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Iconic Tonight Show host Johnny Carson is one of the most adored television personalities of all time. In his 30 years hosting the show, he interviewed more than 20,000 notable figures, including politicians — and even some presidents. Eventually, some fans began to wonder if he would consider running for office himself.

What did Carson say to the notion he would make a good politician? And what aspirations did he have other than becoming one of the most legendary entertainers of all time?

Johnny Carson as former president Abraham Lincoln during a 'Tonight Show' segment on June 18, 1982
Johnny Carson impersonating Abraham Lincoln | NBCU Photo Bank

Johnny Carson had other careers in mind before ‘The Tonight Show’

In 1967, Carson was interviewed by ROOTS author, Alex Haley, for Playboy magazine. It was a rare and relatively intimate glimpse below the surface of what he could say on The Tonight Show.

He was sometimes guarded with personal details and often declined to be spotlighted for interviews. Haley noted that Carson was initially “difficult to reach” in their conversation, but talking about his childhood in Nebraska got him to “open up.”

From there, Carson revealed he had other aspirations before he became a late-night hit. “I just can’t say I ever wanted to become an entertainer,” he disclosed before explaining it was something that came naturally to him. “People thought I was funny; so I kind of took entertaining for granted.”

After his time in the Navy, he deliberated between pursuing three careers: journalism, engineering, and psychiatry. But when he went to the University of Nebraska, he settled on radio and speech.

After landing on The Tonight Show in 1962, he seemed to have found his home. But Haley wanted to know, considering what a well-liked icon Carson was within five years of accepting his famous hosting spot, if there was any possible truth to a joke about him crossing over into politics.

Johnny Carson on pursuing public office: ‘No thanks!’

Johnny Carson as George Bush Sr. on 'The Tonight Show'
Johnny Carson impersonating George Bush Sr. | NBCU Photo Bank

During his interview with Haley, Carson spoke at length about serious issues that divided Americans at the time — like the Vietnam War. He articulated an understanding of the plights of some citizens in ways that were seemingly forward-thinking for his generation.

Eventually, Haley asked Carson point blank what he thought of remarks that he should run for Congress.

“No, thanks!” Carson replied. “… I wouldn’t have the slightest interest in running for public office. I’d rather make jokes about politicians than become one of them.”

Johnny Carson said, ‘Take me or leave me — but don’t bug me’


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Perhaps one reason Carson wanted to stay away from a political career was because he didn’t like to be bothered with certain things. He liked what he was doing at The Tonight Show and told Haley he wanted to stay where he was until the day he felt it was time to go.

“The public is fickle, and you can be replaced, no matter how good you are. Until that happens, I’m going to go on doing my best. I like my work and I hope you do, too — but if you don’t, I really couldn’t care less,” he explained.

“Take me or leave me,” he concluded, “but don’t bug me.”