December 2, 2022

Inside The Rift Between Johnny Carson And Wayne Newton

For decades, millions of Americans tuned in every night to watch “The Tonight Show,” hosted from 1962 to 1992 by Johnny Carson (per Britannica). Unlike later late-night talk show hosts, Carson avoided the snark and hostility that informs similar shows today. Sure, he had insult-comic Don Rickles on the show frequently, and sometimes Carson’s opening monologue was pointed, but in the main, the Iowa-born entertainer’s style of humor was mostly inoffensive.

Fans may be surprised to realize, however, that when the cameras weren’t rolling, Carson was kind of a jerk. At least, that’s how his former attorney, Henry Bushkin, described him (via National Post). “[Carson was] a lonely, loveless alcoholic whose black moods terrified everyone around him,” the publication notes, adding later that, “in any gathering he was the first to be offended, the likeliest to sulk, the quickest to fire a colleague for some minor infraction.”

Wayne Newton, by contrast, was described to The Washington Post in 1980 as “an all-around good guy.” Nevertheless, he ran afoul of Johnny Carson at some point in his career, and the two men almost came to blows because of it, according to “Today.”

Wayne Newton’s schtick

Wayne Newton and his lounge act have been associated with Las Vegas for over 60 years now, getting his start as a high school student all the way back in 1959. As Billboard reports, when he had a break between performances he couldn’t go into the casino because he was too young, and he was paid so little that he couldn’t afford to eat at the property’s restaurants.

Newton was and is the opposite of other popular crooners of his day who were known to show up in Vegas casinos, such as Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin. His voice was (and is) high, he was (and is) short of stature. He has never been the traditional standard of handsomeness expected of male entertainers. These things and others would become fodder for humor, but they also became a source of speculation and jokes about his sexuality in particular. And when Johnny Carson started cracking such jokes, Newton wasn’t here for it.

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‘These jokes about me will stop, and they’ll stop now’

Carson’s humor usually wasn’t antagonistic or hostile, but at some point, he more or less turned negative toward Newton. “What happened is I had done his show many, many times and considered him a friend of mine. And all of a sudden, a whole new brand of humor started to be displayed by him. And he was in that humor questioning my masculinity,” Newton said in an interview with Larry King (via the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2007).

The two men almost came to blows. As Newton tells it, he made his way to Carson’s office in Burbank, California to “talk things over” with him directly. Carson’s producer, who was in the office at the time, promptly beat a hasty retreat while Newton unloaded on Carson. “These jokes about me will stop, and they’ll stop now or I’ll kick your a**,” Newton says he told Carson.

The “Danke Schoen” singer said that Carson’s dislike of him continued for another decade, culminating when Newton filed a libel suit for claiming that he was in some way connected to organized crime. Newton won that suit, although the judgment was later thrown out. Regardless, he blamed Carson. “All of that emanated from Johnny Carson’s influence,” he said. Maybe Newton is crying all the way to the bank; Celebrity Net Worth pegs him at $50 million.