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‘Johnny knew what the country wanted’

Former “Tonight Show” sidekick Ed McMahon talks about the shy Carson most didn’t know and the late night legend’s  final years.
/ Source: TODAY

For 30 years on “The Tonight Show,” Johnny Carson had a trusted sidekick beside him on the couch every night, Ed McMahon. “Today” host Katie Couric talked with McMahon about the death of one of the biggest and most successful stars in television history.

Katie Couric: Hi, Ed.  So good to see you.

Ed McMahon: Hi, Katie. Nice to see you. It's kind of a strange day, isn't it?

Couric:  It's so strange.

McMahon:  I never thought this would happen.  It's amazing that, you know, my whole day started with a phone call from Jeff Sotzing, his nephew, the gentleman who runs his company. Pam answered the phone, and I could see that look on her face.  That's all I needed.  And I said, “Oh, God.” She gave me the phone. I had a strange day.  It went very ambivalent.  I'd be crying one minute and laughing the next. It was the kind of thing that ... I loved it, but I didn't think that Johnny would have loved it. He had a gesture.  If you studied his gestures, you know, when a comic was good, he'd kind of lean on his elbow … kind of the Jewish word “kvelling.” You know, he'd kvell, he'd love it. Then the guy would be waved over. He had another gesture.  When he got awards or anything, anything that was any kind of honor, he would go like this [waves hand], you know, “Put it away. I don't want it.”  He wouldn't have wanted yesterday, but I am so glad he got it.

Couric:  Well, do you think that he'd be embarrassed somehow by all the accolades.  I mean, he is such a loved guy. So many people I think felt, Ed, in a way that, despite the fact that he was 79 years old, Johnny Carson seemed kind of immortal, didn't he?

McMahon:  Oh, yeah. Yes, very much so. You know, he did his own thing.  He set the pace, his own pace, how he wanted to do it. When I would see him, which was kind of rare toward the end here, I used to see him about four or five times a year, then that dwindled to three, a couple of times. Then finally, the last time I saw him was on the boat — we had lunch.  He was heading to the Panama Canal and we had a little gathering. But I used to hear from him. He would call me when he would get a good joke. He'd call me on the phone and give me the joke. He'd always call me on my birthday and I always called him on his birthday, October 23rd.  He always called me on March 6th. Last year he called me and gave me the greatest joke, he always gave me jokes I had never heard.  That was my birthday present.  He'd say, “Here's your present,” and he'd give me the joke. I would love to tell you the joke, but NBC's got such a nice thing going here, I don't want to take it off the air, so I won't tell you the joke. But, anyway, that's the kind of relationship we had. You know, we were buddies even though we weren't joined at the hip — we were buddies.

Couric:  You know, Ed, it's interesting, because ever since Johnny left "The Tonight Show," he did something unusual.  He stayed out of the public eye, and he felt very strongly about that.  I know I tried to get an interview with him on countless occasions.  He always said he just didn't want to be in the spotlight anymore.

McMahon: Yeah.

Couric:  Why did he feel so strongly about staying out of the spotlight once he retired?

McMahon:  Well … he was very shy. He hated parties. When he had to go to a party, he hated it.  We put him on once. We had him over in London, in Wimbledon, and there was a show his company produced of bloopers and practical jokes. He had done a practical joke on me, so I did one on him. We had him go to a cocktail party and we had a lot of English actors talking in gibberish — if you could see the pain on his face. The guy would some up and say, [with English accent] “Mr. Carson, you are so wonderful, just to see you because I've been watching your show over the years and you've done ‘The Tonight Show.’ ” Johnny is trying to fake it.  He almost killed me when it was all over. But, anyway, he hated parties. So his idea of fun was just to be over in the corner somewhere doing magic with somebody. If he was at a party, he would be rolling quarters on his fingers or he'd be breaking up cigarettes and making them disappear. He didn't like being in parties or with 10 people. He didn't like that.

Couric:  And I know...

McMahon:  So it didn't surprise me at all.

Couric:  I know, Ed, during the last years of his life, he really loved traveling, learning different languages, seeing parts of the world he had never been to. I mean, he was really enjoying himself, wasn't he, despite his failing health?McMahon:  Oh, yeah, he loved the boat. You know, the boat was a big part of his life.  He loved the boat.  I would know what he was doing because I would run into people, out and about, I travel all of the time.  I'm working all the time.  So I would meet people in airports and a guy would say, “I just saw your boss in Belize.” I'd say, “Belize, how did he get there?”  But he went through the Canal several times on the boat, maybe four or five times.  He went up the New England coast.  He went up the New England waterways.  He went to the Dominican Republic.  He used to spend a lot of time up in the Channel Islands in the summer.  He would take the boat up there.  He'd go down to Cabo with the boat. He loved that boat. He kidded me about my yacht.

Couric: Yeah, really?

McMahon:  My yacht could be a dinghy on his yacht.

Couric:  Before we go, you know, everybody is talking about Johnny's special gifts, and why he was so popular.  Before we leave you, since you sat by his side for 30 years, and laughed very heartily, especially when his jokes bombed, what do you think — why do you think he made such an impact on the country?

McMahon:  Well, he had a great pulse reading on America.  He knew exactly what the country wanted.  He took the country's blood pressure, he found out exactly what they were all about and he hit on it. In his monologue, if you wanted to know what was going on in the world, all you had to do was listen to his monologue.  I suggested at the end of the run, I said, “What they ought to do is take 30 years of his monologues and have them in libraries all over the country.” For somebody studying the ’60s or the ’70s or the ’80s, the first two years of the ’90s, go into the library and check out Johnny's monologues, and you'd get a feel of what the ’70s were like, what the ’60s were like.  We started in ’62, as you know.  He just captured what was going on in the country, and he felt what the people needed, the joke that they needed about something in politics, something in mores, something in habits, whatever was happening he could grab that and make it funny, but still get the message across in a gentle way.

Couric:  I know in the New York Times tribute today, they — he was apparently asked once what he wanted his epitaph to be. And he said after thinking for a second, “I'll be right back.” We wish that were the case. Thanks so much for getting up so early and talking with us.

McMahon:  Thank you, Katie.

Couric:  So nice to see you, Ed.

McMahon:  Thank you.

Couric:  Thanks again.

McMahon:  I'll miss him.

Couric:  So will we all.