news, information, and profiles of newsmakers. On September 23, 1979, Johnny Carson sat down to speak with Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes.

What makes this appearance so surprising was that Johnny Carson was notorious for his privacy. His producer on The Tonight Show Fred deCordova wrote in an article for Reader’s Digest that Carson was “reluctant to talk much about himself because he is essentially a private person.” Johnny himself provided an annotation to this comment: “I will not even talk to myself without an appointment.” Of course, there’s a little bit of truth in every joke.

When Johnny took over The Tonight Show, there were a flurry of press requests, due to the strange nature of his ascent. At the time that he was selected as the new host, Johnny was already on television hosting a game show called Who Do You Trust? on ABC. ABC decided to hold Johnny to his contract down to the very last day, resulting in The Tonight Show using a selection of guest hosts to fill the time between permanent hosts which only led to more and more anticipation for Carson to finally host the show. After all of this attention, eventually Johnny stopped giving in to the press, and as a New Yorker profile from 1978 reveals, he went so far as to issue a list of responses for the press to utilize and attach to whatever answer they’d like:

  • Yes, I did.
  • Not a bit of truth in that rumor.
  • Only twice in my life, both times on Saturday.
  • I can do either, but I prefer the first.
  • No. Kumquats.
  • I can’t answer that question.
  • Toads and tarantulas.
  • Turkestan, Denmark, Chile, and the Komandorskie Islands.
  • As often as possible, but I’m not very good at it yet. I need much more practice.
  • It happened to some old friends of mine, and it’s a story I’ll never forget.
  • Originally Carson was set to appear on 60 Minutes in 1977 after reaching out because he was a fan of the show. Jumping at the chance to get such a big name who so rarely speaks out, a camera crew went out to California and also followed Carson to a trip to Harvard, where he was presented with their prestigious Hasty Pudding Man of the Year Award. After just three days of filming, Carson called it off without enough material for the show to air anything. Two years later, Johnny came knocking over at the 60 Minutes offices once again.

    So why appear in a TV interview at all? And if you’re going to do one, why on such a high-profile show like 60 Minutes with Mike Wallace, who has been known to give a tough interview or two? And then why change your mind only to come back again? Easy: money. In 1979, Fred Silverman had been head of NBC for a little over a year after making ABC an incredibly successful network. Fred and Johnny had a strained relationship that became only more fractured when Carson sued NBC, claiming that he was no longer under contract because he had signed his most recent one in 1972 and there was a law in California that made contracts that lasted more than seven years illegal. NBC disagreed, saying that Johnny had signed three agreements since 1972 and as such, was under contract until 1981. And why wouldn’t they? Johnny was pretty much the only thing that was going well for them on NBC at the time. If he decided to leave another network would scoop him up in an instant. In fact, according to Johnny’s lawyer Henry Bushkin’s book, it was a certainty. To create leverage, he was feeling out a deal with ABC for Carson while attempting to renegotiate with NBC. So, if Johnny can get on 60 Minutes, open up a little bit, remind people how much they love him and get the public on his side, wouldn’t that help his side a little bit when sitting behind an NBC conference table?

    So, Wallace’s interview with Carson is no Frost/Nixon, but it also isn’t the Hollywood puff piece that is typical of today. Sure, there’s a little bit of that. We see Johnny unwinding at home by playing a set of drums given to him by Buddy Rich along with a jazz record on the hi-fi, but even in this moment we see Wallace reference the fact that he’s not going to go easy on Johnny. “This seems like a good way to work out your hostility,” he observes. Johnny attempts to deflect the observation, “You oughta take this up, Mike. You’ve got a lot of hostility.” Wallace immediately fires back, “I’d rather beat on you!”

    And he does. He asks Johnny if he ever goes easy on the people he jokes about, and Johnny talks about a series of jokes about Arkansas Congressman Wilbur Mills. But Carson stopped making these jokes when he learned that Mills was an alcoholic. “Of course,” Wallace begins, “it takes one to know one…” Johnny visibly doesn’t like this but realizes he’s on camera. He responds initially with a fake laugh before responding, “You’re cruel.” Wallace doesn’t back down, “But there was a time!” Johnny then attempts to downplay: “I used to have a little pop, I sure did. I don’t handle it well. Really, I don’t. Ed and I used to have some wonderful times.” Wallace then moves into a quote from Johnny’s longtime sidekick, Ed McMahon. “[Ed told us] that from time to time, you were going to take on a whole Russian army. And you didn’t have the bazookas to do it!” Johnny responds again, “That’s right. Which is why I found it was best for me not to entangle in it. When I did, rather than a lot of people who become gregarious and fun-loving, the opposite would happen, and it would happen…” He smacks his fist into an open palm, “like this.”

    While none as heavy as this one, Wallace throws a few more obstacles in Johnny’s path throughout the interview, confronting him with the stereotype of Johnny Carson: icewater in his veins (“I had that taken out years ago”), shy, defensive, which of course causes Johnny to get defensive about his shyness, stating that this has dogged him since he was in high school where he was thought to be conceited, but was just shy.

    There are moments in the interview that are very funny, and we get a few glimpses at Johnny being funny completely off-the cuff, and there are moments that are very personal. For example, his then-wife Joanna reveals that one of the only times she has seen Johnny cry was after attending Jack Benny’s funeral, but the section of the interview I found the most interesting was a discussion about Johnny’s competitiveness. While a few shows crept up here and there, for the most part during Carson’s tenure, his show was the only late night game in town. So what do you do in order to make your own show better? Wallace shows footage of Carson studying tapes of old episodes at home to learn from his experience, calling Carson a “perfectionist.”

    Carson speaks a bit on his competitive side with Mike as well: “Being too competitive is a bad thing. I don’t think being competitive in your work is bad; if you get competitive outside of your work it’s bad. I found that playing tennis, most celebrities have a better opinion of their game than they do.” The segment then cuts to footage of Johnny and Mike playing a game of tennis in which Carson is trash talking Wallace. “What are you, waiting for your pacemaker to start? That thing’s gotta kick in when you serve.” But it’s this competitive streak that accounts for the contract dispute Johnny was going through at this time, or his infamous refusal to speak with Joan Rivers after she launched her own talk show. Or maybe how he was fine with Dana Carvey making fun of him on Saturday Night Live until he went to far and did a sketch about Carson feeling out-of-touch and relaunching as an Arsenio rip-off. And maybe it’s that competitiveness that made him so good at his job for so long.

    Johnny didn’t let many people into his life, and even when he does this time, the window is open very briefly. However, it serves as an interesting snapshot into a very private man at a very interesting time in his life.

    Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, cartoonistpodcaster and a guy on Twitter. Check out his webseries “Ramsey Has a Time Machine” featuring Chris Elliott!

    When Johnny Carson Opened Up, Briefly