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Ed McMahon Once Dispelled a Common Myth About Johnny Carson

Late television stars Ed McMahon and Johnny Carson had an enduring friendship that lasted decades in Hollywood. And after Carson died, McMahon released a book for and about his old friend, taking special care to dispel a common misconception about the charismatic host. He also revealed there was something about himself that Carson once admitted he envied.

Through 46 years of friendship and 30 years on The Tonight Show, Ed McMahon got to know charismatic television legend and late-night host Johnny Carson in a way few others did. And before McMahon’s death in 2009, he released a book titled Here’s Johnny, which was published months after Carson died in 2005.

In that book, McMahon takes aim at one of the most common and enduring misconceptions about Carson. And he also recalls a time the legendary host — one of the most beloved icons in television history — revealed to him that he wished he could be more like his co-host.

Ed McMahon sits next to Johnny Carson, who is behind the desk at 'The Tonight Show' c.1976
Ed McMahon and Johnny Carson | NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

Ed McMahon on Johnny Carson myth: no ice in those veins

As McMahon explains in Here’s Johnny, Carson was a dear friend who made him very happy, but that wasn’t a side he shared with many. In fact, very few people grew close enough to Carson to get beyond his perceived detachment. As such, he developed a bit of a reputation for coldness.

McMahon writes, “One reason for the myth of ice water in [Carson’s] veins was that socially he seemed aloof. But he wasn’t aloof; he was merely shy.”

According to McMahon, Carson said he was a “loner” who worked better with cameras than humans. “I’d do better if people had little red lights in their foreheads,” McMahon recalls him saying. Of their friendship, he writes, “I was supremely lucky to be one of the people who did have a red light in his forehead for [Carson] because he often performed privately for me.”

Johnny Carson once told Ed McMahon there was something he envied about him

Though McMahon refers to himself as Carson’s “second banana” in Here’s Johnny, he recollects a time his old friend told him he somewhat envied him. As it turns out, Carson coveted McMahon’s social skills when the cameras were off.

“I wish I could be like you,” McMahon writes the iconic host once told him. “You’re so hearty. Mr. Sunshine; you’re everyone’s friend. It’s really depressing.”

As McMahon reveals, Carson “connected wonderfully with people of all ages” but he wasn’t comfortable at cocktail parties. “He was usually in a corner doing magic,” he notes. And he says, “His least entertaining trick was making himself disappear.”  

It seems that while Carson was a highly charismatic host, he coveted his sidekick’s social graces.


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Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon shared a birthday tradition

Though many others who met Carson didn’t cultivate any sort of attachment, McMahon was close enough to see a side he didn’t think most others were privy to. He writes, “I wish that America could have heard some of the off-camera talk between [Carson] and me.”

He shares that the two had a tradition of calling each other on their birthdays, and each year Carson would have a special present, just for him. “His gift to me, even in the last year of his life, was always the same,” he reveals. “A new joke.”

As McMahon reveals, Carson would sometimes surprise him with private comedy performances, even if it wasn’t his birthday. He writes of a night on Carson’s boat, “He suddenly was moved to do the equivalent of twelve monologues: jokes, impressions, and stories just for me that lasted for an hour and a half.”

So, it seems appropriate that when McMahon shares the last time he saw Carson alive, he writes that it was again aboard his old friend’s prized yacht. And according to him, the two laughed and reminisced for hours — the way they always had.

Clips of some of Carson and McMahon’s popular moments from The Tonight Show are available to watch on YouTube.