The Untold Truth Of Johnny Carson's Late Night Guest Hosts

Johnny Carson, to this day, remains for many the undisputed king of late night talk shows, something a boy born and raised in Corning, Iowa in 1925, never could have imagined, nor could anyone else at the time (via Biography). Carson had joined the U.S. Navy in 1943 where he became a communications officer who decoded encrypted messages. He was called into battle in 1945, but never went because the war ended that year. 

He would go on to study radio and speech at the University of Nebraska before becoming a writer on "The Red Skelton Show" for a time. Meanwhile, according to Deadline, the first late night show, "The Faye Emerson Show," wasn't broadcast until 1949. It wouldn't be until 1962 that Carson would replace Jack Paar as the host of "The Tonight Show" which, in time, Carson's name would become synonymous with (via Biography).

Seventeen years later, according to The Hollywood Reporter, Carson wanted to quit "The Tonight Show" even though he got around 7 million viewers a night and each year NBC made $50 million off his show. Through talks about moving over to ABC and renegotiations with NBC, Carson agreed to continue on "The Tonight Show" for $25 million. The other perks? His shows would only be an hour instead of an hour and a half, and he would work only three nights a week, 37 weeks a year. This would make guest hosts a significant part of late night in the Carson era.

Jay Leno

Jay Leno, who would eventually take over from Johnny Carson in 1992, first appeared on "The Tonight Show" as a guest on March 2, 1977. With various popular appearances on both Carson's show and "Late Night with David Letterman," he ended up becoming permanent guest host in September of 1987 (via Baltimore Sun). And it would be his status as permanent guest host that would lead to his ultimate ascendancy to "The Tonight Show" throne. According to Rick Ludwin, the Vice President of NBC from 1983 to 2012, in People, "Jay Leno had just signed a new deal [as permanent guest host] that guaranteed Jay 'The Tonight Show,' whenever Johnny [Carson] stepped down." 

Part of the decision on picking Leno, also, had been the drop in ratings "The Tonight Show" had suffered because of shifting demographics. Arsenio Hall's show had begun to cut into their ratings with younger audiences, so NBC saw that Leno would have a chance at wrestling some of those ratings back to "The Tonight Show" (via New York Times).

Joan Rivers

Joan Rivers would fill the role of permanent guest host for Johnny Carson in the early 80s (via Time). Biography writes at the age of 31, Rivers had been told on numerous occasions that she was washed up and it wouldn't be until she was booked by Carson that her career trajectory took off. She gives credit to Bill Cosby for introducing her to "The Tonight Show" bookers and eventually she came on the show, not as a stand-up comedian, but sitting with Carson on the couch as a comedic writer. The chemistry between Carson and Rivers was one of a kind, which led to her making around 100 guest appearances, writing for the show, and booking other high profile gigs.

Yet that close relationship would not last when Rivers left the permanent guest host spot for her own competing late night show on the brand new Fox Network. As Biography tells it, before Rivers' show was announced, the news leaked and, even though Rivers had tried to contact Carson beforehand, she couldn't. When she finally did, he hung up on her. Rivers states, "For years, I thought that maybe he liked me better than the others. But I think it was a question of, 'I found you, and you're my property.' He didn't like that as a woman, I went up against him." She was banned from the show (and Jay Leno's subsequent iteration) until Jimmy Fallon had her on his premiere episode (via Biography).

Joey Bishop

Best known as the "hub of the big wheel" that was the Rat Pack (according to Frank Sinatra), Joey Bishop was the comedian and entertainer who often arranged most of the comedic material for the group when they would perform in the late 1960s at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. Yet, outside of boozing and womanizing with Sinatra, Martin, Davis Jr., and the rest, he ended up hosting "The Tonight Show" 177 times (via The Hollywood Reporter). (This did not include the times that he guest hosted for Johnny Carson's predecessor, Jack Paar.)

Meanwhile, as reported at the Television Academy Foundation, ABC was constantly trying to steal some of Carson's ratings in that time slot, so they looked to Bishop to fill the role since he was part of the beloved Rat Pack and he had a four-year run with "The Joey Bishop Show"–a sitcom where he played a talk show host. He was a known quantity. The new "The Joey Bishop Show" would run from 1967-69 with Regis Philbin as his announcer and co-host. The show didn't ultimately accomplish what it set out to do, in part because the writers of the show said, "Joey did not have a definable persona to write for and things often got testy." 

Bishop passed away from multiple causes in 2007 (via The Hollywood Reporter).

