New Book Reveals Johnny Carson's Least Favorite 'Tonight Show' Guest: Bob Hope

Photo: NBC/Getty

Richard Zoglin is the author of Hope: Entertainer of the Century, published this week by Simon & Schuster and cited by reviewers as the definitive biography of the comedy legend. In its current issue, PEOPLE singles it out as the book of the week. Here, is an excerpt from the work.

Viewers of The Tonight Show during the 1970s and '80s might have assumed that Bob Hope was one of Johnny Carson's favorite guests.

No one appeared on the show more often than the comedy legend, and his guest appearances clung to a familiar, almost comical ritual. He would walk out to the strains of his theme song, "Thanks for the Memory" — sometimes unannounced, supposedly a "surprise" guest.

After some banter with Johnny, sprinkled with Hope's obviously prepared gag lines, he would introduce a reel of taped highlights from his upcoming special. Then he would scoot away, always with somewhere urgent to go.

One of those who grew tired of the routine was Johnny Carson.

Hope and Carson were NBC's two biggest stars, and they had much in common. They shared the same studio, designed for Hope back in the 1950s and taken over by Carson in 1972 when he moved the show to California, but always available to Hope for the asking.

Their comedy styles were mirror images of each other: Carson did a more urbane and somewhat hipper version of Hope's topical monologues — joking commentary on the news, geared to the mass audience and carefully avoiding any political point of view. They were strikingly similar personality types as well: cool, remote and emotionally detached, ingratiating on the surface, but known intimately by only a few.

But Carson never warmed to Hope, either personally or professionally. The Tonight Show host would often mimic and pay homage to the classic comedians he adored — Jack Benny, Groucho Marx, George Burns. He almost never referenced Hope.

"Johnny admired Hope's place in show business," said Tonight Show producer Peter Lassally, "but he was not a great admirer of his work."

The coolness between them was in part a reflection of their rivalry. Carson was the only star at NBC who could challenge Hope for clout at the network. Yet Hope, a prime-time powerhouse for NBC since 1950, was still king, and Carson had to defer.

Carson resented the way Hope could virtually book himself on The Tonight Show whenever he had something to promote, which seemed to be all the time.

"We'd get a request," said Lassally, "and Johnny would go, 'Again?' And I'd say, 'Do you want to tell him no?' And he'd say, 'No. You can't turn down Bob Hope.' "

Hope would bring in highlight reels from his specials that went on interminably. "We'd say, give us two minutes," said Jeff Sotzing, Carson's nephew and a Tonight Show producer. "He'd bring in five minutes, cut together with a rusty knife. That was frustrating."

Once, after a Carson monologue that went over particularly well, Hope asked during a commercial break if he could use some of the laughter on his upcoming special. Flabbergasted, Carson said OK; later, on Hope's special, Johnny claimed he could hear Ed McMahon laughing at Bob's jokes.

Worst of all, from Carson's point of view, Hope was not a good guest.

He came armed with scripted jokes and rarely would engage in any genuine conversation.

"There was nothing spontaneous about Hope," said Andrew Nicholls, Carson's former co-head writer. "He was a guy who relied on his writers for every topic. Johnny was very quick on his feet. Very well read. He was a guy who learned Swahili, learned Russian, learned astronomy. He appreciated people who he felt engaged with the real world. There was nothing to talk to Bob about."

In the later years, as his hearing and eyesight were failing, Hope's guest appearances became even more of a trial. He often had trouble picking up Carson's questions, and Johnny had to stick precisely to the notes his staff gave him: if he asked a question out of order, Hope might answer a different question. Still, Hope kept coming on the show, his frailties on full display for the national TV audience.

"If I ever end up like that, guys," Carson said to his writer, "I want you to shoot me."

Carson retired in 1992. But Hope soldiered on, continuing to do specials for NBC into his 90s. Carson was one of the guests paying tribute on the 90th birthday special that NBC threw for Hope in May 1993. But Johnny agreed to do a monologue (the only one he ever did on TV after his retirement) only on the assurance that Hope would not do one as well.

Despite his frustrations with Hope, Johnny didn't want the master to be embarrassed.

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