Johnny Carson Was Determined to Take His ‘Good Friend’ Ed McMahon to ‘The Tonight Show’

When Johnny Carson met Ed McMahon for the first time in 1958, the T.V. host knew he’d found his announcer for an afternoon game show. And when NBC offered Carson a new job at The Tonight Show a few years later, he wanted McMahon to go with him. But unfortunately, NBC wasn’t quite as keen on his gregarious friend as he was.

Ed McMahon sits next to Johnny Carson at The Tonight Show desk in 1972, as Carson raises one first in the air as if he's knocking
(L-R) Ed McMahon and Johnny Carson | NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

Ed McMahon and Johnny Carson became friends while working on ‘Who Do You Trust?’

Carson and McMahon met in 1958 when Carson was holding auditions for an announcer. At the time, he was hosting an afternoon game show called Who Do You Trust?

McMahon recalled making the trip to New York to meet Carson for the first time in his memoir, Here’s Johnny. After a couple of handshakes, some street watching, and small talk, all of which lasted six to seven minutes, McMahon was on a train back home to his wife and family in Philadelphia.

He was sure he’d “blown” the audition and was scheduled to take a trip to Europe. “My ESP must have been working overtime,” he noted because he canceled his plans abroad. That’s when he got the call he was waiting for. Producer Art Stark told McMahon they were ready for him to start his new job in days.

McMahon recounted how he began working with Carson in October 1958. According to him, “The game was the least important part of the show,” which was “really a vehicle that allowed Johnny Carson to show off his genius.”

Johnny Carson ‘fought’ NBC to take ‘good friend’ and announcer Ed McMahon with him to ‘The Tonight Show’

In Here’s Johnny, McMahon revealed that Carson later told him he’d made his mind up about him the second he saw him. It took less than 10 minutes for him to know he’d found “the one” and move McMahon ahead of seven other candidates.

In 1962, Carson was offered The Tonight Show, and it wasn’t clear if McMahon would still have a place with him if he took the job as host. McMahon assumed the show’s co-host would stay in his spot. Despite that, he told Carson to seize the opportunity for himself.

Though McMahon didn’t know it until he already had it, Carson insisted to NBC that his “good friend” come to The Tonight Show with him. “NBC didn’t particularly want me, but he did, and [he] fought for me,” McMahon once disclosed per Time and Again: Looking Back at Johnny Carson.

Black and white photo of Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon in tuxedos. McMahon is holding a large wine glass.
(L-R) Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon | Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

Johnny Carson turned down ‘The Tonight Show’ at first but Ed McMahon helped change his mind

In Here’s Johnny, McMahon recounted Carson was considering turning down the change in shows altogether. The host was comfortable doing what he was doing. Plus, he had anxious nerves and reservations about replacing former Tonight Show host Jack Paar.

Of course, both Carson and McMahon ultimately made the switch in 1962. And they stayed on The Tonight Show panel until they stepped down together in 1992, still beloved by late-night audiences.

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