For anyone who grew up in the 60s and onwards, there is no doubt whatsoever that Johnny Carson was the absolute king of late night talk shows. During his absolutely massive 30-year career as the host of The Tonight Show, Carson set the gold standard for all talk show hosts to come, thanks to his easygoing, conversational interview style, absolutely flawless sense of comedy, and his natural charm and charisma.
It wasn't just that Carson was a great interviewer either. The man was a gifted comedian that knew exactly how to read an audience, and his career in both standup comedy and sketch comedy reflect that just as well as his talk show hosting.
Whether it was as his most famous characters like Carnac the Magnificent or Art Fern, or in the numerous sketches found on his side venture, The Johnny Carson Show, his comedic stylings knew just how to tickle our funny bones and get everyone to laugh. He even showed up on an early episode of The Simpsons to show a new generation of comedians exactly how it's done!
Of course, comedy is a pretty subjective thing, and every comedian eventually runs into a tough crowd that they have to work extra hard to please. While I'm sure Johnny had plenty of encounters with a rough audience in his time, I'm also pretty sure he'd say that the roughest was the time when his act led to him getting roughed up by mafiosos...
The year was 1970 and Johnny Carson was at Jilly’s Saloon on West 52nd Street and Eighth Avenue in New York City, a bar that was a favorite of not only him, but names like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Judy Garland. He had been drinking heavily and telling plenty of jokes. In particular, Carson biographer Henry Bushkin mentions that “An attractive brunette at the bar caught Carson’s eye, and he was doing his considerable best to convince her to leave with him.”
Unfortunately for Carson, not only did the attractive brunette at the bar have a boyfriend who soon showed up to pick her up, but said boyfriend was a wiseguy, and I don't mean a heckler in the crowd. No, he was a member of the Italian mafia, and he was none too happy to find his "groomar" being hit on by Johnny Carson.
The mafioso and his goons grabbed Carson and threw him down a flight of stairs, before the saloon's owner, Jilly Rizzo, intervened and prevented a more serious beatdown. However, the unnamed wiseguy was still furious, and he ended up having a hit put out on the most famous man in late night television.
Carson was understandably terrified by this development, and ended up holing himself up in his hotel room for three days, missing three tapings of The Tonight Show. In the end, executives from NBC cut a deal with crime boss Joseph Colombo, who had the hit rescinded in exchange for receiving coverage of the upcoming Italian-American Civil Rights League rally.
We're willing to bet Carson was pretty careful about who he tried to take home after that. At least sometimes.
Did you know Johnny Carson had a hit put out on him by the mafia? Share this story with anyone who loves this classic TV icon.