Johnny Carson was a “renaissance gifted” according to Ed McMahon


TV icons Johnny Carson and co-host Ed McMahon were friends for nearly five decades before Carson’s death in 2005. After that, McMahon reflected on the “Renaissance overachiever” and his many talents, reminiscent of a mix of perfectionism and athleticism that often led the host to try and beat the experts on The show tonight. So what other awesome skills did Carson have besides hilarious hosting?

(lr) Kurt Thomas and Johnny Carson | Joseph Del Valle/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

Ed McMahon said ‘super-achiever’ Johnny Carson tried to ‘top’ every guest

As McMahon recalled in his memoirs, Here’s Johnny Carson was naturally good at many different things, or a “Renaissance overachiever”. Of course, the quality was part of what made it so entertaining. He invited guests from different walks of life and sometimes challenged them in their craft.

“He mixed his passion for perfection with great athleticism, so he tried to outdo every guest expert…” McMahon wrote. “The karate expert, who showed him how to break a board with his head; the woman holding the hula hoop record, which Johnny tried to break with her lean, lithe body; and the contortionist who tried to turn Johnny into a pretzel.

Going back further, McMahon remembers a time when they were on Who do you trust? before joining The show tonight in 1962. In this example, Carson outplayed an expert angler by casting more accurately, causing the professional embarrassment.

But McMahon said the iconic host simply lives by the motto all you can, can i do better. “I’m glad the show never had a guest heart surgeon,” he joked.

(lr) Actor Gary Collins watches Johnny Carson walk a tightrope

(lr) Gary Collins and Johnny Carson | Gene Arias/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

Johnny Carson was a magician, ventriloquist, self-taught guitarist, drummer, and competitive jitterbug dancer.

As McMahon shared Here’s Johnny Carson had a plethora of talents for entertainment, starting with magic. His interest in magic tricks stems from a kit he bought as a child.

Once he spent an entire weekend in a hotel room planning tricks for The show tonight McMahon called back.

“More than just a magician, Johnny was also a ventriloquist who knew how to cast his voice,” he shared. “He learned ballroom dancing and won an Arthur Murray jitterbug contest.”

McMahon added, “Johnny was so competitive that when we went to state fairs I had to act as his bodyguard in case he challenged the local middleweight champion.”

And to top it off, Carson was a self-taught guitarist and drummer.

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“Overachiever” Johnny Carson learned to speak Swahili to prepare for a trip

According to the late wildlife expert Jim Fowler, the “overachievers” taught themselves to speak different languages. Carson learned Russian and Swahili separately within months.

And Fowler said Carson understood the latter well enough to entertain locals on a trip. He revealed, according to WALB News, “[Carson] spoke to staff in Swahili when we arrived in Africa.

In a 2002 Esquire interview, Carson admitted knowing Swahili but denied being proficient. He said he learned just enough to communicate, which he said was “relatively easy”.

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