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Do You Remember The Time Johnny Carson Caused A Toilet Paper Shortage?

It was a nighttime ritual for millions of Americans to watch the laugh-out-loud Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. Who would’ve thought he could have a significant impact on another daily ritual: their bathroom routine and the use of their favorite toilet paper? It all began as a joke that, on paper, seemed harmless enough. Read on to find out why Carson’s offhand remark ultimately caused concern, confusion, and a run on this household staple…

Photo: WikiMedia Commons

Carson On A Roll

Johnny Carson is renowned for establishing the format of the late-night talk show during his tenure on The Tonight Show. Viewers knew what to expect from the popular host: an opening monologue and comedy sketch, then appearances by guests, followed by performances from musicians and comedians. On average, Carson’s monologue consisted of 16 to 22 one liners, quips, observations, or jokes.

On December 19, 1973, Carson read aloud a newspaper clipping that claimed a toilet paper shortage was imminent and followed up the news flash with one of his tongue-in-cheek jokes. Truth be told, the newspaper article was about commercial-grade (not consumer-grade) toilet paper; on top of that, the joke fell flat. However, the public reaction that followed the misinformation caused a stir the television host never anticipated.

Photo: U.S. National Archives

No Shortage Of Angst About Shortages

In 1973, America was already dealing with an oil shortage that led to the rationing of electricity, heat, and, eventually, to reduced gas supplies. In addition, consumers were faced with a shortage of paper grocery bags, and too much rain had consumers crying over ruined onion crops.

Then along came Carson, beloved by many a late-night TV watcher, appearing on TV in homes across the country bearing the news that, “You know, we’ve got all sorts of shortages these days. But have you heard the latest? I’m not kidding. I saw it in the papers. There’s an acute shortage of…of toilet paper.”

The looming threat of too-little TP pushed people into hoarding. As national anxiety over a potential shortage increased, consumers made a run for the stores. Shelves were promptly emptied, causing a shortage where none had previously existed.

Carson, however, was not solely responsible for the paper panic. In December 1973, Wisconsin Congressman Harold V. Froelich warned the public of the shortage in a press release, adding that he hoped toilet paper wouldn’t need to be rationed. Froelich had received complaints from some of his constituents regarding a pulp paper shortage, but a shortage of this type of paper didn’t pose a threat to the toilet paper supply.

To ease the panic, the Scott paper company created and distributed videos demonstrating toilet paper production at their plants, but the paper panic continued.  After enjoying a Christmas hiatus, Carson returned as host of The Tonight Show, apologized for his remarks, and held himself accountable for the toilet paper hysteria – he even appeared a bit flushed with embarrassment. Weeks later, store shelves were completely restocked, and the paper panic was forgotten.