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What Johnny Carson really said about Elvis Presley on 'The Tonight Show'

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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.

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Humor lifted Elvis' 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.

Elvis had performed a two-week October tour that received withering reviews chronicling erratic, drug-fueled behavior. Supermarket tabloids gleefully posted unflattering stage photos of Elvis' 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 seclusion.

Newly divorced with a six-year-old daughter and stringing along several younger girlfriends, Elvis 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 – Elvis 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 Elvis' burgeoning appeal in country markets.

RCA naturally asked their most prized asset to enter the recording studio again, yet Elvis 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 Elvis' precarious health contributed as well [e.g. insomnia, advanced glaucoma, hypertension, enlarged heart, impacted colon, etc.]

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 Elvis, 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.

Elvis 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 Elvis' 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 [1995].

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 [1999].

But did Johnny really utter to millions of viewers that Elvis was "fat and forty?" The comedian's Tonight Show clip licensing database, available only to entertainment and broadcast media as of this writing, 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 Johnny mention Elvis being "fat and forty." The only aspect where Elvis might have taken offense revolves around the corny "orthopedic blue suede shoes" bit. So why did Elvis perceive Johnny's joke in such a visceral reaction? Perhaps he felt he had been betrayed, since Johnny had earlier visited Elvis several times backstage in Vegas and complimented his spell-binding performance. We will never know the full story. However, what is undisputed is that Elvis' 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. Elvis 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 Johnny vacated his late night throne, he bantered with Ed McMahon at the desk, inadvertently revealing his true feelings for the departed artist. Johnny 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, Johnny mentioned Elvis 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.”

DON'T GO ANYWHERE YET! Trailblazing Cleveland deejay Tommy Edwards was the first deejay in Cleveland to actively promote Elvis Presley. His bold efforts ultimately broke Elvis north of the Mason-Dixon Line, virtually a racial divider during the '50s. The deejay also had a prominent role in the highly sought after but still lost concert film, "The Pied Piper of Cleveland", which documented the first time Elvis was filmed by a professional camera. To read about the King of Rock and Roll's meteoric rise to worldwide fame, why one prominent authority controversially believes "Mystery Train" was the singer's last honest recording, and a surprising defense of the actor's widely panned film, "Tickle Me", visit the following link: ["Recognizing the Incendiary Deejay Who Broke Elvis North of the Mason-Dixon Line"].

Twitter: To interact directly with Jeremy Roberts, follow @jeremylr

Exclusive Interview: The Master of Telecaster, James Burton, is a charter member of L.A. studio wizards the Wrecking Crew and has supported a who's who list of preeminent movers and shakers in a nearly 60-year career – notably Elvis Presley, John Denver, The Beach Boys, Simon and Garfunkel, Merle Haggard, and recently Brad Paisley. Burton joined Rick Nelson in late 1957 for the classic "Stood Up" b/w "Waitin' in School" driving rockabilly single, actually rooming with the Nelson family and ultimately forging an 11-year friendship with the handsome singer. To read a revealing in-depth feature with the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer commemorating his fascinating journey with Nelson ["Six String Brothers: James Burton Champions the Timeless Allure of Rick Nelson"], simply click on the highlighted link.

Exclusive Interview No. 2: Did you know? Blind pianist Ronnie Milsap, who ruled country radio during the '80s with jewels ranging from "Any Day Now" to "Stranger in My House", had a bona fide boyhood idol in Elvis Presley. In "More Thunder on the Piano...", Milsap offers juicy anecdotes about playing keyboards and singing harmony with Elvis on "Kentucky Rain" in the ghetto-ridden section of Memphis, playing two highly coveted New Year's Eve parties attended by a gun-loving, flashlight-toting Elvis, how he learned about the icon's shocking death, and the dilapidated World War II-era plane that nearly cost him his life while en route to a record convention appearance.

Exclusive Interview No. 3: Jordanaire Ray Walker counted Elvis Presley as a close friend for two decades. In fact, the genial bassist's debut recording session with the King of Rock and Roll yielded a million selling record – "(Now and Then There's) A Fool Such as I." He recently relived the experience of sitting front row center during an Elvis recording session. Later when the "Alabama Wild Man" himself, Jerry Reed, unexpectedly showed up to add some patented gut-string guitar to a few country rock numbers, the session got especially rambunctious. Visit the following article, "Jordanaire Ray Walker Recalls Studio Nights With Elvis Presley and Jerry Reed," for the complete lowdown.

Exclusive Interview No. 4: The Three Stooges will never win an armload of awards from the critical elite. So then why does the trio's brilliantly timed comedy routines continue to age like vintage red wine? Moe Howard, with his jet black hair styled as a bowl cut, was always the forceful, bossy leader. Younger brother Curly possessed improvisational genius and uttered numerous catchphrases with abandon (e.g. "Nyuk, nyuk" and "I'm a victim of coicumstance!"). The frizzy-haired Larry Fine was caught somewhere in-between, often receiving the brunt of Moe's slaps and eye pokes. Much like his character on-screen, Larry was a happy-go-lucky guy who didn't worry about keeping money for very long and always found time to meet with his fans. Incidentally, the Stooge bumped shoulders with Elvis Presley while the King was filming "Jailhouse Rock", since both were staying at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood. Larry's biographer, Steve Cox, maintains an extremely low online profile but fortunately agreed to speak at length about his fascination for the Three Stooges in the rollicking feature, "Caught in the Middle – Stooge Larry Fine Finally Gets His Due."

Further Reading: Like their alter egos, comedy duo Andy Griffith and Don Knotts were seemingly joined at the hip. Griffith played his role with supreme confidence, often acting the straight-man to Knotts' outlandish antics. Lost for nearly 50 years, a video clip has recently been unearthed from a CBS variety special entitled "The Andy Griffith, Don Knotts, and Jim Nabors Show." It features the actors in living color reprising Sheriff Andy Taylor and Barney Fife on a vast soundstage. Released in October 1965, mere months after Knotts controversially departed "The Andy Griffith Show" for a short-lived career on the big screen, the video proves that the actors were masters of comedic timing and relished performing together in front of a live audience. The comedy team later collaborated in a funny yet touching 1967 episode, "Barney Comes to Mayberry", that landed Knotts his fifth and final Emmy. Both features are only a click away...

*****CLICK HERE to get your free email subscription to Jeremy Roberts’ regular column. Authentic interviews, original commentary, news, and reviews from the wide world of pop culture will be delivered directly to your inbox. And whether you enjoyed or disliked this article, don't hesitate to leave a comment below to join the discussion. Thanks!

© Jeremy L. Roberts, 2014. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed in full without first contacting the author. Headlines with links are fine. In addition, posting any links to Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, or Google Plus is sincerely appreciated.

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