How Johnny Carson Ruined Fruitcake Tradition With Some of His Most Memorable Jokes

It’s hard to deny television icon Johnny Carson was influential. Consider that he had the power to create toilet paper shortages with his on-air commentary on The Tonight Show. And some observers even credit his jokes about receiving fruitcakes for Christmas with canceling centuries of tradition.

Johnny Carson in a Navy blue jacket, seated at 'The Tonight Show' desk
Johnny Carson | NBCU Photo Bank

Johnny Carson made fruitcake a regular joke on ‘The Tonight Show’

According to Smithsonian, the popularity of giving fruitcakes at holidays dates back to the 18th century. For a long time, they were considered a “grand indulgence” to give on noteworthy occasions. However, it’s not clear how the act became directly associated with Christmas traditions.

Fruitcake making can be traced back to the Middle Ages and the broader introduction of dried fruits and fruit bread. Over time, variations of recipes popped up all over the world. And the treat is still served to the British Royal family.

Nevertheless, Carson is credited with changing the direction of the popularity of fruitcake as a holiday gift. That’s because he turned it into a memorable joke, according to Redbook. In the 1960s, he said on The Tonight Show, “The worst Christmas gift is fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other.”

After that, it became a tradition for Carson to make jokes about the cake around the holidays.

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Johnny Carson said ‘nobody eats’ their gifted fruitcakes

As the story goes, fruitcakes were considered fine gifts before Carson started taking yearly aim at them on The Tonight Show. For example, he asked co-host Ed McMcMahon in a clip from 1989 if he’d received a fruitcake for Christmas. McMahon replied he had.

“Did you eat it?” Carson asked. But McMahon said it was “too fattening” and that seemed to prove Carson’s point. “See, that’s the damndest thing,” he explained. “Nobody eats them.”

He and McMahon bantered a little about how they would keep them, usually putting them somewhere out of sight. “You put it up in a closet somewhere,” Carson said, “and then you wait till next Christmas, and you give it to somebody else.”

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Johnny Carson and mail-order fruitcakes

The longstanding tradition of giving a fruitcake began when ordering one from the mail wasn’t always an option. As such, Smithsonian noted the introduction of the “mass-produced mail-order” fruitcake in the early 20th century could have assisted in the decline of the tradition. It created the “regrettably classic image of a dry, leaden cake encrusted with garish candied fruits and pecans.”

However, according to the Collin Street Bakery in Texas, the fault is more with Carson’s iconic wit and massive influence than the quality of the cakes. They are the “first-ever, mail-order fruitcake company in the U.S.,” operating since 1896. And after more than a century in business, it’s hard to disbelieve them when they claim to make the “world’s best dang fruitcake.”

They shared their take on the downfall of fruitcake on their blog: “Carson’s opinion [was] so influential, so heavily weighted, the general population was concerned that to contradict him was to cast themselves as a social pariah.”

But they also believe his influence is wearing off, as evidenced by a resurgence in the popularity of the cake in more recent years.

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