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For Laughing Out Loud
My Life and Good Times
By Ed McMahon
By David Fisher
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- ebook (Digital original) $8.99 $11.99 CAD
- Audiobook Download (Abridged) $18.99 CAD
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One evening the actor Fernando Lamas, who had quite a reputation as a ladies' man, was a guest on The Tonight Show. Johnny Carson liked him a lot. He said that he thought it had been very brave of Lamas to come to America without speaking the language and try to make it in the motion picture industry. After praising him for his courage and dedication, Johnny asked him why he pursued such a difficult career.
Lamas told him, "It was a good way to meet broads."
Johnny laughed, nodding his head as if the answer had been obvious, then said, "You know, Nietzsche couldn't have said it better."
Nietzsche? Nietzsche! After the show I went into Johnny's office and asked him, "Where the hell did Nietzsche come from?"
Johnny just shrugged. "Who knows?" he said. "It was just back there somewhere."
I worked with Johnny Carson for thirty-four years. During that period I think the longest we ever went without doing a show together was four weeks. Besides four years of Who Do You Trust? we did 6,583 Tonight Show s. And the guy never failed to surprise me or entertain me.
Sometimes I think television was invented just to display the talents of Johnny Carson. No one has ever mastered it as he did, and it was my privilege to be sitting by his side in the swivel chair that didn't swivel, and then move down one seat onto the couch as the big movie star came on to promote a picture, then move down another seat when the zoologist came on and put the Goliath beetle on Johnny's hand and watched it crawl up his arm, and then another seat when Johnny brought out the farmer who created jewelry from animal droppings, and finally move onto a folding chair when the author came out for the last three minutes, for all those years.
NBC's Tonight Show dated back to 1951, when it debuted as a late-night variety show titled Broadway Open House, hosted by comedian Jerry Lester and his pulchritudinous sidekick, Dagmar. Maybe television was really invented for entertainers like Dagmar, whose two biggest talents could not be appreciated on radio. As Johnny once ad-libbed about a guest during a commercial break, "She could have nursed Wyoming." Then Steve Allen hosted the show for almost four years, introducing great performers like my friends Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, and Andy Williams, and doing parody sketches like "What's My Pain?" When he left, the network didn't have any idea what to do with the time slot; after experimenting with Ernie Kovacs for a few months, they created a really terrible news, interview, and gossip show called America after Dark, with Jack Lescoulie and Al "Jazzbo" Collins. That failed, so in desperation they hired Jack Paar. Paar, a low-key comedian who had hosted several radio and summer replacement television programs, described himself as "Lawrence Welk without music." Paar saved The Tonight Show, and maybe all of live late-night television.
Paar made The Tonight Show the hottest program on the air. People started staying up to watch the show because they knew the next day everybody in their office would be talking about it. He brought together a wonderfully eclectic mix of talent, combining an offbeat group of regular guests, people like Cliff Arquette playing a folksy character named Charley Weaver, pianist-curmudgeon Oscar Levant, and "ditsy" comedienne Dody Goodman, with great young performers like Jonathan Winters, Joey Bishop, Diahann Carroll, and Carol Burnett, and still managing to attract big stars like Jack Benny, George Burns, Red Skelton, and Jerry Lewis. Part of Paar's appeal was his unpredictability. You didn't want to miss his show because you never knew what he might do. He made front-page headlines for weeks, for example, when in the middle of a show he announced he was quitting, then walked off the stage because network censors had cut out a joke in which he had used the phrase "WC," meaning a water closet or bathroom, without consulting him.
His return got one of the highest ratings in television history, even if the entire history of television was then only about fourteen years. My show in Philadelphia, McMahon and Company, came on right after Paar. He was a tough act to follow, particularly on my limited budget. The "and Company" was my piano player and whomever I could convince to sit for an interview. My guests ranged from the legendary actress Helen Hayes to an elderly woman who played her head; she actually banged her hand against her skull to produce an identifiable version of "I'm Looking over a Four-Leaf Clover."
After hosting The Tonight Show for five years, "the King"— as Jack Paar called himself, explaining, "overstatement is very funny"—decided to quit for real. "You can only work a field for so many seasons in a row before it becomes barren," he said. "I don't think Paar's half acre is completely worn out, but it has gotten a little dry lately."
