For 30 years, Johnny Carson was on TV nearly every evening, chatting with celebrity guests as host of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. However, behind the scenes, the talk show host was very “nervous” and “socially uncomfortable.”
‘The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson’ host was ‘nervous’ off-screen
Documentary filmmaker Peter Jones, who directed Johnny Carson: King of Late Night, told Closer Weekly in 2019 about the Tonight Show host: “He was the most famous person in America, yet there was something unknowable about him.”
While Carson made small talk look easy with his TV guests, he was anxious about social conversation in real life.
“He was this suave, debonair person on TV who was very nervous at parties because he was so awkward making small talk,” Jones continued. “He carried a deck of cards and would do magic tricks just to ease the tension.”
Fellow television host Dick Cavett agreed, telling Closer: “I felt sorry for Johnny in that he was so socially uncomfortable.”
“I’ve hardly ever met anybody who had as hard of a time as he did,” Cavett continued. Comedian Tom Dreesen, who performed several times on The Tonight Show, told the publication about Carson’s behind-the-scenes tactics to calm himself down before shows.
“He never interacted with you before the show because he felt it would give away the energy,” Dreesen said. “And he hated commercials because he didn’t have a lot to say. I would prepare things to talk about in between commercials so I could interact with him.”
Carson particularly disliked one guest on ‘The Tonight Show’
One guest that Carson was more or less forced to interact with: comedian Bob Hope. Richard Zoglin reported on their strained relationship in his 2014 book Hope: Entertainer of the Century — as republished in People.
Hope was Carson’s most dreaded visitor on his nightly talk show. The talk show got tired of Hope’s repetitive, overly-scripted bits.
“There was nothing spontaneous about Hope,” Carson’s writer, Andrew Nicholls, shared. “He was a guy who relied on his writers for every topic.”
The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson producer Peter Lassally told the author about getting Hope’s appearance requests.
“… Johnny would go, ‘Again?’ And I’d say, ‘Do you want to tell him no?’” the former producer recalled. “And he’d say, ‘No. You can’t turn down Bob Hope.’”
The appearances only got more tiresome for Carson as Hope’s focus began to worsen with age. Zoglin wrote:
In the later years, as his hearing and eyesight were failing, Hope’s guest appearances became even more of a trial. He often had trouble picking up Carson’s questions, and Johnny had to stick precisely to the notes his staff gave him: if he asked a question out of order, Hope might answer a different question. Still, Hope kept coming on the show, his frailties on full display for the national TV audience.
Apparently, after one of these awkward interactions with Hope on The Tonight Show, Carson told his staff: “If I ever end up like that, guys, I want you to shoot me.”