After hosting The Tonight Show for three decades, Johnny Carson, now 73, is rarely seen in public. But Ed McMahon, his trusty sidekick all those years, still knows something about the private Carson.
“Johnny has really shut himself off,” says McMahon, 75. “He’s in full retirement.” McMahon lives in Beverly Hills, just a 35-minute drive from Carson, who is ensconced in Malibu with his fourth wife, Alex, 48. But McMahon has seen his old boss only a handful of times since 1992’s last show. “We talk on the phone every once in a while,” says McMahon. “He stays with his tennis cronies, goes boating and is very happily married. He’s content.”
As is McMahon, who continues to make commercials (he seems to have weathered the controversy surrounding his involvement as a pitchman for publishing sweepstakes) and has various TV projects in the works. The former carnival barker signed on as Carson’s announcer for the 1958 quiz show Who Do You Trust?, kicking off a 34-year run as second banana. It’s a career he revisits in his autobiography For Laughing Out Loud: My Life and Good Times (Warner Books). In the following excerpt, McMahon—who is married to third wife Tarn, 44, a fashion designer, and who has three grown children and a 12-year-old, Katherine Mary, who is adopted—offers surprising insight into the enigmatic Carson. “Off-camera, we were pals,” says McMahon. “But there was always the underlying element that he was the boss.”
Johnny Carson was very much the same person the day we met in 1958 as when we did the last of thousands of shows together in 1992. He was direct, polite and private. When I walked into his Manhattan office to be interviewed for the announcer job on Who Do You Trust?, he was standing with his back to the door, looking out the window at the Shubert Theatre across the street. Finally he turned to face me. “So, Ed,” he asked, “what are you doing down in Philadelphia?”
I told him about all the shows I was announcing. He nodded, then asked, “Where’d you go to school?”
“Catholic University,” I said, “in Washington, D.C. I studied speech and drama.”
“That’s great,” he said. “Very interesting. Hey, thanks for coming up. I really appreciate it.” We shook hands and I walked out of the office. I’ve waited for elevators for a longer time than this meeting took.
For three weeks I didn’t hear from anyone. Then Carson’s producer Art Stark called and said casually, “Ed, we’d like you to wear suits because we want to emphasize your size. The fact that you’re a big guy, you know, will play well against Johnny.”
I was a little confused. “What are you talking about?” I asked. “Didn’t anybody call you?” he continued. “You got the job. You start Monday.”
Johnny Carson was the most facile, accomplished man I’d ever met. He could do a little bit of everything. When we would talk in his dressing room he might be drumming with two pencils or rolling a half-dollar between his fingers. We had an expert fly caster on the show try to drop a lure inside a tire, and he was so nervous he missed—so Johnny showed him how to do it.
On the air I became the big guy who drank and ate too much. I was “Big Ed, who is the announcer on this show only because he never passed the bar. In fact, he never passed any bar.” And just off-camera, Johnny was always doing little things to cause me problems, like setting the script on fire. Some days a line like “Nabisco crackers are so good you can eat the whole package” was reduced to something like “Nabisco crackers. Eat ’em.”
In 1962, Carson was named to replace Jack Paar as host of The Tonight Show.
The afternoon of our first show, as we were going down to the stage, I said, “John, I want to discuss something with you. How do you see my role down here tonight?”
“Ed,” he told me, “I don’t even know how I see my own role. Let’s just go down there and entertain the hell out of them.” That was the only advice I ever got from him.
About the only thing I can think of that didn’t change at all from our first show to our last show was my introduction of Johnny Carson: “Heeeeere’s Johnny!”
Preparing for the first show, I was trying to think of an opening that would set me apart from other announcers. Then, literally about five minutes before we went on the air, it came to me. I used to introduce Robert Pierepoint on the NBC radio show Monitor, and I would elongate the r, Rrrrrobert Pierepoint. So I decided to do the same thing. And it stuck. On my way to the studio the very next day, people recognized me and imitated that phrase. But in all the years Johnny and I were together, he never mentioned it.
I have been asked so often what Johnny Carson is really like. There is no easy answer. He’s as funny and charming in private as he was on the air. He didn’t turn that wit on and off for the camera. In those days, Johnny and I spent a lot of nights going from restaurants to bars, places like Michael’s Pub and Danny’s Hideaway and Sardi’s and Jilly’s and P.J. Clarke’s. We were sitting at Jilly’s late one night, well past midnight, when Frank Sinatra walked in. This was still pretty early in The Tonight Show’s run, so although Johnny was hot, he wasn’t the star he would become. And Frank Sinatra was the biggest and most powerful person in show business, and Jilly’s was his hangout. So when he walked in, the entire restaurant quieted. The king was in his palace. No one dared say hello to him. Until he walked past the bar. As he did, Johnny said loudly, in a voice dripping with irritation, “Frank, I told you 11:30!”
