The following is an excerpt from Johnny Carson's Playboy interview, which was published in the December 1967 issue.
PLAYBOY: How did the break come from Who Do You Trust? to The Tonight Show?
CARSON: In my first four years on Who Do You Trust? I'd been offered all kinds of situation-comedy shows, but I had turned them down for one or another reason. And I had been doing guest spots, and I had filled in for Paar on Tonight, and I had done pretty well as his replacement. It was NBC that came up with the offer for me to replace Paar permanently. I turned it down, cold; not many people know that. I just wasn't sure I could cut it. I just didn't feel I could make that jump from a half-hour daily quiz show to doing an hour and forty-five minutes every night. I was doing fine in daytime TV; I was solid and secure. And I felt I'd be stupid to try to replace Jack Paar. But I kept sitting in for him. And then, some months later, NBC made their offer again; Jack was nearer to leaving the show. Somebody had to replace him. My manager got on me, insisting that I owed myself the opportunity of reaching the big night audience. And NBC said they would wait until I finished my contract on Who Do You Trust? While all this was going on, I was gradually building more confidence in myself -- the more I thought about it. Nobody could tell me; I had to tell myself I could do it. And finally I did; I accepted the offer. Everyone I knew had some advice after that. One group told me I was nuts to try replacing Paar, but that made me all the more determined. Others became instant producers and told me, "Here's how to handle that show...." That bugged me; I'd been through that in California and lost a good show because of it. I had cabdrivers, waiters, everybody giving me advice.
Two things were in the back of my head: One was that I wasn't going to be any imitation of Jack Paar; I was going to be Johnny Carson. The other thing was that I wanted the show to make the most of being the last area in television that the medium originally was supposed to be -- live, immediate entertainment. I knew it wasn't going to be any sauntering in and sitting at a desk and that's all. The main thing in my mind that I had going for me was that I'd done nearly everything you could in the industry -- but at the same time I knew that thinking that way was a danger. If I went out there with every critic waiting, and if I did everything I knew how to do, it would look like deliberate showing off, like trying to say, "Hey, look at me -- I'm so versatile!" I had to fight that natural temptation to go out there and make some big impression. Finally, I decided that the best thing I could do was forget trying to do a lot of preplanning. I didn't want to come out with something that smacked of a month's preparation, because I wasn't going to be able to keep that up every night. It all boiled down to just going out there and being my natural self and seeing what would happen.
PLAYBOY: What happened, of course, was one of the most remarkable successes in television history. But you mentioned going out there and being your natural self. Do you, really?
CARSON: Are we back to that -- my reputation for being cold and aloof, for being a loner and living in a shell and all that crap? Look, I'm an entertainer; I try to give the public what it wants while I'm on the screen, and I'm completely sincere about it. If I don't happen to be a laughing boy off the screen, that doesn't make me a hypocrite or a phony. In any case, what I am and what I do on my own, it seems to me, is nobody's business but mine. As long as I don't commit any crimes, you have no right to judge me except by my performance as a professional. On that level, you're welcome to think whatever you want about me. But there's only one critic whose opinion I really value, in the final analysis: Johnny Carson. I have never needed any entourage standing around bolstering my ego. I'm secure. I know exactly who and what I am. I don't need to be told. I make no apologies for being the way I am. I'm not going to run around crying that I'm misunderstood. I play my life straight -- the way I see it. I'm grateful to audiences for watching me and for enjoying what I do -- but I'm not one of those who believe that a successful entertainer is made by the public, as is so often said. You become successful, the way I see it, only if you're good enough to deliver what the public enjoys. If you're not, you won't have any audience; so the performer really has more to do with his success than the public does.
As for myself, I've worked ever since I was a kid with a two-bit kit of magic tricks trying to improve my skills at entertaining whatever public I had -- and to make myself ready, whenever the breaks came, to entertain a wider and more demanding public. Entertainment is like any other major industry; it's cold, big business. The business end wants to know one thing: Can you do the job? If you can, you're in, you're made; if you can't, you're out.
I knock myself out for the public -- five shows a week, ninety minutes a show; and most of every day goes to working on that ninety minutes. It takes more out of me than manual labor would, and I simply won't give any more of myself than that. I demand my right to a private life, just as I respect that right for everybody else. The Tonight staff knocks themselves out with me; then they go their way, I go mine, and we get along fine. I make the major decisions. That's my responsibility.
I'm doing the best I know how. I've put my whole life into whatever you see on that screen. But whenever the day comes that I think it's my time to go, I'll be the first to tell the network to get somebody else in that chair. And when I do, they'll be saying, "Who could follow Carson?" -- just like they said, "Who could follow Paar?" Well, believe me, somebody can -- and will. The public is fickle, and you can be replaced, no matter how good you are. Until that happens, I'm going to go on doing my best. I like my work and I hope you do, too -- but if you don't, I really couldn't care less. Take me or leave me -- but don't bug me. That's the way I am. That's me. That's it.