What Sport Did Johnny Carson Play to Ease Hostilities?

Known for being private and pretty reclusive, Tonight Show host Johnny Carson didn’t often invite the press into his personal life. But in the late ’70s, he agreed to allow 60 Minutes inside his home for an intimate profile of him that was to air on television. Then, he changed his mind after a few days and didn’t want to continue filming.

However, he eventually invited correspondent Mike Wallace to come back and finish the interview. During their chat, he talked to Wallace about being a competitive perfectionist in his career, and playing a sport and an instrument as a kind of therapy in his downtime.

Johnny Carson in a black suit and tie, simulating a golf swing while standing in a spotlight
Johnny Carson | NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal/Getty Images

Johnny Carson was a competitive perfectionist

For the 60 Minutes profile of Carson that aired in 1979, he invited Wallace to his house. He talked a little about being a highly competitive perfectionist and watching tapes of old shows to keep improving his routine, which he started hosting in 1962.

But he also felt being too competitive could take the fun out of life. “There are hazards in that, of course. There are good qualities about it, and there are bad qualities,” he told Wallace. “You know, I mean, being too competitive, I think, sometimes is a bad thing.”

To clarify, he said he didn’t think determination to do well in a career was “so bad.”

“I think if you get too competitive in other things, outside of your work, that can be a hazard, because then you might not enjoy them as much as you should,” he explained.

“It’s like going out and playing tennis. I’ve found that most celebrities, especially in the public eye, have a far greater opinion of their game than their actual talent,” Carson elaborated. “They like to think they play better than they do.”

Johnny Carson played tennis for sport and therapy

While on the subject of the sport, Carson and Wallace hit the court for a game. The playfully bold host shared that he found the sport to be therapeutic because it helped him “get rid of aggressions.”

And he seemingly got plenty of practice with professionals on The Tonight Show and in his personal life. In 1985, Carson sold a home to tennis player John McEnroe and included six private tennis lessons as part of the deal. Notably, the Los Angeles Times reported that the host was “exhausted but happy” following his first lesson.

Johnny Carson on playing the drums: ‘It’s like beating something’

Tennis wasn’t Carson’s only therapeutic hobby. He also played his drums for Wallace during their chat for 60 Minutes and revealed his personal set was a gift to him from jazz drummer Buddy Rich. The Tonight Show host was a big fan of jazz, but that wasn’t his only reason for playing.

When Wallace noted that some people play the drums to take out hostilities, Carson agreed it helps. “It’s like beating something,” he explained while playing. “That’s all it is.”

Then, he suggested Wallace give it a try. “You ought to take this up, Mike,” he said. “You’ve got a lot of hostilities.”

Curious fans can also view a YouTube clip of a young Carson playing with a band on an early episode of The Tonight Show.

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