Johnny Carson – The Magician??
Last week I posted a video of a dice routine on my second ‘Tonight Show’ appearance with Johnny Carson. A number of people wrote and asked what it was like to be on the show and what my interaction with Carson was like, aside from appearing on the show, so I’ll cover a few of those details in this Blog post.
Appearing on the Tonight Show with Johnny was the dream of every magician. My sister Dorothy tells the story that when she was 8 years old (I would have been 18) I turned to her and said: “I’m going to appear on that TV show one day.” My dad loved Carson and he would sometimes let us kids stay up late so we could watch the beginning of it if there was no school the next day. I remember seeing Al Goshman on the show before I knew much about magic… and he really impressed me. His sponge ball and salt shaker routine made quite an impression.
Performing on ‘The Tonight Show’ was fun but a bit nerve wracking. I remember walking out on my first appearance noticing the band was on my left and Carson’s desk was on my right and I thought… Wow… I really AM on the show. This was the first time I was seeing the ‘Tonight Show’ set from that perspective because all those years watching it from the TV perspective the band is on the right side and the desk is on the left side of the TV screen.
Carson was great to work with and he always made me feel at ease. He came to every rehearsal in the afternoon, which normally he did not do, but he told me he wanted to make sure the cameras shot the magic just right. He stopped by my dressing room right before show time and said, “Paul, you just do what you do and they will love you.”
You’ll notice, like on the clip I posted last week, that when I worked on the show it was always just Carson and myself doing the spot at the table. I’ve always found that interesting, as it was his decision to do it that way. I remember a few times during rehearsals the director would ask, do you want to have some of the other guests sit around the table? And each time Johnny would say, “No… I think it should just be Paul, and me,” and of course I would defer to his decision. I think Carson knew that a Louie Anderson or a Tony Danza could easily upstage me, and Johnny wanted the magic to be the center of attention. In fact, the only time Johnny injected himself into my set was not to upstage me but it was to make my performance even better with a joke or physical reaction. He was all about letting a performer shine and helping them shine a bit brighter.
The Magician – Johnny Carson
Johnny was very interested in magic and had a library of magic books that he would read. I had the sense that he wanted magicians to know that he was one of them and this was obvious when he had a magician on the show.
When Doug Henning was on the show and did a trick with the Hulls Mental Photography deck, Johnny said, “rough and smooth” very casually. The regular viewer had no idea what he was referring to but it was code to the magicians out there that he was in the know and one of us. Often Johnny would vanish a coin or as he did with me pick up a die and do a quick pass to vanish the object, not to upstage me… but simply letting the magicians know that he too could do a little magic. I taught him my coin routine called ‘A Familiar Ring’ and I know for a fact that he used it on occasions and that is by no means a self-working trick. I know he also spent time working on some of the coin magic that Dean Dill shared with him as well.
It’s also obvious in his introduction to my book Steel & Silver where he specifically mentions some coin sleights, again letting us know that he was first and foremost a magician. I think that was important to him.
He Fooled Me
During my first visit to Johnny’s house, he had been casually picking up a red deck of Bicycles sitting on the table and shuffling them a bit throughout our three-hour session. Just as I was about to leave he said here let me show you something I’ve been playing with and he proceeded to do a card effect that really did fool me. I had no idea what he did or how he found the selected card. He was quite thrilled that he had fooled me and he did not offer to tip the method.
Then just as I was saying goodbye and walking out the door he with a smile said, Royal Road to Card Magic… and mentioned a page number. When I got home and looked it up I discovered it used a stacked deck. He fooled me with a stacked deck that he had been casually giving a false shuffle, maintaining the stack through out our three-hour session. I thought that demonstrated what Johnny was known for… a perfect sense of timing. He simply waited for the right moment, just as I was about to leave and threw this trick at me like it was an afterthought. In reality he had it stacked and set even before I got there and he waited for just the right moment to hit me with the punch line. He really was a master of timing.
I sent him a letter after I got back home and all it said was: “Nice false shuffle!”
He got quite a kick out of that.