I remember we wanted Ethel Merman to come onto the show. She’d recently ended her very brief marriage to actor Ernest Borgnine, and I think she was embarrassed about it. So she was reluctant to do the show. Talent coordinator Shelly Schultz set up a dinner for us, hoping Johnny could make her comfortable. When she sat down at the table, Johnny looked at her, smiled and said, “You know, I had a headache that lasted longer than your last marriage.”
When Johnny met someone whose work he respected, he was completely open, and he’d end up telling the most engaging stories. And he is an incredibly loyal friend. After Burt Reynolds’s career went into a steep decline, Reynolds became seriously ill. There were all kinds of rumors about his illness, and many people with whom he was once close disappeared. As he said, “I found I could save a lot of money on Christmas cards. But Johnny called me every week.”
The most difficult thing about playing straight man to Johnny Carson was to make sure I wasn’t too funny—although some critics of my other performances will claim I needn’t have worried. I can remember only one time I went too far. One night, Johnny carefully explained to me that scientists at Cal Tech had found that for some reason mosquitoes were particularly attracted to extremely “warm-blooded, passionate people.”
Instinctively, I said, “Whoops, there’s another one,” and slapped my wrist. Johnny glared at me with his steely blue eyes. “Well, then,” he said, reaching down and picking up a can of insect spray the size of a fire extinguisher, with which he had intended to spray himself, “I guess I won’t be needing this $500 prop, then, will I?” Johnny had managed to salvage something from the setup, but I knew how angry he was with me.
Johnny Carson was far more comfortable in front of millions of people than he ever was with a small group. If he had to be at a party, I’d look over and see him standing in the corner entertaining a small group of people with card tricks or coin tricks. He knew that people thought he was cold and aloof, but he really didn’t care very much what others thought. After spending time with Johnny, my daughter Claudia said, “It was an amazing thing to see. Everybody wanted a little piece of him, they wanted to show him or ask him something. The only way he could have possibly handled that was to shut down. No one has the time or energy to deal with that pressure and still put on a live TV show every day.”
I understood what Claudia meant. I couldn’t even guess how many times I was with him when a woman told him, “I undress in front of you every night, and my husband doesn’t mind,” or a man said to him, “You’re ruining my sex life.” Johnny is very shy, he’s a loner; but Johnny always tried to be polite. He used to suggest to those men, “Why don’t you put on a better show than I do?” but I know how wearing it was on him. He could be tough, particularly with people who did not do their jobs. There was tremendous pressure on him. When you’re responsible for getting a show on the air every night, as he was, you depend on a lot of other people to do their jobs. If the show failed, no one blamed the lighting technician. So Johnny had a short fuse for ineffectual, inefficient people. But in fact most members of our technical staff stayed with the show even when their seniority qualified them for more lucrative jobs, because The Tonight Show was a wonderful place to work.
More than any other, the night that I will never forget is May 22, 1992: our final show. I had been just as surprised as anyone else when Johnny announced almost a year earlier that he was leaving—I don’t think he had told anyone except his wife, Alex. I don’t know why Johnny finally decided that this was the right time, but he has always been a master of timing.
That last show was incredibly emotional. In addition to the show ending, Johnny and I had been together more than half our lives. “We have been friends for 34 years,” he said on that show. “We have dinner together, we’re good friends; you cannot fake that on television.”
It took a long time for me to get used to the fact that the show had ended. At one point my assistant made an appointment for me on a Thursday afternoon. “I can’t do that Thursday,” I started to explain. “I have to…” And then I realized I didn’t have to do anything at all. I called Johnny and asked him if the same thing was happening to him.
“Every morning when I’m reading the newspaper,” he said, “I start writing jokes for the monologue in the margin. And then I realize, who’s gonna hear these jokes? The fish?”
On the last Tonight Show, Johnny said that when he found something he wanted to do, he would be back. As it has turned out, he’s spent the years since simply enjoying life. I’m not that surprised. Nothing Johnny did surprised me. In 1967, I told TIME, “Johnny is not overly outgoing or affectionate. He doesn’t give friendship easily or need it. He packs a tight suitcase.” One day, about 10 years later, after we had been through so much together, Johnny asked me, “What did you mean, I pack a tight suitcase?” Ten years later!
On that final show, Johnny introduced the members of his family who were in the audience that night, telling them, “I realize that being the offspring of somebody who is constantly in the public eye is not easy…. I want you to know that I love you and I hope your old man hasn’t caused you too much discomfort.”