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Television icons Johnny Carson and co-host, Ed McMahon, were friends for almost five decades before Carson’s death in 2005. After that, McMahon reflected on the “Renaissance overachiever” and his many talents, recalling a blend of perfectionism and athleticism that often drove the host to try to beat the experts on The Tonight Show. So, what other impressive skills did Carson have apart from hilarious hosting?

(l-r) Olympic gymnast Kurt Thomas and host Johnny Carson on May 10, 1990
(l-r) Kurt Thomas and Johnny Carson | Joseph Del Valle/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

Ed McMahon said ‘overachiever’ Johnny Carson tried to ‘top’ every guest

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

“He blended his passion for perfection with great athleticism, so he tried to top 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 his slim lithe body; and the contortionist who tried to twist Johnny into a pretzel.”

Reaching further back, McMahon recalled a time when they were on Who Do You Trust? prior to joining The Tonight Show in 1962. In that example, Carson topped an expert fisherman by casting with more accuracy, causing some embarrassment for the professional.

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

(l-r) Actor Gary Collins watches as Johnny Carson walks on a tightrope
(l-r) Gary Collins and Johnny Carson | Gene Arias/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

Johnny Carson was a magician, ventriloquist, self-taught guitar player, drummer, and a competitive jitterbug dancer

As McMahon shared in Here’s Johnny, Carson had a plethora of talents for entertaining, starting with magic. His interest in magic tricks stemmed from a kit he purchased in childhood.

He once spent an entire weekend in a hotel room preparing tricks for The Tonight Show, McMahon recalled.

“More than just a magician, Johnny was also a ventriloquist who knew how to throw 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 issued a challenge to the local middleweight champ.”

And on top of it all, Carson was a self-taught guitar player and a drummer.


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‘Overachiever’ Johnny Carson learned to speak Swahili to prepare for a trip

According to late wildlife expert, Jim Fowler, the “overachiever” taught himself to speak different languages. Carson learned both Russian and Swahili separately in months.

And Fowler said Carson picked up the latter well enough to entertain locals on a trip. He revealed, per WALB News, “[Carson] was speaking to the staff in Swahili when we got to Africa.”

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