Paar was so popular and controversial that the media doubted anyone could really replace him, but Paar himself decided that Johnny Carson, who had filled in for him as host on occasion, was "the one man who could or should replace me." Paar retired at the end of March 1962; NBC hired Carson to succeed him starting the following October. While Carson fulfilled his Who Do You Trust? contract at ABC, a succession of guest hosts including Bob Cummings, Jan Murray, Joey Bishop, Merv Griffin, Jerry Lewis, Arlene Francis, Groucho Marx, Soupy Sales, and Art Linkletter filled in during the summer.
To this day I don't know how I got the job as Johnny Carson's Tonight Show announcer. I've never asked him and he has never told me. I do know how badly I wanted the job. We had become very close friends, but I think one of the reasons for that was that we rarely, if ever, spoke about business. We just had a good time together. After it was announced that Johnny Carson had been hired to replace Paar, I heard all kinds of rumors about who his announcer would be. The story that seemed most plausible was that NBC was pressuring Carson to keep Paar's announcer, Hugh Downs, as a way of making viewers more comfortable with the change, whereas Johnny wanted to take me and producer Art Stark from Who Do You Trust? Apparently a deal was made—again this is all rumor—allowing Carson to hire me if he agreed to accept a producer already under contract to the network. This was NBC's way of maintaining some control over the show. So Perry Cross became producer of The Tonight Show, Hugh Downs replaced Dave Garroway as host of The Today Show, and I got the announcer's job.
I found out about it late one night at Sardi's. Johnny and I were sitting at the bar celebrating . . . celebrating the fact that we were sitting at the bar, when he said casually, "You know, Ed, I've been thinking, when we take over the show . . ."
"Whoa," I said. "Now just back up a little bit. Did you say, when we take over the show?"
"Yeah, of course. Of course you're going with me. Didn't you know that?"
I looked at Johnny gratefully and said those four lovely words most appropriate at a moment like that: "I'll drink to that!"
There had been several announcers on The Tonight Show: Gene Rayburn had worked with Steve Allen, Hugh Downs with Jack Paar, and each of them had fulfilled quite a different role on the show. I had no idea what I was supposed to do beyond showing up on time wearing a clean shirt. About the only thing I knew for sure was that I would be doing a lot of live commercials. I'd learned while working on the boardwalk that the best way to make something look natural was to rehearse the hell out of it, that the more you did it, the less it looked like you'd ever done it before. I'd met Hugh Downs while he was cohosting a morning homemakers' show, The Home Show, with Arlene Francis, and he graciously invited me to spend time with him in studio 6B at Rockefeller Center, the studio in which The Tonight Show was done.
For several weeks I went over there in the afternoon and rehearsed that night's commercials with him. I got to know the crew, and I learned the very complicated, technical aspects of doing commercials, like where to stand. I mean, there really was no training period for this job; I just had to do it. All those Thursday nights I'd spent at the Emerson College Broadcasting Club really had very little value— unless, of course, we got Praise linoleum as a sponsor.
No one knew what The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson would be like, including Johnny Carson. The show had changed completely with each host; Steve Allen was great in sketches, Paar was a terrific interviewer. In late summer Johnny took producer Perry Cross, all the writers, his brother Dick Carson, who would direct the show, and me to Ft. Lauderdale, where we sat around the pool and planned the show. Actually, I sat around the pool; they planned the show. Johnny Carson didn't just show up to do the show; that was my job. He created and produced it. He wrote jokes for the monologue, worked with the writers, planned the sketches. I don't think viewers ever realized how completely the show was a reflection of his personal vision.
During that Florida trip, some of television's most wonderful characters—Teatime Movie host Art Fern, Aunt Blabby, the great mentalist El Moldo, and the seer from the East, Carnac the Magnificent—came to life. My contribution to this meeting was primarily to get a great tan.
On October 1, 1962, Johnny Carson and I did The Tonight Show for the first time. I can assure you, that first night we did not think that we were going to become "part of the fabric of America," as Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Archibald MacLeish later claimed, or that we were to become "history's most effective contraceptive," as journalists wrote. Which, by the way, is one of the rare times that calling someone a contraceptive is meant as a compliment. In our wildest fantasies that first night, we never dreamed that the show would generate one hundred million dollars a year in advertising revenues, accounting for one-fifth of NBC's annual profits, and become so much a part of American culture that Johnny would cause a national shortage of toilet paper simply by mentioning that supermarket supplies were running low.
No, that first night all we were hoping for was that we would be good enough to be renewed. Paar had done the show for almost five years, and from the vantage point of the first day, that seemed like an impossibly long run. The network didn't seem to have too much confidence in us; they didn't bother to upholster parts of our set. The set was built on a platform several inches high, and for several years the front of that platform was bare, revealing the nails and hinges that held the whole thing together. I was so insecure about the show's staying on the air that for the first two years I continued to commute from Philadelphia, and even after I finally moved to New York, I rented a house for two more years instead of buying. Just in case.
