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As the 30-year host of The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson began his time behind the desk in the early ’60s. And shortly into his iconic run, he said he’d get about “500 letters complaining that [he was] hastening national immorality” if he used two seemingly harmless words on air.

What were the two words? And did Carson allow letters from fans or other critical opinions to have an impact on what he included in his late-night material?

(l-r) Ed McMahon in a brown suit and Johnny Carson in a gray suit on 'The Tonight Show' on August 10, 1979.
(l-r) Ed McMahon and Johnny Carson | NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

Johnny Carson and letters from his audience

Carson was the third host of The Tonight Show, following Steve Allen and Jack Paar. The first episode of the show aired in 1954 with Allen behind the desk, but Paar took over in 1957. Then, Carson debuted as the newest host in 1962.

According to the Library of Congress, the late-night program was already “a controversial broadcasting phenomenon” under Paar’s lead, but Carson’s monologues were a resounding hit with audiences. And many of his fans liked to let him know they were watching the show by writing to him.

When he stepped down in 1992, he was receiving 10,000 pieces of mail from viewers each week, per the LOC. Notably, there was enough content to fill a book, Dear Johnny: Johnny Carson’s Most Hilarious and Bizarre Fan Mail.

Of course, not all that mail was approving of Carson’s on-air humor. He once shared that he was sometimes accused of damaging behavior by some of the people who wrote in. And according to him, even the use of seemingly innocent language could have caused an avalanche of complaints.

Johnny Carson couldn’t say ‘naked’ or ‘pregnant’ without backlash in 1967

Black and white photo of Johnny Carson at 'The Tonight Show' desk in 1967, resting a finger across his chin
Johnny Carson | Frank Carroll/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

In 1967, Carson told Alex Haley for Playboy magazine, “Nearly anything you say, you can’t help offending somebody out there.”

To give an example, he described a time that Mr. Universe told him on The Tonight Show that his body was his home. The famously cheeky host replied, “Yeah, my home is pretty messy. But I have a woman come in once a week.”

Apparently, some viewers found the joke distasteful enough to write letters to Carson in protest. “Can you imagine the mail I got on that one?” Carson asked.

“If I say ‘naked,’ if I use the word ‘pregnant,’ I’ll get probably 500 letters complaining that I’m hastening national immorality,” he further explained.

Johnny Carson didn’t ‘pay attention’ to fan letters unless they were useful to the show

Model as lifeguard, host Johnny Carson during a limousine skit on June 13, 1986
(l-r) Johnny Carson | Gene Arias/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

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According to Carson, knowing he would likely get a certain reaction from some audience members didn’t stop him from using his material. He said he “couldn’t afford to” pay their complaints too much mind and also disclosed he felt the only thing he owed the public was a good performance.

“The only time I pay attention to audience mail is when it contains something I find possible to use for the show’s benefit,” Carson explained to Haley. “You can’t let an audience run your show for you. If you do, soon you won’t have any audience.”

And he felt the same about critics. Though he admitted that he didn’t like to be “zinged,” he said he continued doing what he believed to be best for the show despite them.