We all know Johnny Carson as the man who made us laugh nonstop on The Tonight Show for 30 years straight, but behind the scenes, he had a completely different persona. The comedian apparently had a hard time connecting with people because he was “so socially uncomfortable.”
“He was the most famous person in America, yet there was something unknowable about him,” Peter Jones, director of the documentary Johnny Carson: King of Late Night, exclusively tells Closer Weekly in the magazine’s latest issue, on newsstands now. “He was this suave, debonair person on TV who was very nervous at parties because he was so awkward making small talk. He carried a deck of cards and would do magic tricks just to ease the tension.”
It wasn’t hard for Johnny’s colleagues to know that something was up with him. Once the cameras turned on, he became this big TV personality who everyone loved, but once they cut off, the Golden Globe-nominated host would act very differently.
“I felt sorry for Johnny in that he was so socially uncomfortable,” talk show host Dick Cavett once said. “I’ve hardly ever met anybody who had as hard of a time as he did.”
Johnny had a ritual that made him feel more comfortable in front of the cameras. “He never interacted with you before the show because he felt it would give away the energy,” Tom Dreesen, a stand-up comic who appeared on Johnny’s Tonight Show 50 times, tells Closer. “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.”
However, once it was time to film, Johnny came alive. “He would let his guests be the star when it was their turn,” Tom explained. “Sometimes he would feed you lines to let you shine. That’s how gracious and generous he was.”
In 1992, his career came to an end once he retired as the host of The Tonight Show. Johnny spent his last days traveling to foreign places on his boat and by 2005, he died of emphysema at 79. “There will never be another Johnny,” former Tonight Show writer Andrew Nicholls tells Closer. “No one with that sense of decency, comedy, restraint and broad appeal.”
For more on your favorite stars, pick up the latest issue of Closer Weekly, on newsstands now — and be sure to sign up for our newsletter for more exclusive news!