Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon Made Enemies out of a ‘Drunken Bruiser’ During a Night Out

Tonight Show legend Johnny Carson spent 30 years behind the iconic desk with his co-host, Ed McMahon, by his side. And sometimes, McMahon was also with him when they weren’t working — like a time they encountered a “drunken bruiser” in a nightclub. How did that encounter end with “new enemies” for the iconic pair?

Ed McMahon sits next to Johnny Carson, both smiling, during the taping of their final 'Tonight Show' in 1992
Ed McMahon and Johnny Carson | Alice S. Hall/NBCU Photo Bank

Johnny Carson felt like people wanted something from him in public

Carson explained what some had perceived as aloofness from him to author, Alex Haley, for an interview published in Playboy in 1967. According to the host, he wasn’t really what most would call a people person, despite a seemingly extroverted late-night personality. Part of it was shyness, he said, explaining he’d always felt a little bit awkward in social settings.

However, there was another factor that seemingly made Carson a bit of a loner; a lot of people in the public behaved as if they were entitled to something from him when he felt he only owed a good performance. So, he said strangers would often bother him when he was hoping not to be.

“Everybody I meet in public seems to want to audition for me,” the icon said. “If I ask a guy what time it is, he’ll sing it to me. Everywhere I turn, there’s somebody’s niece who plays the kazoo or does ballet with skin diving flippers.”

Carson also shared with Haley he wanted to be able to travel with his children without collecting a “trail of people.” And it seems he sometimes wanted to go out with McMahon without doing that, either.

Johnny Carson was ready to ‘rip into’ a ‘drunken bruiser’ with Ed McMahon but knew people would talk

As another example of a time Carson was bothered when he didn’t want to be, he described a situation when he and McMahon, ran into a “drunken bruiser” while trying to catch an act at a nightclub. He said, “We had barely sat down when some drunken bruiser comes over and hauls me up by the arm.”

Carson was ready to “rip into him” and didn’t care how big he was, but he told himself to stop and avoid the potential trouble. “I could see the headlines if I did,” he shared. The unidentified subject took him by the arm and led him to his table where he had friends waiting.

That’s when Carson let the person know he wasn’t inclined to say hello. “I told him I was sorry, I was very busy,” he said. “I had to get up early.”

He said the individual was insulted because he’d promised friends Carson would say hello. But the host had his own needs to take care of. “Well, I walked away; Ed and I had to leave — and I’d made some enemies,” he concluded. “You can’t win. So you stay away from public situations.”

Johnny Carson didn’t feel success changed him, just what people wanted from him

After Carson explained his views on mingling with people in the public to Haley, the author asked if his attitude had developed or changed since becoming famous. “In other words, has success spoiled Johnny Carson?” the superstar host asked, then answered, “No, I don’t think so.”

“I don’t think it’s you that changes with success — it’s the people around you who change. Because of your new status, they change in relation to you,” he shared.

As an example, Carson said he found it hard to go home to Nebraska. He felt the attitude of people back home was, “I guess you’re so big we bore you now,” but noted they’d be furious if he actually agreed with them. However, he said, “But if I said I was enjoying myself, they’d say I was being condescending.” 

So, he felt it was a bit of a rock and a hard place situation and said he developed a tendency to pull back from it all. For many years of his life, including between his Tonight Show retirement and death in 2005, he mostly kept to himself within a trusted circle.

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