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Groundbreaking Tonight Show host Johnny Carson is a TV legend who millions of viewers felt they knew well. But in his life, the notoriously private icon didn’t open up very much about his friends and activities outside of The Tonight Show. However, one thing that isn’t any secret is that he was taking part in regular, highly exclusive, celebrity poker games for years prior to his death.

Johnny Carson stands in front of the 'Tonight Show' band, wearing a black and white suit and bow-tie
Johnny Carson | Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Johnny Carson ‘let his hair down’ at monthly poker games

Though it seems Carson may not have usually been the one to host the poker nights at his house, they became known as his games. Per NBC, Carl Reiner remembered, “The poker games were like once a month for many, many, many years,” and, “it was the only time that Carson ever let his hair down.”

According to Reiner, Only Murders in the Building star Steve Martin would often host along with a nice dinner, which led some to call them the “Gourmet Poker Group.”

He shared that the events were most enjoyable because Carson played low stakes, despite how rich he was. Actor Chevy Chase also regularly attended and said the host “folded a lot, but was funny as hell,” as reported by NBC.

“It was good for Johnny, because he would get off at 6:30 or 7, after his show. It was a great night for him to just relax with friends and have fun,” he explained. “Much of the time we were doing it for him, in a sense … he was working harder than any of us most of the time. It was a lot of fun when Johnny was alive.”

Reiner recalled that the last game took place shortly before Carson’s death in 2005. “I’ll never forget the last one. He wasn’t feeling well, and he bowed out of one and that was very soon before he passed away,” he shared. “Those poker games were very important to him.”

Steve Martin played poker with his idol, Johnny Carson


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In his book, Born Standing Up, Martin writes about starting his career on The Tonight Show trying to impress Carson with his comedy in the ’70s. He shares, “I was able to maintain a personal relationship with Johnny over the next thirty years, at least as personal as he or I could make it, and I was flattered that he came to respect my comedy.”

Part of what seemingly bonded them were a few common interests — magic, comedy, and playing poker. So, it’s not surprising that Martin was eventually a regular player in what came to be known as Carson’s games.

“All we did was laugh,” Martin recalled of the games on The Howard Stern Show. “The whole premise of the poker game was laughter. And then occasionally we would play poker.”

Martin Short spit mashed potatoes on Johnny Carson during a poker game

While chatting with Conan O’Brien on Conan, Martin’s Only Murders in the Building co-star, Martin Short, disclosed that he ended up at one poker game as his friend’s guest. It was his first time meeting Carson, but he was seated beside him while they had dinner.

As Short recalled, he laughed at something Martin said as he was eating. Then, he had the sensation some of his mashed potatoes had flown out of his mouth and landed somewhere, but he wasn’t sure where. So, he looked around and discovered some sitting on Carson’s hand.

Perhaps that’s why Short seemingly wasn’t a regular guest for the “Gourmet Poker Group” games.