(Editor’s note: In the Sept. 27, 2004, edition of TelevisionWeek, which observed the 50th anniversary of NBC’s "Tonight Show," the late Ed McMahon recalled his long association with Johnny Carson and the seminal late-night talk show’s early days.)
By Ed McMahon
Special to TelevisionWeek
Johnny Carson and I started together on "Who Do You Trust?" and when he went to "The Tonight Show," he brought me along.
I’ll tell you what I asked him right at the beginning. His office was up above the set, Studio 6B, and on the way walking down there on a Saturday, before the show started on Monday, we went down to check some camera positions and set-blocking. As I was going down I said, "Johnny, how do you see my role down here on Monday?" And he said, "Ed, I don’t know how I see my own role. Let’s just go down and entertain the hell out of them."
I knew it was working the very first night. Everybody had said nobody could replace Jack Paar; he was such an institution. But Paar was a slow starter. That was his style as a storyteller-he would come out and take a while to get rolling. Johnny, on the other hand, came out and started doing jokes. He had been a stand-up comic, so when he walked out, he came out like gangbusters. I could just see the very first night that he grabbed that audience, and they embraced him.
The next morning, there was no talk of whether Jack Paar could be replaced by Johnny Carson. It was, here was Johnny Carson and "The Tonight Show," a whole different ball of wax.
We kept up that energy for 30 years. The attitude with Johnny was there was always tomorrow night. You never let up. It was like driving a team of Clydesdales. You never can relax one finger because you’ve got eight pounding horses taking you down the pathway, and that’s the way the show went.
At the end of each show, we would be drained in a way, but we were also exhilarated. Whether we were going out to have dinner together or going our separate ways, we were charged with energy.
All the hosts over the years were different, but what they all have in common is they were all funny people. They could just think funny.
I was a fan of the show from the beginning. I saw most of the Steve Allen shows starting with the very first one, and most of the Jack Paar shows. Now I don’t watch as much, because I’ve got a radio show that I do, "Ed McMahon’s Lifestyles Live," and I’m up early in the morning taping that. But if I do stay up late, of course I watch Jay Leno.
It would be tough to name the funniest moment on the show from my era. A lot of people think it would be the night that George Gobel came on after Bob Hope had been so devastatingly funny. Everybody was wondering how he could measure up. What he said was, "Johnny, do you ever have the feeling the whole world was a tuxedo and you were a pair of brown shoes?" That got a big, appreciative laugh.
Some people think one of the funniest lines ever was one of my lines. Johnny asked me about the next night’s show-who was on, I said I didn’t know. He said, "What do you mean you don’t know, it’s Friday night." I said, "I know it’s Friday night, but I’m not going to be here. I’m taking a night off." He said, "You’re taking a night off?" I said, "Yeah, you invented it." Big laugh.
I also worked with many guest hosts over the years. For a while there was a big quarrel between NBC and Johnny because Johnny wanted me there when he was there, and the network looked to me for continuity with the guest hosts. Finally it was put in my contract that I had to perform every night that Johnny performed, but what I won by giving that up was that the last night Johnny did the show was my last night as well.
They had had me under contract to work another six months with the new host, which I wouldn’t have wanted to do no matter who it was, even Jay Leno, as nice as he is and a good friend. I didn’t want to water down what I had done for 30 years with Johnny.
The next to the last show had one of the most poignant moments of the whole 30 years. The final show was a compilation show, but the one before that had that great Bette Midler moment when she sang the parody of "One for My Baby," and it had that line in there that she sang for Johnny that said, "all the class that you showed."
It was so true. He did show an awful lot of class. And boy, he teared up, and it was a great moment.
Jay and I worked together a lot over my last few years, and it was great. He’s a funny guy, and he’d let me in with my remarks. I came back to visit once when I had written a book ["For Laughing Out Loud, My Life and Good Times"], and we were talking about the book, and he said, "Would you autograph my copy?" and I said, "No, I don’t have time."
Most of the humor that Steve Allen, Jack Paar and Johnny Carson did, and now Jay Leno does, is geared to what happened in the news that day. Johnny every morning used to get up and take the paper and write jokes and things in the margins. Fred De Cordova would call him and Johnny would feed him some of these things, and they’d get started building a set. From 9:30 in the morning they’d start building and they’d get the props and the costumes, and we’d do a little play that night based on what he’d read in the paper that morning. That’s what’s given the show its relevance on a continuing basis for 50 years.
I think Jay will run the show even longer than Johnny and I did, I really do. I think he’s going to surpass us.
I have no advice for Jay. He’s doing a great job; he’s built his own audience. He’s very energetic; he’s very into the show, and he doesn’t take a lot of time off. He’ll do the show on a Friday night and get on a jet and fly to Vegas or Atlantic City and work the weekend.
Jay’s very good at maintaining that topicality that helps "The Tonight Show" stay relevant. After all the changes television has gone through and the world has gone through, the show is still vital and up to the minute.
I feel lucky to have been a part of it.