What Johnny Carson really said about Elvis Presley on ‘The Tonight Show’
A less publicized facet of Elvis Presley’s fascinating character is that he admired comedy with an intense passion, staying up until the first rays of the morning light with the Memphis Mafia to screen films and television appearances from the likes of Peter Sellers, Monty Python, and Johnny Carson. Quoting entire comedy monologues or routines was a common occurrence.
Humor lifted Presley’s spirits in times of inner turmoil, but it eluded him on the occasion of his 40th birthday in January 1975 when a wrongly perceived joke by the King of Late Night damaged the King of Rock ’N’ Roll’s fragile ego. In the months leading up to the milestone, the world’s most scrutinized rock star was experiencing both a personal and professional valley.
Presley had performed a two-week October tour that received withering reviews chronicling erratic, drug-fueled behavior. Supermarket tabloids gleefully posted unflattering stage photos of Presley’s developing middle section, best evidenced by a lurid National Enquirer exposé proclaiming “Elvis at 40 — Paunchy, Depressed, and Living in Fear.” Memphis newspapers, including the Memphis Commercial Appeal, secretly spoke to friends and gate guards, acquiring an alarming snapshot of an entertainer living in self-imposed seclusion.
Newly divorced with a six-year-old daughter and stringing along several younger girlfriends, Presley decided to take matters into his own hands and moved into Elias Ghanem’s upstairs bedroom, the notorious doctor to the stars in Las Vegas. Ghanem had devised a ridiculous sleep diet that would supposedly enable the entertainer to lose considerable weight via liquid nourishment and prolonged sedation. Long story short — Presley was heavier upon completion of the month-long program and still depressed over the looming birthday.
On the recording front, news was markedly better. Two consecutive singles — the funky soul churner “If You Talk in Your Sleep” and the joyous rocker “Promised Land” — went Top 20. RCA’s promotional tomfoolery unfortunately hampered their chances of charting higher. And three consecutive single A and B-sides — “I’ve Got a Thing About You Baby,” “Help Me,” and “It’s Midnight” — landed squarely in the country Top Ten and signaled Presley’s burgeoning appeal in country markets.
RCA naturally asked their most prized asset to enter the recording studio again, yet Presley kept stalling. His mind was elsewhere — producing an unlikely, albeit brazen venture utilizing documentary-style karate footage interspersed with more traditional action scenes then popular in exploitative kung fu drive-in fare. Vegas concerts ground to a halt as the eighth degree black belt conducted extended karate demonstrations and monologues. Colonel Tom Parker sadly killed The New Gladiators, although Presley’s precarious health maladies — insomnia, advanced glaucoma, hypertension, enlarged heart, impacted colon — contributed as well.
Parker had discovered an ingenuous loophole in the singer’s RCA contract that would enable the wily manager to reap a mini financial windfall by cobbling together an album consisting of his “boy” simply talking from the Hilton stage in Vegas. That’s right, no singing. Released on the manager’s Boxcar Enterprises label, the resulting album, Having Fun with Elvis on Stage, embarrassed Presley, his peers, and fans considerably. The travesty actually sold almost as much as Good Times, the artist’s previous underrated studio album recorded at Stax Studios in Memphis.
Presley marked his 40th birthday without fanfare, preferring to stay secluded in his upstairs bedroom at Graceland. Later that evening he tuned into The Tonight Show as he usually did for a few laughs. What happened next comes from Presley’s first cousin and closest friend during his final days, Billy Smith, who revealed a sobering anecdote to author Alanna Nash in the exhaustive oral history Elvis Aaron Presley: Revelations from the Memphis Mafia .
Smith said, “Elvis was always crazy about Johnny Carson. But then a few years later, Johnny was doing his monologue one night and Elvis was watching him. Johnny said something about Elvis being ‘fat and forty.’ And boy, Elvis turned against him after that. He wouldn’t hardly watch him anymore. Elvis took stuff like that hard…” Another respected Presley scholar, Peter Guralnick, repeated Smith’s recollection in the acclaimed Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley biography .
But did Carson really utter to millions of viewers that Presley was “fat and forty?” The comedian’s Tonight Show clip licensing database, available only to entertainment and broadcast media, holds the indisputable key. It contains nearly all of his Tonight Show episodes [i.e. monologues] post-1972. In viewing the video and reading the transcript, the late night host said the following on the night of Jan. 8, 1975:
“Guess who celebrated their 40th birthday today?” Elvis Presley. He is now wearing orthopedic blue suede shoes [audience laughter]. He looks very young, though, but I hear he got an orthopedic, I mean he got a surgical hip lift…he is only allowed to swivel now in the presence of a registered nurse. That’s what the nurse told me.”
Nowhere did Carson mention Presley being “fat and forty.” The only aspect where Presley might have taken offense revolves around the corny “orthopedic blue suede shoes” bit. So why did Presley perceive Carson’s joke in such a visceral reaction? Perhaps he felt he had been betrayed, since Carson had earlier visited Presley several times backstage in Vegas and complimented his spell-binding performance. We will never know the full story. However, what is undisputed is that Presley’s psyche was hanging delicately in the balance as he entered his fourth decade.
In the ensuing weeks, Parker was forced to postpone the singer’s annual January residency at the Hilton in Vegas. Presley had difficulty breathing and was admitted to Memphis’ Baptist Hospital for two weeks in an effort to combat his prescription drug dependency, all to little avail. The end game came shockingly some two and a half years later on a sweltering August day in Memphis.
On March 21, 1991, a year before Carson abdicated his late night throne, he bantered with Ed McMahon at the desk, inadvertently revealing his true feelings for the departed artist. Carson read various, true instances demonstrating how life was unfair and then provided humorous examples of what would happen if there was any justice in the world. When he said, “If life was fair, Elvis would be alive and the impersonators would be dead,” wild applause ensued from the crowd.
For the sake of completeness, Carson mentioned Presley three additional times in his nightly monologue while the “Burning Love” singer was still alive, ranging from his penchant for giving away Cadillacs to the Boeing 707 jet that nearly superseded the beloved Lisa Marie Convair 880 plane. Here are the jokes, presented in their entirety for the first time.
The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson monologue, Jan. 8, 1974: “How about some happy news? You know who’s celebrating their 39th birthday today? Elvis Presley. It’s hard to think of Elvis pushing 40 years old. But just to show he still has it, he blew out the candles on his cake today with his hips.”
The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson monologue, Jan. 22, 1975: “Most people have trouble with inflation, paying the rent, trying to buy a new car. Did you read today what Elvis Presley is thinking of buying? You think you got trouble making the house payments? Elvis’ father was apparently up in New Jersey today, and he is considering buying his own 707. I don’t mean a little two wheels with propellers on it. I mean a 707 jet airliner. It has a sauna, a dance floor, a gymnasium, two bedrooms and two dining rooms. It’s like a house that flies…Elvis’ plane does have some problems, though. Every time the plane takes off, it pulls Elvis’ plug out of his guitar. He does have another problem. As you are landing, the stewardesses remind you to keep your seatbelt fastened until Elvis’ hips come to a complete stop.”
The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson monologue, Jan. 21, 1976: “Well, let’s go to the news and see if Elvis Presley gave his parakeet a new Cadillac. Did you notice that? Presley’s giving everybody Cadillacs. You say hello and Elvis gives you a Cadillac.”
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