Johnny Carson’s 1967 Strike — NBC Treated ‘The Tonight Show’ Like ‘Some Bastard Stepchild’

Beloved host of The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson, was sometimes very candid with the public about issues he took with his bosses at NBC. Even early in his hosting days, he disclosed in an interview with Playboy that the network had been treating his show like “some bastard stepchild.”

So, Carson responded by going on strike. But what specific contract violation did he say led to that decision?

Black and white photo of Johnny Carson from 1967, sitting at 'The Tonight Show' desk with his chin
Johnny Carson | Frank Carroll/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

Johnny Carson’s ‘Tonight Show’ was bringing in $25 million a year at NBC in the ’60s

According to Carson, he quickly noticed and grew unhappy with the way NBC treated The Tonight Show. In a 1967 Playboy interview with ROOTS author, Alex Haley, Carson said, “Tonight was and is the biggest money-making show NBC has … but NBC treated Tonight like some bastard stepchild.”

Carson took over as host in 1962 and said the show was bringing in $25 million yearly five years later. The Tonight Show was doing great with a “ridiculous budget” and the host was a certified superstar who’d performed with the Rat Pack. So, he eventually argued that he and the show deserved more from NBC.

Johnny Carson and the AFTRA strike of 1967

Johnny Carson smiles while he holds up a newspaper with a headline that reads 'Machinists Vote to Strike'
Johnny Carson | Frank Carroll/NBCU Photo Bank

In 1967, Carson was sitting out at The Tonight Show in solidarity with a strike led by the American Federation of Television and Radio Actors (AFTRA). But when the strike was over, the host stayed out and made demands of his own. Specifically, he was asking for more control and compensation, which didn’t go over well with some observers.

“Some of the columnists figured I was too greedy for a nice, small-town Nebraska boy,” he told Haley.

To explain his decision, he argued that since NBC was raking in tens of millions of dollars from The Tonight Show, he felt the talent was entitled to more of the payout. “Since when has it been wrong to ask for a pay raise?” he asked. “It was made to look as if I’m Jack the Ripper.”

But according to Carson, his personal strike at NBC wasn’t simply about earning more money. “I have no use for eight houses, 88 cars and 500 suits,” he said. “I can’t eat but one steak at a time.”

Instead, Carson said he demanded renegotiations for more creative control and more pay in response to a contract violation on NBC’s part.

Johnny Carson said NBC violated their contract

(l-r) NBC's senior vice president for programming and talent Mort Werner, host Johnny Carson, NBC Chairman Walter D. Scott, president of NBC Television Don Durgin, NBC president Julian Goodman during a signing of Johny Carson's Tonight Show contract in 1966
Johnny Carson (center) and NBC executives (l-r) Mort Werner, Walter D. Scott, Don Durgin, and Julian Goodman | NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

Carson told Haley he had a “specific issue” with something NBC did while he was out in solidarity with the AFTRA strike. They used reruns of The Tonight Show, which he said “directly violated” their contract.

“My contract stated clearly that any reruns would be negotiated in advance in good faith, to arrive at equitable fees,” he explained. “They knew why I stayed out.”

Though they sent him a check for the reruns, he said he sent it right back to them and threatened to leave the network outright. But, NBC ultimately capitulated and a deal was made to give him more of what he asked.

He declined to answer to rumors about the amount of his increased salary. But Haley noted reports guessed the iconic host would earn more than $4 million over a three-year period following his own strike. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ CPI inflation calculator, that’s about $33 million today.

In the end, Carson concluded that he and the network came to terms that “satisfied” him. And as a result, he remained in the hosting chair until 1992.