Sidekick Ed McMahon Remembers Carson
LOS ANGELES – Johnny Carson (search), so public each night on "The Tonight Show," was intensely private off screen. But former sidekick Ed McMahon (search) knows why Americans still felt close to him.
"When you tuned in, you got what you were looking for," McMahon told The Associated Press on Monday, a day after Carson died at age 79. "Nailing someone in the political world, doing a funny joke ... You were looking for that at the close of the day."
"How many women came up to him, giggling, and said, `I go to bed with you every night,'" McMahon recalled. "They thought it was for the first time. It was for the first one-millionth time."
There will be no memorial service, which McMahon finds unsurprising. The way Carson left "Tonight," slipping quietly away into retirement, is how he's leaving now.
"The final arrangements are: You put on your hat, the door closes, it's over," McMahon said.
NBC and "Tonight" host Jay Leno planned a tribute to Carson on Monday's show, with McMahon, who remains active in entertainment, among the guests.
McMahon, who introduced Carson with the trademark "Heeeeere's Johnny!" and serving as erstwhile foil for three decades, said he was shocked when his wife, Pam, took the sad call Sunday morning.
"I saw the blood leave her face. It was the same look you get when a relative dies," said McMahon, who said Carson was "like a brother to me."
The rest of Sunday swung from "tears to laughter," he said.
"Every time I saw something (on TV) we did and remembered how good it was and how much better it looks now," McMahon said, he felt proud.
He treasures memories of meeting Carson's high standards for "Tonight," the show which became the focus of all Carson's energies and talents from 1962 to 1992.
McMahon painted a picture of one such moment: Carson is doing his monologue and it isn't going over with the audience. For the first and only time in the show's history, McMahon says, he walks over to interrupt.
"I give him a spin like I'm a coach and say, 'You're better than this. Don't let the audience get to you,'" McMahon said — followed by a slap that parodied a popular commercial.
"Thanks, I needed that," Carson replied, in perfect synch with McMahon for the unrehearsed moment.
The joy was doing "something that helped the show," which was what mattered to Carson, McMahon said.
He seemed fine when they last spoke, a phone call about three weeks ago, McMahon said.
"I thought they were treating the emphysema problem with medication. It was a total shock and surprise to me," he said.
Emphysema, a respiratory disease, has been linked to smoking. Carson, who had heart bypass surgery in 1999, was a heavy smoker during his "Tonight" days, wielding a cigarette as a prop on air until smoking on TV passed out of favor.
Despite the tobacco habit, Carson was "always a health nut, very proud of his body," said McMahon. He got a kick out of doing the Tarzan sketches where he was in a nude-to-the-waist costume that showed off his fit form.
He didn't kick cigarettes until after his retirement, and with difficulty.
"We'd be out to dinner somewhere and afterward he'd light up. Halfway through he'd crush it out and say, `I gotta stop this,'" McMahon recalled.
Carson satisfied his creative urges by writing humor essays for The New Yorker magazine and shooting off occasional jokes to David Letterman for his "Late Show" monologue.
He never lost his edge, McMahon said. When he called Carson in October to wish him a happy birthday, the two started bantering like old times.
"We could have gone on (television) that night and done a 'Carnac' skit. We were that crisp and hot."