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When television icons Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon started getting laughs on The Tonight Show, it was sometimes hard to tell where their jokes might venture next. But that was one thing fans seemed to love most about the show while it was under their supervision.

Even McMahon said their humor could push the boundaries, and sometimes they almost went too far. In his memoir, Here’s Johnny, he wrote about one such moment.

Ed McMahon and Johnny Carson shared jokes on 'The Tonight Show'
THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON — Pictured: (l-r) Ed McMahon and Johnny Carson | Wendy Perl/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

Ed McMahon and Johnny Carson shared jokes through 46 years of friendship

McMahon shared that he and Carson had a 46-year friendship. They met in 1958 while working on a television game show. Then, they went to The Tonight Show in 1962 and remained there until 1992, when they both retired simultaneously.

During their 30 years at the iconic desk, they used humor that some argued went too far, even for late-night audiences. The host once said the show would get hundreds of letters of complaint a week about how the content upset viewers.

So, Carson and McMahon were aware of how important it was to be mindful of the feelings of their audience. And they once stopped a gag despite laughter because they knew it might offend someone if it went any farther.

Ed McMahon recalled a moment with Johnny Carson when the joke went ‘far enough’

Notably, McMahon’s first wife thought Carson had “something wrong with him” because he pulled pranks like setting scripts on fire. As the announcer, McMahon would have to try to read what was on the page before it burned up. “No announcer ever had such a trial by fire,” he noted.

That was part of the act. And as long as audiences enjoyed it, Carson and McMahon seemed to egg each other on. However, they once realized they needed to stop what they were doing despite laughter from their crowd.

It started when McMahon snipped the buttons off of Carson’s shirt. In response, Carson cut off part of McMahon’s collar, and so on.

In Here’s Johnny, McMahon wrote that some audience members probably began to wonder what would happen when both icons were in the nude. But despite the laughing encouragement, they stopped.

“… We were aware that we had gone far enough,” he shared. “If we had begun cutting our suits, we would have been damaging something of greater value and showing insensitivity to some guy in South Dakota who had just lost his job and only had one suit to wear.”

Ed McMahon could still hear Johnny Carson telling jokes after his death


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In 2005, Carson died from complications of emphysema at 79. His final resting place was kept so secret that not even McMahon knew the family’s choices.

McMahon said he stayed in bed after Carson’s death, watching television tributes. He released his book shortly after and shared that the famously private host gave him his blessing to publish it.

Though his friend was no longer there to share stories and crack jokes with, he could still hear what the beloved host might have said in some situations. For example, he wrote, “You know, Ed, I always wondered how many people made love while still watching me …”