Here's How Johnny Carson Once Caused A Toilet Paper Shortage

It started with a press release from a politician, as these things sometimes do. It was late 1973. Richard Nixon was still president, elected in a landslide the year before. The country faced a decent smorgasbord of problems: the war in Vietnam continued, the stock market took a drastic drop, prices were starting to rise unpredictably, and there was a growing concern over an energy crisis, particularly petroleum-based energy, particularly gasoline for cars. A rationing system was created. Logically, some people wondered what was next.

One of the people raising a red flag that year was Congressman Harold V. Froehlich (R-Wis.), according to Snopes. Lots of lumber products in the economy of Wisconsin, and therefore paper products. He determined that pulp paper was being exported to avoid taxes, causing a shortage of some commercial products. Like commercial toilet paper. He put out a couple of cautionary press releases — "The United States may" — emphasis added — "face a serious shortage of toilet paper within a few months," he said.

Toilet. It's one of those words that's guaranteed to at least get a smile in the setup for a joke. Johnny Carson was, according to Biography, the undisputed king of late-night TV in those days, used a TP reference in his opening monologue the night of December 19. Carson's monologue was the equivalent of must-see/water cooler TV in those days, and it was often topical.

It wasn't long before toilet paper supplies were wiped out

This evening's was no exception. As quoted by Mental Floss: "Of all the shortages we have ... You know what else is disappearing from the supermarket shelves? Toilet paper! Ah, ha, ha! You can laugh now! There is an acute shortage of toilet paper in the good old United States. We gotta quit writing on it." Funny stuff.

And the people who seemed to have missed the memo about "He's kidding, folks," began to buy the product in earnest. And in bulk. The shelves were cleared, people were hoarding, and jaws across the country dropped in disbelief. There was no actual shortage. Industry spokesfolks issued statements and interviews and tried to reassure panicking consumers. According to The Atlantic, the shortage lasted four months before the buying public calmed down, partly because the following January, Carson again addressed the tissue — er, issue — basically saying, "kidding, folks," and adding, "For all my life in entertainment, I don't want to be remembered as the man who created a false toilet paper scare." Too late.

It's an interesting study in how information morphs from "possible" to "probable" to "is," though not, apparently, a lesson that stuck.