John Davidson

John Davidson is perhaps best known by certain generations as the host of the game show, "Hollywood Squares," which featured other "The Tonight Show" guest hosts like Joan Rivers and McLean Stevenson. Mel Magazine states that up-and-coming celebrities viewed coming on "Hollywood Squares" as comparable and just as invigorating to their career as going on "The Tonight Show" was. 

Davidson, before his stint on "Hollywood Squares," wound up guest hosting for Johnny Carson in the late 70s, sometimes with his pet horse in tow (via The Singing Entertainer). He would end up guest hosting 87 times before he moved on to hosting game shows in the 80s (via The Carson Podcast).

According to a piece for New Hampshire Magazine, once 1990 hit, John Davidson became an avid traveler attempting to find ways to make music and found himself busking to pay for room and board at times. He played the wizard in the Broadway show, "Wicked," and continued to write and play his music. 

Bob Newhart

Bob Newhart is one of the oldest stand-up comedians still living (as of 2021). The New York Times reported Newhart gave us the modern conception of the stand-up comedy special when his 1960 album, "The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart," became a blockbuster hit that sold more than a million units, hit #1 on the charts, and won a Grammy over greats like Frank Sinatra. Newhart is most known for his two television shows, "The Bob Newhart Show" and "Newhart," which got him numerous Emmy nominations (but never a win until he guest starred on "The Big Bang Theory") (via Britannica).

Newhart and Johnny Carson were good friends and neighbors and had the love of pranks in common (via People). According to WBUR, Newhart would end up hosting "The Tonight Show" 87 times. As relayed in The Wrap, he never really wanted the position even though he hosted at a time when they were preparing some of the guest hosts to possibly take over for Carson. He told Craig Ferguson on "The Late, Late Show" that "At the end of the three weeks [on "The Tonight Show"], I was a blithering idiot ... It is the toughest job in the world."

David Brenner

From January 8, 1971, David Brenner had over 150 appearances on "The Tonight Show" and nearly half of them were as a guest host for Johnny Carson (via The New York Times). Brenner was known for his observational comedy, which according to his friend and fellow stand-up comic Richard Lewis, in Vulture, made him "the godfather of hip, observational comedy." Like many stand-up comedians, making it on "The Tonight Show," let alone hosting it, became a sure fire way to make yourself a name in the business. 

The Lincoln Journal Star reported that Brenner would go on to guest host "The Tonight Show" 70 times. He would receive his own late show called "Nightlife" in 1986, only to see it cancelled a year later due to bad rankings against Johnny Carson and Joan Rivers' highly promoted Fox late night show. 

He would go on to have small successes here and there and continued comedy until the day he died in 2014. The family of Brenner said, "In David's final request, he asked that $100 in small bills be placed in his left sock 'just in case tipping is recommended where I'm going'" (via The New York Times).

McLean Stevenson

McLean Stevenson played Lt. Colonel Henry Blake on the long-running television show, "M*A*S*H," from only 1972 to 1975, because he got tired of getting lower billing than he had initially been promised. The show writers, once he left the show, wrote a shocking plotline where "Blake was reassigned and his plane was shot down over the Sea of Japan" (via The New York Times). 

As stated at Nostalgia Central, Stevenson found that he was a popular guest on "The Tonight Show" and guest hosted for Johnny Carson 58 times. However, once he was no longer on "M*A*S*H," opportunities began to dry up. He starred in a handful of sitcoms–some created by TV producer Norman Lear–that never had long runs. It seemed the last time his public persona was known on any major level was as a celebrity guest on "Hollywood Squares" with host John Davidson. His star quickly descended once the 1990s hit and he died in 1996 (via The New York Times).

Jerry Lewis

Jerry Lewis is considered, for better or worse, one of the most significant comedians of all time. His sheet of accomplishments includes everything from Las Vegas gigs where he and Dean Martin would do a type of variety show, to filming on both sides of the camera–including his starring role in Martin Scorsese's "The King of Comedy"–and his charity work through the classic Jerry Lewis telethons (via The New York Times). 

When Jerry Lewis guest hosted for Steve Allen and Jack Paar, his "The Tonight Show" ratings had risen above both of them. So ABC decided to give him his own show, which cost $40 million dollars and only lasted a few months. He would go on to have other short-lived television shows afterwards as well (via Newsday). Sometimes it seems like there can be too much of a good thing. He would, however, go on to guest host 52 times during the first 21 years of Johnny Carson's run on "The Tonight Show." 

David Letterman

David Letterman hosted "Late Night with David Letterman," which was on right after Johnny Carson's "The Tonight Show" starting in 1982. This arrangement had been set up after Letterman had done a morning show that got cancelled and NBC payed him $20,000 a week to stay loyal to NBC and to guest host for Johnny Carson. So he did. 

