Carnac the Magnificent
Carnac the Magnificent was a recurring comedic role played by Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. One of Carson's most well-known characters, Carnac was a "mystic from the East" who could psychically "divine" unknown answers to unseen questions.
The character was introduced in 1964. As Carnac, Carson wore a large feathered turban and a cape. The character would emerge from behind the show's curtain accompanied by Indian music, and make his way towards the desk, where he would invariably stumble and lose his balance. On one occasion frequently rebroadcast on anniversary shows, Carson's desk was replaced with a lightweight balsa-wood version. This allowed Carson to trip and smash through it.
The character was taken from Steve Allen's essentially identical "Answer Man" segment, which Allen performed during his tenure as The Tonight Show's host in the 1950s. As Allen acknowledged in his book, The Question Man, this bit had been created in Kansas City in 1951 by Bob Arbogast and used on The Tom Poston Show in New York where it eventually ended up on The Steve Allen Show, much to the surprise of both Bob and Steve. The Carnac character and routine also closely resemble Ernie Kovacs' "Mr. Question Man".
Longtime sidekick Ed McMahon ritualistically and bombastically introduced the Carnac routines. The announcement implied Carnac was responsible for some scandal or disaster currently in the news, as "And now, the great seer, soothsayer, and sage, Carnac the Magnificent." After Carnac entered and stumbled, Ed would continue as follows:
"I hold in my hand the envelopes. As a child of four can plainly see, these envelopes have been hermetically sealed. They've been kept in a mayonnaise jar on Funk and Wagnalls' porch since noon today. No one knows the contents of these envelopes, but you, in your mystical and borderline divine way, will ascertain the answers having never before heard the questions."
The act involved a variation of the magician's billet reading trick: divining the answer to a question written on a card sealed inside one of the envelopes, announcing it to the audience, then tearing open the envelope to reveal the question. The comedy came from an unexpected question following a seemingly straightforward answer. The resulting jokes often involved puns or wordplay; the answer "The La Brea Tar Pits" was the answer to "What do you have left after eating the La Brea Tar Peaches?", and "9W" was the answer to "Mr. Wagner, do you spell your name with a V?" Jokes would also be topical; for instance, "Over 105 in Los Angeles" (presumably referring to the temperature) instead led to "Under the Reagan plan, how old would you have to be to collect Social Security?" The longest laugh ever recorded was given to "Sis Boom Bah," which was the answer to "Describe the sound made when a sheep explodes."
The segment included several running gags and bits of business. After Carnac said an answer, McMahon would frequently repeat it in a booming voice, to set up a sneer, putdown, or some other comic reaction. Carnac held each envelope to his forehead while "divining" the answer, then tore open the envelope and loudly blew into it before removing the index card with the question. Pretending to psychically concentrate, Carnac periodically asked for "complete silence" from the audience, and McMahon would retort that he often got it.
Some typical examples of Carnac divinations:
- "Billy Graham, Virginia Graham, and Lester Maddox" ... "Name two Grahams and a Cracker!"
- "Over 105 in Los Angeles" ... "Under the Reagan plan, how old do you have to be to collect Social Security?"
- "V-8" ... "What kind of social disease can you get from an octopus?"
- "Debate" ... "What do you use to catch de fish?"
- "Baja" ... "What sound does a sheep make when it laughs?"
- "Camelot" ... "Where do Arabians park their camels?"
- "Ben-Gay" ... "Why didn't Mrs. Franklin have any kids?"
- "20,000 Leagues Under The Sea" ... "How deep is Orson Welles' belly button?"
- "Mr. Coffee" ... "Name the father of Mrs. Olson's illegitimate baby."
- "Ghotbzadeh" ... "What do Iranian men do when their wives refuse them by night?"
- "S. I. Hayakawa!" ... "Describe the sound made by a man getting his zipper caught in a Waring blender."
- "Pass the hat" ... "What does a cannibal do after eating Minnie Pearl?"
- "Dippity-Do!" ... "What forms on your Dippity early in the morning?"
- "A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou" ... "Name three things that have yeast."
- "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" ... "How do you tell Marcello Mastroianni his doo-dah is open?"
- "Three Dog Night" ... "What's a bad night for a tree?"
