UPDATE (1/27/16) – See the end of this post for some important clarification about what we now know is an urban legend!
Johnny Carson’s name means little to most people under 30, but, for folks of a certain generation (especially comedians), he endures as the gold standard for the late night talk format. His was a Tonight Show that existed in a world very different from our own. Not only did he dominate for three decades in terms of his own popularity, but that popularity entitled him to a position as an entertainment power-broker that would be structurally impossible amid the media landscape of 2011 (or, for that matter, 2001).
Carson’s status as a maker and breaker of careers is well-documented. If Carson liked a comedian, said performer instantly had cache and, more importantly, a future in the business. If Carson didn’t like a comic, it was more likely than not that stand-up would be quickly forgotten.
Performers of all kinds who were among Carson’s favorites had a “home” at the Tonight Show. Frequent appearances kept them in the public eye—an invaluable resource in an era with no internet and little cable television.
This is the story of Carson turning on one of his own.
Unlike some of his well-remembered, but less-commercially-successful contemporaries, Johnny Carson wasn’t what you would call a soft touch. He could be downright chilly. He could also hold a grudge.
One of Carson’s most frequent guests during the first twenty years of his Tonight Show tenure was a comedian named Charlie Callas. Callas had an unorthodox style heavy on exaggerated faces, characters, and, especially, sound effects.
Carson became an enthusiastic fan of Callas’. Callas made almost fifty appearances on the Tonight Show doing traditional stand-up as well as more character-based bits.
It was the last of these appearances that was the most memorable.
On a 1982 episode of The Tonight Show, Callas appeared as he had so many times before. Suffice it to say that the routine didn’t go well. However, one of the charms Johnny Carson had as a performer was his impeccable ability to take material that didn’t work and to turn the ineffectiveness of comedy into comedy, often with hilarious results.
In this particular case, Carson chose to respond to Callas’ struggles with a whistle mimicking the sound a literal bomb would make when being dropped. Callas unfortunately misjudged the boundaries of his relationship and familiarity with Carson, and reacted by shoving Carson in a way intended to be comical.
Carson didn’t see it that way.
He immediately told Callas on the air that he would never be on the show again. Ever. Callas panicked and awkwardly asked Carson to reconsider, saying that he was only kidding. The confused audience fidgeted uncomfortably while all this transpired. Carson was undeterred.
He made good on his vow. Callas’ career continued on, aided by the fact that he was also good friends with Mel Brooks, but he would never again have the same visibility that he did during his Tonight Show heyday.
Johnny Carson hosted the Tonight Show for nearly another ten years. Charlie Callas would never be spoken of again.
UPDATE: Dave Gaysunas from Carson Entertainment has reviewed the episode in question and wrote to dispel the myth of Charlie Callas’ falling out with Johnny. While there are a few elements of truth in the story described above, most of it is the stuff of urban legend. Here’s Dave’s comment (which is also in the comments below this post), transcribed in full:
I saw this and had to look into it, and I can confirm that it is an urban legend folks. The last appearance by Charlie Callas with Johnny Carson was on 1982-09-21 and he performed a Stand up routine per usual, but it was not necessarily a bomb. It wasn’t exceptionally funny, however, it was pretty much a standard Charlie Callas routine. After the routine he sat with Johnny and Richard Harris and they discussed things, there was one moment where Charlie did a bit of physical comedy directed at Johnny but he didn’t shove Johnny, he was just doing his standard physical style of comedy and it ended in laughs, by both Charlie and Johnny. As for never being mentioned again or appearing on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson again, that too is an Urban Legend. Johnny mentioned Charlie with Donna Mills on 1984-09-26 and Charlie appeared a few more times on the show with assorted guest hosts. However, his last show with Johnny as host was the show mentioned above on 1982-09-21. It ended amicably and with laughter. Good story, but it’s officially a Myth.
Thanks to Dave for this clarification and explanation of what really happened!