Once Carson renegotiated his contract, part of the stipulations of Carson's control over the show was to have David Letterman host the late show directly following him (via The New York Times). Another The New York Times article reported that in the battle for the throne that happened between Letterman and Jay Leno, Letterman thought he was Carson's definite replacement. When they ultimately replaced Carson with Leno, Carson told Bob Wright, one of the execs: "It's going to be a shame if you lose David, Bob." Even Carson seems to have chosen Letterman to replace him, but that was not meant to be.

In many ways, the work of guest hosting for both Jay Leno and David Letterman were for the same reason: a claim to the throne. One was bound to be let down. Carson's parting words to Letterman were: "I'd probably walk ... I'm not telling you to do that, David. But if you're asking me what I'd do, if I had been treated like that, I would probably walk" (via The New York Times).

Sammy Davis Jr.

According to Washington Post, the second of three members of the Rat Pack–the third being Frank Sinatra himself–to guest host for Johnny Carson was Sammy Davis Jr., one of the great African American crooners. However, he was a complicated figure who received a lot of flack for supporting Richard Nixon's bid for office in 1972. Daily Mail reports that Davis already drew the ire of many in the black community when he became religiously Jewish and had relationships with white women. 

Nonetheless, he guest hosted "The Tonight Show" 24 times and became the first black man to host a late night talk show when he did so on April 19, 1965 (via His guests for that specific show were Art Carney, Diane Sands, and Johnny Brown. In January of 1966, Davis would go on to start this own show, "The Sammy Davis Jr. Show" which would last 15 episodes before being cancelled by NBC this was in part because of some contract issues with his variety specials at ABC (via Once again, showing the bad luck that surrounded the guest hosts of Johnny Carson's "The Tonight Show" when starting their own late night programs. 

Harry Belafonte

In 1968, six years after Johnny Carson took the reins of "The Tonight Show," the singer, actor, and activist, Harry Belafonte guest hosted for a week from February 5-9, according to People's World. This would be the very first week-long guest on the show and it was significant for it to be Belafonte in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement. When he was first asked to do the gig, he said, "I said no at first, because I couldn't do what Johnny did. I can't tell jokes and what not," but his daughter, Gina Belafonte, stated on NBC's documentary, "The Sit-In," "If it wasn't going to be in an inclusive way that he envisioned both racially, but I think most importantly artistically, let alone politically ... he didn't want that to be part of his legacy" (via People's World).

Indie Wire, reporting on the new documentary on Belafonte's week of hosting "The Tonight Show," noted that his line up of guests were significant, including Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.–mere months before both were assassinated–and black entertainers like Lena Horne, Nipsey Russell, and Bill Cosby. The week of broadcasts was a "ratings success, Belafonte's week-long 'Tonight Show' hosting engagement offered a very necessary panoramic view of an America that was on the cusp of transformative social change" (via Indie Wire).

Richard Dawson

Richard Dawson was, for a time, everyone's favorite game show host on "Family Feud." A Facebook post on Dawson's page told about the show's importance to the game show realm during the 60s and 70s: "At the height of its success, 'Feud' was both the number-one daytime show and the number-one syndicated television show, becoming one of the most popular game shows ever" (via CNN). It aired 11 times a week and had 20 special celebrity primetime editions during his run as host. 

Dawson got his start in London as a stand-up comedian before he came to America and got jobs in film and television. (The other well-known show that Dawson starred on was "Hogan's Heroes," which he got cast in because of his role as a military prisoner in the film "King Rat.") It would be this persona that would make him the highest paid game show host of all time. 

It would also make him ripe for guest hosting on "The Tonight Show." He would host the show for a week and was considered as a replacement during Carson's near retirement. 

Kermit the Frong

But which guest host could receive this level of praise from the Daily Intelligencer: "It has become obvious that one of Carson's guest hosts about a month ago was so delightful, so well received, and so accommodating to the network officials and crew of the talk show that Carson felt he was shown up" (via Jim Henson's Red Book)? Well, of course, the one and only Kermit the Frog, of "The Muppets" fame! He, of course, had his loyal Muppet sidekicks with him on the show, which featured Vincent Price, Bernadette Peters, singer Leo Sayer, and veterinarian Dr. Charles Fox. 

According to Time, Kermit the Frog and his compatriots were introduced to the world on January 30, 1974 in their pilot episode. Yet Kermit's first appearance on television was nearly 20 years earlier on "Sam and Friends" which was created by Jim Henson and were only five minute episodes (via National Museum of American History).