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"Smile Asshole"

carson story

Johnny erupts on his photographer during a photo shoot at the Playboy Mansion in 1980.

Johnny Carson had style, elegance, class. His sleek and fashionable look sparked brought about the creation of Johnny Carson Apparel. As part of selling his clothing line, Johnny had to do several modeling shoots a year to debut the new seasonal outfits. Problem was, Johnny absolutely despised posing for pictures.

Cracking jokes with an ear-to-ear smile one moment, and throwing a profanity-filled tirade the next—Johnny's mood was always unpredictable. Henry usually had a pretty good barometer of when the Carson volcano was active, but even he could be caught off-guard.

Johnny didn't mind the photo shoots when Ron Harris was his photographer. The outfit changes were quick, he worked fast, and the girls who employed were straight up knockouts. But Ron sold his exercise show Aerobicize to Showtime, his time became so valuable that he became hard to book. So they had to go with a different photographer—which brings us to...

Johnny Carson at his Tonight Show desk

The Playboy Mansion, Los Angeles 1980.

Normally you would think most guys would love the chance to hang out at this famed locale—but not Johnny. The changing room was in a cabana, the shoots with this new guy took much longer— the whole experience in Johnny's eyes was borderline unbearable.

Johnny posed by the pool, leg up on a chair, coat swung over his shoulder. The young female Photographer's Assistant dabs the sweat off Johnny's forehead with a handkerchief. It's fucking blazing hot.

"Can we get a couple fans out here please? We're starting to see some sweat under the arms," says Bruce, the photographer. Blonde hair, early 30's, takes himself way too seriously.

Henry is off to the side, watching. Johnny meets his stare…yikes, if looks could kill. ‘Smile, Johnny," Bruce says.

"What?" Johnny turns to Bruce, who puts down his camera momentarily.

"Could you smile for us please?"

"FUCK YOU! You son of a bitch!" Carson throws his jacket on the ground and storms off. "We're fucking done here!"

Henry hurries after, "Jesus, Johnny what the Hell?" Johnny Carson whips around. Bruce, mouth agape, still frozen in horror.

"Smile? Fuck that cocksucker I don't need this shit. It's over!"

That would be the very last photo shoot for Johnny Carson Apparel. I suppose, if you had to perform in front of millions every night on television, it might be annoying to have some photographer telling you to smile like a trained seal. But as you will come to find out, these outbursts were just part his person. He could be a charming, generous, warm person—and the very next moment a…well, a prick.

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