My Memories of Johnny Carson, "The Tonight Show," and 46 Years of Friendship
By Ed McMahon
Rutledge Hill. 217 pp. $24.99
At last, a Christmas present for Grandpa (unless he's an aging hippie). Get something else for Grandma, though. She's not going to like all the goofy jokes about breast milk and breasts.
"Here's Johnny" is about more or less what the title implies, a memoir of the old Johnny Carson "Tonight Show," told by his loyal sidekick. Carson went off the air in 1992, and everyone over the age of 35 can remember something about his show, so a memoir like this could have been so interesting. But for that to happen, Ed McMahon would have had to give up the public persona he's been cultivating for all these years -- the mindless yo-yo whose main contributions to this television phenomenon were the introduction, "Heeeeeere's Johnny!!!," the perplexing "Hi-yooo" and a steady stream of hearty laughter -- all part of the thankless job of playing straight man to Carson, a perfectionist, to put it mildly.
McMahon is anything but forthcoming in this book, but he does want us to know he had a life before Johnny. He was a carnival barker, sold Morris Metric Slicers on the Atlantic City boardwalk and pots and pans door-to-door, and served as a pilot and full colonel in the Marine Corps, flying 85 combat missions in World War II and Korea. He had always dreamed of being a radio announcer and after the wars got into television on the ground floor (some would say the basement). In 1958 he became the announcer for a game show with Carson called "Who Do You Trust?" It was back in the day when people in front of the cameras could do pretty much what they wanted to do, and Carson set the tone by burning McMahon's script with a lighter.
"In those four years of 'Who Do You Trust?,' the author writes, "Johnny and I shaped our unique relationship on the air. I set up the jokes and he got the laughs, sometimes at my expense. One day, he crawled under the camera and gave me a hot foot while I was doing a spot, distracting me so much that instead of saying, 'StayPuff makes it easy to pin a diaper,' I said, 'StayPuff makes it easy to pee.' "
I shouldn't complain about the book that might have been. (Besides, it's against the rules of book reviewing.) But here are two very complex men. You don't fly 85 combat missions if you've got the mind of a Cheerio, and you don't star in the nation's most popular late-night talk show for almost 5,000 nights over a period of 30 years with that mindset either. McMahon and Carson accrued four wives each, and each lost a child. They must have thought -- and suffered. But there's no more than five sentences of that in this book.
One of the richest men in Hollywood, McMahon obviously didn't write this for the money. He wrote it to remember dopey moments like them calling each other Emperor Coitus Interruptus and the wedding of Tiny Tim and Carson dressed up as King Tut, Aunt Blabby, Rambo, Carnac, Ronald Reagan and Art Fern of "Tea Time Movie." He wrote it to salute all the stars whom Carson discovered (or created) such as Joan Rivers, Bill Cosby, Barbra Streisand, Rodney Dangerfield, Bobby Darin, Suzanne Somers and Chris Rock. He wrote it to remember that Carson demanded an apology from Ray Charles when Charles dissed the house drummer, and the drummer got the apology.
Mostly, I think, McMahon wrote this to recall the jokes -- too long and shaggy to record here -- and the formulaic oral rituals: "Two grown men," one of them would say. "From major universities," the other one would answer.
These jokes, these outrageous costumes and formulaic rituals, are as dated as Grandpa dozing on the Barcalounger. They're what was happening in the regular culture while the counterculture was getting stoned. They come from a time when McMahon would mention "Mr. Gordon," and that would be hilarious because he was referring to gin. When "breasts" were hysterically funny just because they were there. While part of America was discovering sex, drugs and rock-and-roll, the other part was getting down with Carnac and Aunt Blabby.
I haven't the foggiest idea what all this means. But these things happened. The show was iconic for more than a generation. McMahon doesn't want us to forget. The trouble is, he doesn't seem like he has the foggiest idea what it was all about either. "We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on them," Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in one of his later, more disillusioned essays. But McMahon takes that adage to a depressing extreme.
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