Geek Trivia

Johnny Carson Once Made A Joke On The Tonight Show That Led To A Shortage Of?

Light Bulbs
Toilet Paper
Birth Control
Which Computer Technology Derives Its Name From Greek Mythology?

Answer: Toilet Paper

In 1973, a peculiar set of circumstances led to a nationwide shortage of toilet paper in the United States that lasted for weeks and even caused toilet paper companies and stores to ration their reserves. Was it related to an energy crisis, a blight destroying America’s forest lands and paper industry, or even war rationing? It was none of the above that drove the shortage, but a comedy of errors topped off by a joke made by a legitimate comedian instead.

In early December of that year, a Wisconsin congressman, Harold V. Froehlich, released a press statement talking about paper pulp shortages (a problem brought to his attention by his constituents). Although the shortage was not an immediate threat to the toilet paper industry, Froehlich mentioned in the press release, perhaps in a bid to get people outside the paper industry to care about the matter, that America might be facing a toilet paper shortage if the lack of adequate paper pulp supplies wasn’t taken care of.

The Tonight Show staff saw the press release and the specter of a toilet paper shortage was incorporated into a brief Tonight Show joke. A few days after the press release, Carson quipped, “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 paper. There’s a shortage of toilet paper.”

Given the national climate at the time and the real shortages that many consumers faced, the joke wasn’t received as such, but was instead taken quite literally at face value. Consumers panicked and there was a national run on toilet paper. In the coming days, worried consumers cleared the shelves of stores coast-to-coast so rapidly that they outpaced toilet paper production schedules and the companies themselves were left rationing their stock.

A few weeks after the joke had gotten out of hand, Carson apologized on air for the panic the quip had caused and, since then, the incident has been used to demonstrate how quickly a rumor can start and escalate out of control.