In September 1983 Joan Rivers was officially designated Carson's permanent guest host, a role she had been filling for more than a year. In 1986 she abruptly left for her own show, The Late Show (1986), on the then-new Fox Network. Carson first learned of the show when he saw her press conference on TV. When Rivers called Carson after the announcement, he was so furious at Rivers for failing to tell him personally before the press conference that he refused to take the call. He banned Rivers from his show, canceling her three remaining weeks as guest host. Carson never forgave her for leaving and never spoke to her again. When Rivers sent Carson flowers and a note after his son Ricky died in an accident, Carson sent them back. Rivers later said that she didn't want to tell Carson before the press conference because she was afraid FOX would cancel the deal if word leaked out. Carson said he felt betrayed, not because Rivers dared to compete with him, but because she wasn't honest with him about her intentions and didn't ask for advice and his blessing.
Five years after the final show aired, 10,000 taped episodes were transported to a working salt mine in Kansas, 54 stories underground, to protect them from deterioration. The average temperature of the salt mine is 68 degrees, with 40% humidity.
Many taped episodes, including appearances by Ayn Rand, John Lennon, and Paul McCartney, were lost in a fire at NBC's archive; only clips made for other programs have survived. NBC also recycled the original tapes of many episodes, without Johnny Carson's knowledge or approval. That stopped once he found out about it.
One of the best remembered, purely spontaneous moments was when guest Ed Ames demonstrated his tomahawk-throwing technique, aiming for a cowboy sketched onto a prop wall. The tomahawk struck the drawing right in the crotch, and the whole set broke into pandemonium. As the laughter began to subside, Johnny Carson remarked, "I didn't even know you were Jewish!" setting off more laughs.
There was always speculation about who would succeed Carson in the "Tonight" chair. A holding deal NBC had with David Letterman in 1980 fueled speculation that he might be in line to succeed Carson. Others presumed to be in line with Letterman at the time included such names as Richard Dawson and Burt Reynolds. But Carson himself seemed to be sending signals about what he though of Letterman. Unlike previous heirs apparent, whom Carson tended to freeze out, Letterman seemed to have ingratiated himself to Carson. And Carson even dropped Letterman's name on the show in his April 8, 1981 monologue.m
Starting in the early 1980s, gibberish words were usually dubbed over profanities. For example, one night when a Carnack the Magnificent sketch bombed, Carson exclaimed "Holy shit!" Viewers heard him proclaim "Holy palooga!"
There was a six-month gap between Jack Paar leaving "The Tonight Show" in 1962 and Johnny Carson replacing him as the show's host. In the interim, NBC had various celebrities guest host. During that time, musician Tommy Newsom was hired to play the alto sax in the band. He remained with the band, occasionally taking over bandleader duties when Doc Severinsen was away, until Carson retired in 1992. Newsom's tenure on "The Tonight Show" was three months longer than Carson's.
In 1980 a showdown with NBC president Fred Silverman had Johnny use his ultimate power: He threatened to quit the show. That was all he needed to wring an unprecedented deal out of NBC. In addition to more than $5 million a year in salary, Carson got series commitments from the network for his production company, and--most importantly--gained ownership over the "Tonight" show. From then on everything Carson did on the show belonged not to NBC, but to him. In total, the deal was estimated at more than $50 million. No one in television had ever received anything close to that amount. In addition, at the same time Carson got something else he wanted--the show was cut down from 90 minutes to an hour starting September 16, 1980.
When the show first aired, virtually everyone, including Johnny Carson, smoked on-camera. By the mid-'80s smoking openly on television was a thing of the past, but Carson's cigarette box remained on his desk until his final broadcast.
In the show's first ten years it was shot in New York, and Carson made yearly trips to Burbank, CA. Production moved to Burbank in May 1972. The show made three-week visits to New York in November 1972 and May 1973. The next time the show traveled to New York was May 1994, when Jay Leno had become host.
As Carson grew into the show, his comedy grew as well; he started dropping his early reliance on slightly risqué material for more substantial comedic commentary on the news of the day. Johnny's monologue became the country's most acutely observed political barometer. Johnny made fun of them: all anyone in politics or show business or public life.
Around 10 A.M. every morning before a show, Johnny Carson would call producer Frederick De Cordova and chat for a few minutes about what guests were to appear on the show that night and discuss a sketch rehearsal, if necessary. The telephone conversation would last about ten minutes, and it was the only contact Carson and De Cordova had before each show.
In 1987 Juliet Prowse was mauled by an 80-pound leopard while preparing to go on the show to promote Circus of the Stars #12 (1987). It took 30-40 stitches to reattach part of her left ear. The same animal had mauled her a few months earlier, while rehearsing for Circus of the Stars #12 (1987). That time, she required five stitches.
When NBC announced that Johnny Carson was joining "The Tonight Show," the press hounded him for interviews. Carson eventually provided the journalists with the following list of answers to use with the questions of their choosing: Yes, I did. Not a bit of truth in that rumor. Only twice in my life, both times on Saturday. I can do either, but prefer the first. NO. Kumquats. I can't answer that question. Toads and tarantulas. Turkestan, Denmark, Chile, and the Komandorskie Islands. As often as possible, but I'm not very good at it yet. I need much more practice. It happened to some old friends of mine, and it's a story I'll never forget.
The show was a "cash cow", many years grossing more than $100 million and providing anywhere from 15%-20% of the profits recorded by the entire NBC network. Carson's own income quickly set the standard for television performers, reaching $1 million before he had finished a decade on the air. As his hold on the country's bedtime habits grew, so did his hold on the NBC treasury. All the leverage in future contract negotiations lay with Johnny. In the mid-'70s he passed $3 million a year.
Over the years, a number of traditions were introduced into the opening of the show and Johnny Carson's monologue, including: Ed McMahon's call "Heeeeerrrre's Johnny!", Carson swinging an imaginary golf club at the end of the monologue, Carson pulling down the boom mike to announce "Attention K-Mart shoppers!", and Carson breaking into a soft-shoe dance as the band plays "Tea for Two." These last two were usually used when jokes failed.