Johnny and I never discussed my role on the show. But 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 and, in retrospect, it was probably the best possible plan. The show, and our roles on it, evolved over time. 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.
Very few performers in history have been linked forever to one phrase. George Burns, for example, will always be remembered for his line "Say goodnight, Gracie." Quote the phrase "And that's the way it is," and everyone knows you're quoting Walter Cronkite. Jimmy Durante was known for his mysterious closing, "Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are." "It's always something" immediately brings to mind the great Gilda Radner. Well, I've probably been associated with more phrases then anyone in show business, but the first one, the best known, and the line I am continually being asked to repeat is . . . "Heeeeere's Johnny!"
As a spokesperson for American Family Publishers, I have the pleasure several times a year of calling people to tell them that they have won several million dollars. Sometimes they refuse to believe either that I'm Ed McMahon or that they've won a fortune. So when that happens, I ask them their first name. Richard. "How 'bout this," I say, "Heeeeere's Richard!" That's when they believe me.
While preparing for the first show, I was trying to think of a way of opening that would be distinctive, something that would set me apart from other announcers. Normally, the only opportunities an announcer has to make his presence known are the opening and closing of the show. Hugh Downs, for example, had a great phrase, ". . . and I'm yours truly, Hugh Downs." But I just couldn't come up with a good gimmick for myself. Then, literally about five minutes before we went on the air, it came to me. I used to host the NBC radio show Monitor, and one of our correspondents was the fine reporter Robert Pierepoint. When I introduced him, I would elongate the r, Rrrrrobert Pierepoint. So I decided to do the same thing when I opened the show. And it stuck. It was immediate. On my way to the studio the next day, literally the next day, people recognized me and imitated that phrase. But in all the years Johnny and I were together, he never mentioned it.
The second phrase instantly connected with me is the mellifluous rallying cry "Hi-yoooo." John Paul Jones rallied his sailors with the memorable phrase "I have not yet begun to fight." Nathan Hale became immortal with his last words, "I regret that I have but one life to give for my country." Me? I got "Hi-yoooo." And when I walk down the street, I still get it . . . over and over and over and over. It wasn't even my phrase. It came from our associate producer, John Carsey. One night after we'd been doing the show for about six or seven years, we had a terrible audience. It happened sometimes. Fortunately, no one reading this book was there that night, so I feel free to be critical. But these people . . . I don't know where they came from. Maybe The Merv Griffin Show. During the first commercial break, Johnny and I exchanged glances; we knew it was going to be a grim night. But Carsey, standing off camera behind me, suddenly gave a slight rallying cry, the kind of upbeat, energizing, thrilling cry that the old wagon master, John Wayne, might have given to signal the hundreds of covered wagons to begin the great trek westward over tall mountains and through fields of . . . Carsey said, "Hi-yoooo." I picked it up and repeated it loudly and the audience responded immediately, and that night that audience was miraculously transformed from a sad, dull group to a wonderful audience of which any of us would have been proud to have been a member. It became the rallying cry of the Tonight Show audience. I used it often, but especially on those rare occasions, those once-in-a-great-while moments, when one of Mr. Carson's witticisms received a less than favorable response. I would cry out, "Hi-yoooo," knowing that my cry would be echoed by the entire audience, that their voices would rise as one to remind Johnny how much he was appreciated, even if his joke really smelled up the joint.
I just didn't realize I'd have to hear it several million times. Or more. I loved it, I loved the fact that it allowed the audience to participate in the fun, to be part of the show. And I still enjoy hearing it. One of the nicest moments of my life took place when I served as the grand marshal of the Orange Bowl parade. I was introduced at the game and as I walked out onto the field at least fifty thousand people greeted me with the loudest, most affectionate "Hi-yoooo" anyone has ever heard.
Of course, as soon as I appeared on television informing viewers, "You may have already won ten million dollars," "Hi-yoooo" practically disappeared and people began greeting me by asking, "Hey, Ed, where's my money?"
