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That Weird, Wild Stuff: Johnny Carson’s Sly Late Night Cannabis Battle with NBC

Johnny Carson, the beloved silver-haired late night talk show host and cultural icon, never made his relationship with cannabis public domain. Instead, he preferred to slip in subtle jabs about marijuana in relation to the stars he profiled rather than speak about his own feelings towards the wacky tobacky.

Although Carson loved to poke fun and make jokes about marijuana, the producers at NBC didn’t find it all that funny. He was warned to keep it under wraps, and he generally agreed, keeping his own political commentary to a minimum.

But What Were Carson’s Thoughts on Cannabis?

Of course, impartiality has its drawbacks. When confronted by Alex Haley of Playboy Magazine in 1967 for deliberately avoiding controversy, Johnny shot back with “Well, bullshit! I just don’t feel that Johnny Carson should become a social commentator.”

After a few more coaxing questions, he eventually opened up a bit about his personal feelings on grass.

“I don’t put marijuana in the same bag with LSD or any of the hard narcotics,” he said, after discussing the unknown dangers of experimenting with hallucinogenic substances. “It’s just a mild stimulant, actually. And I think the laws against its use are repressive out of all proportion.”

A 1982 documentary, Johnny Goes Home, provided further insight into Johnny Carson’s upbringing during a completely different era for drug policy and propaganda. In the film, he returns to his hometown of Norfolk, Nebraska to reminisce on his childhood and revisit the cornfields, high school, and the old local movie theatre of the town he grew up in.

“As a kid, I did grow up in what was called an innocent age…We had heard about marijuana, we weren’t very sure what it was, but we found out because one day, right up on that screen, a picture played here in the late 30’s called Reefer Madness. We didn’t know what ‘reefer madness’ meant, either, but it had to do with the evils of marijuana smoking. Wayward girls would have terrible, wanton behavior.”

Rather than scaring him straight, as the film was intended to do, Carson was intrigued. “We didn’t know what that meant, but we wanted some of that.”

Carson’s Winking Tonight Show Cannabis Digs

They say in comedy that timing is everything, and despite NBC’s repeated warnings, the impish Tonight Show host couldn’t help himself and often made a sly joke or two if the opportunity arose.

Some of Carson’s funniest marijuana bits were playfully exchanged between him and his Tonight Show bandleader, Carl “Doc” Severinsen. Johnny loved to tease Doc, implying that the trumpet player and his band liked to sneak off and toke up. “Is that your bus outside with the marijuana window boxes?” he snickered during one Friday night opening monologue.

Another wisecrack arose in 1977 when President Jimmy Carter recommended that the possession of an ounce or less of cannabis be decriminalized. As outlined in Life Stories: Profiles From the New Yorker, Johnny Carson laughingly suggested to Doc, “The trouble is that nobody in our band knows what an ounce or less means.” Doc shot right back with “It means you’re about out!”

When Paul McCartney was famously arrested for marijuana possession in Japan, Carson made a few off-color jokes about how the Japanese were not known for their love of cannabis, and laughingly implied that the drug sniffing dog was sent to drug rehabilitation after getting a whiff of McCartney’s luggage.

Nowadays, cannabis references in the late night talk show universe are more commonplace. While the growing legalization movement and increased widespread acceptance of cannabis can be credited for the tonal shift, Carson’s sly quips and quick wit laid the foundation for talk show hosts to take a risk and ruffle the audience’s feathers when they least expected it.

Lead Image: AP Photo

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Lisa Rough

Lisa is a former associate editor at Leafly, where she specialized in legislative cannabis policy and industry topics.

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