Johnny Carson Once Threatened to Quit ‘The Tonight Show’: Here’s Why

by Joe Rutland

For generations, Johnny Carson was “The King of Late Night Television” on NBC. Carson, though, almost quit “The Tonight Show” altogether.

According to former Carson lawyer and longtime friend Henry Bushkin, things got so serious about Carson leaving that ABC entered the picture. Well, how ABC entered the picture is part of the story, according to an article in The Hollywood Reporter. Bushkin was in the Carson world until 1988 when Carson fired him over a sale of Carson Enterprises.

It is no secret that Carson had marriage issues in his life. Heck, he joked about them all the time. During his marriage to Joanna Carson, they often split up only to reconcile. Sometimes, it happened after one night away. This happened just before Bushkin was heading to New York for contract negotiations in 1979 between Carson and NBC executives.

The night before, though, Carson told Bushkin something that he wasn’t expecting.

Johnny Carson Wanted Out Of His Contract With NBC

According to Bushkin, Johnny Carson asked, “You’re going to New York next week to see Mike Weinblatt?”

At the time, Weinblatt was president of NBC Entertainment.

“Yeah, it’s time to get contract extension talks rolling,” Bushkin said

“You need to tell him that I won’t be renewing,” Carson said. “In fact, you need to tell him that once we do this year’s anniversary show, I’m going to quit ‘The Tonight Show.’ I’m out.”

Buskin said he pressed Carson to explain.

“I’m tired,” Carson said. “Seventeen years is enough. I’m 54 years old. Can you imagine me doing this when I’m in my 60s? That would be absurd!”

Henry Bushkin Goes To Meet With NBC TV Executives

Bushkin went to New York and passed along Johnny Carson’s wishes. Weinblatt and NBC President Fred Silverman were not happy.

In April 1979, word began getting out, according to Bushkin, about Carson wanting to quit. ABC and CBS were looking to take advantage of the situation. Enter Edgar Rosenberg, who was comedian Joan Rivers’ husband. Apparently, Carson had received a call from Rosenberg whom Carson considered both a friend and close confidante.

“Henry,” said Johnny, “Inspector Clouseau just called. Says it’s important.”

Bushkin said he phoned Rosenberg, who, in a hushed voice, said, “I’m acting today in my capacity as an emissary of the alphabet people, who want to discuss a possible post-peacock throne.”

ABC Courts Carson Through Joan Rivers’ Husband

Johnny Carson was forbidden to talk with NBC’s competitors while his contract was in effect. But Bushkin managed to find himself at the home of Rosenberg and Rivers later on. When he arrived, three ABC executives were there waiting. A lengthy discussion took place with ABC promising the moon and beyond.

According to Bushkin, in early 1980, an arbitrator ruled that Carson’s seven-year personal services time didn’t reset after signing a contract extension. In other words, Carson was a free agent and could leave NBC whenever he wanted to do so.

Now that the contract issue had been settled, Carson no longer held a deep resentment around hosting “The Tonight Show,” Bushkin said.

ABC had made a compelling offer. Carson, though, was no longer angry with NBC. Bushkin said he asked Creative Artists Agency and its managing partner, Michael Ovitz, for advice. Carson, though, needed help around determining which network to select.

Lew Wasserman Helps Carson Make Choice To Stay at NBC

He turned to Lew Wasserman, chairman of MCA Universal, regarded as Hollywood’s shrewdest, most insightful agent. Wasserman’s opinion? People have their viewing habits. Don’t make them change them.

On May 2, 1980, a network delegation headed by Silverman arrived at Carson’s Bel-Air home. NBC offered Johnny Carson a salary set at $25 million a year. For that, he was on the air one hour a night, three nights a week, 37 weeks a year, with 15 weeks off.

So Carson stayed with NBC, right until the very end when the network chose Jay Leno over David Letterman to fill Carson’s role.

The decision did not suit Carson at all. In fact, he never appeared on Leno’s “The Tonight Show.” But Carson made two appearances on Letterman shows and would fax over jokes that Letterman would, at times, find a spot for in his monologue.

You can surmise who “The King” wanted to really sit in his spot on NBC.