Johnny and I did the show for thirty years. Just imagine that, thirty years. That's seven different presidential administrations. The Kennedy assassination. Watergate. The entire space program. The Vietnam War. Seven marriages between us. And not a single world championship for either the Boston Red Sox or the Chicago Cubs. The world changed drastically while we were on the air. When we started doing the show there were no such things as color televisions, portable telephones, personal computers, microwave ovens, or VCRs. By the time we left the show, people all over the world were able to misplace the remote control for their color televisions, couldn't figure out how to replace the batteries in their portable phones, had no idea why their computer insisted it had no memory left, kept burning popcorn in the microwave, and were totally unable to program their VCRs.
It wasn't just that new things were invented during that period; there were fundamental changes in American society, and one of the reasons The Tonight Show remained popular for so long was that we were able to change with the times. When we first went on the air we weren't permitted to use words like "pregnant." We had to use phrases like "with child." Once when Johnny and I were doing a question-and-answer bit, I said to him, "Now here's a query from . . . ," and I got a memo from standards and practices, the network censor, telling me not to use the word "query" because it sounded too much like "queer."
I'll tell you how much television had changed. Decades after that incident, Jane Fonda was on the show one night and said to Johnny, "I've got to ask you something. You were just talking about Zsa Zsa Gabor. My son said she was on your show one time, she came here with a cat on her lap, and she said to you, 'Do you want to pet my pussy?' My son said that you said, 'I'd love to, if you remove that damn cat!' Is that true?"
Johnny nervously drummed his pencil on his desk until the laughter had subsided, then said with a sigh, "No, I think I would have recalled that."
My role on the show never was strictly defined. I did what had to be done when it had to be done. I was there when he needed me, and when he didn't, I moved down the couch and kept quiet. The farther down the couch I moved, the quieter I was. I did the audience warm-up, I did commercials, for a brief period I cohosted the first fifteen minutes of the show with our orchestra leader, Skitch Henderson, and I performed in many sketches. On our thirteenth-anniversary show, Johnny and I were talking at his desk and he said, "Thirteen years is a long time."
Long enough for me to recognize my cue. "So," I asked, "how long is it?"
"That's why you're here," he said, probably summing up my primary role on the show perfectly, and then he continued, "It's so long that when we started Gladys Knight was using training Pips." My job was to be the straight man, the sidekick, a role honored in show business tradition as the second banana. There is an old story that a straight man was walking along the beach when suddenly he heard someone screaming, "Help! Help! I'm drowning." And when he heard that he stopped and turned and said, "You mean to say that you're drowning? "
I had to support him, I had to help him get to the punch line, but while doing it I had to make it look as if I wasn't doing anything at all. The better I did it, the less it appeared as if I was doing it. When you're a performer there is a great desire to try to please the audience. Even though I understood and accepted completely that my role on the show was to support Johnny, I still wanted to hold my own. I've often been asked how I felt about being Johnny Carson's sidekick, his second banana. The answer is that I wanted to be the best damned second banana it was possible to be. I wanted to do the job better than anyone had ever done it before. I wanted to create a role that no one could duplicate. If I was going to play second fiddle, I wanted to be the Heifetz of second fiddlers.
Playing straight man to Johnny Carson was a privilege. I'm an intelligent man. I knew how talented he was. I knew I couldn't do so many of the things he did so easily. I couldn't play that range of characters. I couldn't create Carnac. I couldn't do imitations. I didn't want to jump off platforms or let tarantulas crawl up my arm. I didn't mind playing a supporting role. In fact, I relished it, I loved it.
In all honesty, I think I did it well too. Anyone who has ever tried to play this role knows how difficult it is to do. Basically the only rules of the job are that the sidekick never gets the girl or to shoot the bad guy. The most difficult thing for me to learn how to do was just sit there with my mouth closed. Many nights I'd be listening to Johnny and in my mind I'd reach the same ad-lib just as he said it. I'd have to bite my tongue not to say it out loud. I had to make sure I wasn't too funny—although critics who saw some of my other performances will claim I needn't have worried. If I got too many laughs, I wasn't doing my job; my job was to be part of a team that generated the laughs.
In fact, it was much tougher for me to work without Johnny than it was to be with him. When we started doing the show, we were on the air from eleven-fifteen P.M. till one A.M. Then Johnny found out that many local stations didn't pick up the network feed until eleven-thirty. So for the first fifteen minutes, he couldn't use his best material. Finally he decided not to do that segment at all. Skitch Henderson, our natty bandleader, and I cohosted the show for those fifteen minutes. Years later, when Johnny was having problems with NBC, or negotiating his new contract, he came down with a bad case of the NBC flu about an hour before we went on the air and was unable to work that night. I had to host the show. Most of the time I didn't even know who was going to be on, much less have time to prepare.