- "McIntosh, Dolly Parton, and the Ford Pinto" ... "Name an apple, a pear (play on "pair" of breasts) and a lemon!"
- "Goodyear, Tuck, and Andrei Gromyko" ... "Name a tire, a friar and a liar!"
- "Sis boom bah" ... "Describe the sound made when a sheep explodes."
- "Senta Berger" ... "I ordered a corned beef on rye from the NBC commissary, and guess what they did!"
- "Walla Walla" ..."Hey......Tony (Italian accent) What kind uva carpets you got atta you houseah?"
- "Inky dinky doo" ... "What do sanitation workers have to sweep up after a parade of Inky dinkies?"
- "Black Beauty" ... "What do you call a polar bear walking next to the Alaskan Pipeline?"
- "The Seven Wonders Of The World" ... "Describe three-and-a-half Dallas Cowgirls."
- "Bjorn Borg" ... "Describe the sound made when two fat people get romantic."
- "Twelve Drummers Drumming, Eleven Pipers Piping, Ten Lords A-Leaping, Nine Ladies Dancing, Eight Maids A-Milking, Seven Swans A-Swimming, Six Geese A-Laying, Five Gold Rings, Four Calling Birds, Three French Hens, Two Turtle Doves and a Partridge in a Pear Tree" ... "Who is going to be appearing on the Donny and Marie show this week?"
- "Ivory Snow" ... "What do hip elephants sniff up their trunks?"
- "Fleetwood Mac" ... "What do you call a hamburger made out of old Cadillacs?"
Audience reaction played a major role in the skit. If a joke (often a very bad pun) generated a negative response, Carnac would give a disapproving look, then cast a comedic "Middle Eastern curse" upon the audience (such as "May your favorite daughter be featured in NFL Films' Sack of the Week", "May a bloated yak change the temperature of your jacuzzi", "May you walk a mile under a diseased camel", "May the fleas of a thousand camels infest the crotch of the person seated next to me and may his arms be too short to scratch" or "May your only son become the goalie on a nude hockey team.") One of the most memorable audience insults came after the Philadelphia 76ers NBA team swept the Los Angeles Lakers in the finals to win the 1983 NBA Championship, when Carnac retorted, "May Dr. J slam dunk your cat." McMahon's closing announcement "I hold in my hand the last envelope" was always met with a loud cheer, prompting one last "curse".
The curse concept was created by "Tonight Show" head writer and Woody Allen collaborator Marshall Brickman. He dubbed it the "Carnac Saver" and said in a 2009 interview, "I’ll go to my grave having to apologize for having invented the Carnac Saver."
The Late Show with David Letterman referenced the bit frequently, with Paul Shaffer wearing the turban and doing one Carnac-style joke before being interrupted by Letterman. This homage was usually mixed with "Stump the Band", another longtime Carson segment which was sometimes re-used on Letterman's program.
The act is also spoofed in an episode of King of the Hill.
The act was referenced in an episode of Better Call Saul.
Carnac's final appearance on The Tonight Show occurred on February 19, 1992.
- Rothman, Seymour (1992-05-17). "So Long, Johnny!". Toledo Blade. Retrieved 2013-10-01.
- Edgerton, Gary R. (2009). The Columbia History of Television. Columbia University Press. p. 172. ISBN 9780231121651. Retrieved 2011-10-23.
- Pack, Lindsy E. (2004). Newcomb, Horace, ed. Encyclopedia of Television. CRC Press. p. 816. ISBN 9781579584115. Retrieved 2011-10-23.
- Nachman, Gerald (2003). Seriously Funny The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s. New York, NY: Pantheon Books. p. 169. ISBN 9780375410307. OCLC 50339527.
- "CNN Transcripts: Larry King Live". CNN. 2006-02-22. Retrieved 2013-10-02.
- Remington, Alexander F. (2009-06-24). "Ed McMahon,'Tonight Show' Stalwart, Dies". Washington Post. Retrieved 2013-10-02.
- Sacks, Mike. "Marshall Brickman Interview". AndHeresTheKicker.com. Retrieved 2011-10-23.
- Carnac the Magnificent at Youtube - includes video clips of Carson as Carnac