Ed McMahon’s Memories of the Tonight Show
Whether it was after an egg fight with Dom DeLuise or standing amidst the wreckage of a skit that had gone horribly awry, Ed McMahon and Johnny Carson remained true to themselves, and to each other. One would look to the other and say, “Two grown men”, while the other would complete the second part of their inside joke by replying, “Graduates of major universities.” A little phrase that displayed the depth of a friendship that sustained and carried them through forty-six years of varying levels of fame. Along the way, an intimate unspoken admiration was firmly cemented between these two men, making them the most recognizable, admired, emulated, parodied and well beloved duos in comedic history.
Philadelphia already recognized Ed McMahon’s rising star as early as 1952, when he had thirteen shows on the air. Having served in the Marine Corp in World War Two, Ed was once again called into military service to serve in Korea, thus interrupting his burgeoning television career. By the time he made it back stateside, all thirteen of his shows had been canceled and he was forced to start from scratch, scheduling audition after audition from a Penn station phone booth. Fate intervened one night when he was invited to a party at Dick Clark’s apartment and, after conversing with someone named Gordon, was foisted into the role of ‘entertainer’ for the evening. After telling a few jokes, Dick Clark’s producer took notice of him and when an announcer’s position suddenly opened up for the game show Who Do You Trust?, Ed was first in line. Ed’s did not think that his interview with the shows star went well at all. Apparently the shows star, Johnny Carson, thought otherwise.
J.T.: Now, I read your book Here’s Johnny (Rutledge Hill Press – 2005) and the first thing I’d like to say is it was really refreshing to read a memoir that didn’t turn into some nasty, tabloid style tell all book.
McMahon: I would never do that. I would never, ever do that…at gunpoint I wouldn’t do that.
J.T.: Now, my only critique of the book is that the anecdotes didn’t seem to go far enough. It was like ‘…and then what happened?’…and it was off to another story. Now, is your series, Ed McMahon’s Memories of The Tonight Show, an extension of the book?
McMahon: Yes. In other words, both things in my mind are tributes to Johnny. My idea with the book was, everybody wants to hear the ‘Heeeere’s…’, you know, J.T. …I get that all the time, all over the country. ‘Will you say hello to my mom?’ ‘Well, what’s your mom’s name?’ So anyway, I’ll do a ‘Heeeere’s Mary!’ or whatever it is…
J.T.: So you’re like the most recorded cell phone answering machine.
McMahon: (Laughs) Yeah, that’s right! I thought the book should be, not the ‘Heeeere’s Johnny’ but ‘Here’s Johnny’. Everybody wanted to know what he’s like, you know, what’s Johnny all about. So, that was my idea. So then, with Memories of the Tonight Show, it’s just another tribute. So, it’s some of the book, but it’s more like a night club show.
McMahon: Oh sure, I have clips that people have never seen. Like an Aunt Blabby skit that fell apart one night. I have things like that and I have silly things that we did, like the thing I call ‘The Tie Fight’. One night, we got involved with something, and all of a sudden, we’re trying to pull each other’s ties off, you know. Reflecting, that’s reflecting the fact that we were pals, you know. People wonder are they really friends? A lot of the couplings in our business, they were not pals. Like Laurel and Hardy were not pals. The Marx brothers feuded all the time. You know, we were buddies. If we had met in the Marine Corp, we’d have gravitated towards each other because we liked the same things and we laughed at the same things. So there was a camaraderie that’s explained and shown in a clip where it’s just so silly, like two kids kicking a can down the street. There’s this humor and the feeling that you know what the other guy is going to do. That’s pretty good if you have a coupling like that.
J.T.: Your relationship with Johnny was definitely unique and has never come close to being duplicated, as far as mutual respect. It seems that many these comedic teams allow their egos to destroy what they have.
J.T.: With your other projects, did any of them ever come close to interfering with your relationship with Johnny?