That was the toughest job in the world. I had to be good, but I couldn't be too good. I had to make it look as if I was enjoying myself, but I also had to make it clear I wasn't enjoying myself that much. My goal was a lot of loud smiles. If the producer complimented me, I never knew if he meant I had been funny or had been just not funny enough.
I can remember only one time when I was working with Johnny that I went too far. In fact, I'll never forget it. One night Johnny carefully explained to me that scientists at Cal Tech had just completed a multimillion-dollar study about mosquitoes and they had found that for some reason mosquitoes were particularly attracted to extremely "warmblooded, passionate people."
Instinctively, I said, "Whoops, there's another one," and slapped my wrist.
I knew even before my wrist stopped stinging that I'd gone too far. Johnny was glaring 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 five-hundred-dollar prop then, will I?"
It was obvious to everyone in the audience exactly what had happened. And they enjoyed it a lot more than I did. Johnny had managed to salvage something from the setup, but I knew how angry he was with me. Not so much because I'd gotten the laugh, but rather because I'd ruined the bit. And he was right to be. After all the years we'd worked together, it should have been obvious to me that he was setting up a joke, a joke that was not written for me to get the laugh. Now, that was not the only time Johnny got mad at me; when you work together as closely as we did for as long as we did, it is inevitable that there will be some bad times. I'm sure there must have been some shows when he thought I was too strong, I'm sure of that, but when that happened I knew it too. There were nights when I asked myself, did I go too far? Did I step outside my role? Never for one moment in thirty years did I forget that it was Johnny's show.
Our relationship survived a lot longer than several of our marriages. The amazing thing is how many really good nights we had together. All kinds of stories have been written about our relationship, but the simple fact is that Johnny and I liked each other and respected each other. Maybe the fact that two men who worked together liked each other didn't make very exciting headlines, but it was true. When Johnny was between marriages, for example, he would occasionally spend a weekend at my house. He slept in Claudia's room so often that he gave her a picture on which he'd written, "To Claudia, Some time you must sleep in my bed." Johnny and I could not possibly have worked so well together on the air if we didn't genuinely like each other off the air. The viewing audience is too smart to allow us to fake a friendship for any period of time.
The audience knew that Johnny was the boss, and the rest of us were employees. And since almost all of our viewers had bosses of their own, they understood and identified with that relationship. We had the same problems with our boss on national TV as they had in the office. And that served as the foundation for a lot of humor. For example, one night Johnny and Doc Severinsen got into a discussion about the correct pronunciation of the poinsettia plant. Johnny contended it was pronounced "poin-set-e-a," while Doc claimed it was "poin-set-a." The next night Doc brought a note from a noted professor of linguistics supporting his claim. Johnny took it very well. "That's very interesting," he told Doc, "but do me one favor. Why don't you ask that expert if the correct pronunciation is 'unemployed,' or 'unemployed ' ?"
On one of my favorite shows Johnny and I got into a very silly conversation that ended with my taking a pair of scissors and actually cutting off the bottom half of his tie. It was exactly what so many viewers must have dreamed of doing to their boss, but they also knew there were consequences. Johnny just looked at me, looked at the remains of his tie in disbelief, looked at me, again at the tie, all the while waiting for the audience to stop laughing. He got every laugh possible out of that long pause. When they finally quieted down, Johnny said to me, as if there were only one possible explanation for this behavior, "Oh, you must have just sold a pilot film."
After more laughter, he added with incredulity, "I've been wearing this tie for seven years."
"Well," I told him confidently, "you'll never wear it again."
Johnny never objected to someone else getting the laughs—in the right situations. On The Tonight Show each of us had a primary role to play; Johnny was the host, ready to welcome a variety of talented and interesting people and pretty much willing to try anything. I was the big party guy who did the commercials and ate a lot and drank a lot and occasionally put down the boss. For example, in his monologue one night, he told the audience, "Ed only drinks on special occasions. Like when he sees wall-to-wall carpeting." Once, when he was actually donating blood on the show to remind people to give blood, he lifted his head and said, "Ed's is the only blood with a ten-minute head on it." My drinking was always good for an ad-lib; once, when a kinkajou started sniffing at my leg, Johnny decided, "He's obviously attracted to the scent of olives." On another show, Joan Embry from the San Diego Zoo brought on a bear, who started sniffing at the cup of iced tea I always had. But as the bear started lapping at it, Johnny warned Joan, "You better get him away from that or he'll go into hibernation for a year."
- On Sale
- Jan 1, 2001
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Grand Central Publishing