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Johnny Carson: The Rolling Stone Interview

The iconic television host and comedian talks about life, late night and ‘Heeeeere’s Johnny!’

JOHNNY CARSON

Johnny Carson at the 51st annual Academy Awards on February 20th, 1979.

ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty

Back in the late fifties, when ABCTV’s Who Do You Trust? daytime quiz show was headquartered in New York’s Little Theater, host Johnny Carson and sidekick Ed McMahon were frequent patrons of nearby Sardi’s bar. On at least one occasion, the pair enjoyed an overlong recess with their favorite publican and returned to the studio fairly pie-eyed. During the afternoon taping, Carson sought to engage the show’s guests in his usual wry repartee, but his liquid lunch had all but derailed his train of thought, causing him to repeatedly ask the contestants if they were married, where they hailed from, etc. Realizing his own limitations, Carson managed to turn the dangerously muddled situation into an uproarious circular conversation that delighted the studio audience and compelled ABC to let the questionable program run. To this day, Carson says that it was one of his favorite moments before the camera; he had fashioned another victory from near failure and offended no one in the process–because he let everyone in on his predicament.

Whether he is dispensing sly double-entendres or topical barbs, Johnny disowns with his personable delivery, as if each hit-or-miss crack were a parlor trick between mutually pleased friends. His true close friends are extremely few in number, however, and as guarded in their comments about him as he is about every aspect of his personal life and private self.

For 17 years, he has been a mighty distraction in the nation’s bedrooms, keeping 15.5 million of us awake with his well-ordered antics. A true show-business legend, he has demonstrated unparalleled staying power in a medium characterized by shooting stars and swift burnouts. Yet fe