McMahon: No. You know what I did? I was very smart. What I did was, I always went in and took everything by him. When I got that film Fun With Dick and Jane, with Jane Fonda and George Segal, that was a big moment for me. Well, before that happened, I went to him. I would go to him and run everything by and say, ‘What do you think about this? What do you think about Star Search?’ You know, other people didn’t do that and got in a lot of trouble.
J.T.: Now, going way back, when you were paired with Johnny on the game show Who Do You Trust? in 1957, do you think that you both would have made it as big had The Tonight Show not been available as your vehicle?
McMahon: I think so, because I was doing other shows in Philadelphia. My attitude was, I just thought that Who Do You Trust? was fine. That was a big thing to me, a network show and so forth. If it hadn’t have worked, I would have gone back to Philadelphia or I’d keep plugging in New York, and do something else, you know. I don’t think there was any question…you know, we both had talent and it was unique that we found each other. When I say in my motivational speeches, ‘I ran into a guy named Johnny Carson.’ Well, that old phrase, ‘hitch your wagon to a star’…I hooked my wagon to a star.
J.T.: Later on, when you would do various tour across the country, performing at state fairs and such, would you ever arrive in some backwater dump and just look at each other and say, ‘Why are we doing this?’
McMahon: (Laughs) That’s a good question! You’ve done your homework! Anyway, we always had a great spot. We’d do like the Ohio State Fair, we’d play the New York State Fair. We always geared what we were doing right to the audience. In other words if we were in a town where there was a lot of oil drilling, Johnny would be an oil rigger and I would be interviewing him. He’d be Wildcat Sam, and I’d have the clipboard, and then we’d have to joke. But we would tailor it to the locale, so that helped us, you know. Even if we hit any…we never really hit any bad spots, but if you hit a bad spot, it was so right on that the audience was with us. Let’s say your in Houston, Texas or you’re in a smaller town like Milford, Texas where oil rigging is a big thing, you know, we were right on. Regardless of what else happened, we had that. We had preparation.
J.T.: When you toured did you ever do any of the USO shows or spots at the military bases?
McMahon: No, but I’m very military. I was in two wars. I was in the Marine Corp. for, between active duty and retired duty, twenty-three years and I came out of the Corp a Colonel, so I was very active in the Marine Corp, but we never…I did some USO shows, but we never did any together.
McMahon: This program accomplishes two things: the troops are entertained and they know that citizens at home care and support them. The program collects new and used DVDs and distributes them to the soldiers stationed overseas. They have collected approximately 250,000 DVDs in the year the program has been running. My attitude is that, no matter what you think about the war, it doesn’t make any difference; young men are fighting it, so you’ve got to support them.
J.T.: I was never in the military, but I have been in the quasi-law enforcement arena and a lot of people would look at this and say, ‘Are people just sitting around in Iraq watching DVDs all day?’ and they don’t understand that that type of life is ninety percent tedium and ten percent sheer terror.
McMahon: Yeah and the fact that you can’t play baseball, you can’t play soccer, you can’t play basketball because you’re a target. People just don’t understand that. My attitude is that, and I said this while I was doing publicity for this, no matter what you think about the war, it doesn’t make any difference; young men are fighting it, so you’ve got to support them. We’re in it no matter what and you’ve got to support them.
America was home and witness to the most enduring comedic coupling of our time, and for this, we are fortunate. The snippets of scenes showing Johnny with a marmoset on top of his head, the endless parade of guests who’s career were launched from that Burbank stage, the booming laughter of Ed falling under the spell of his friend; all of these memories are magical. Yet, that is what they are now; collective memories. Shortly after midnight on June 23rd, 2009, Ed McMahon passed away peacefully in his sleep. Although the ‘Tonight Show’ spanned decades and created it’s own culture of comedy, for all of us, the multi-colored curtain has closed too soon, but at least we can take comfort in knowing that two lifelong friends have been reunited.