Here I go again. Every time I have a reason to reach back in time to bring up memories of the John W. Carson story and my relatively peripheral connection with the man, I get teary-eyed. I’m not just one of those ten to fifteen million people who tuned in at night to enjoy the great gift that he offered us. No, I actually got to sit before the cameras in his studio with him twenty-two times over the years (yesterday was the 50th anniversary of Johnny’s first appearance on The Tonight Show) – either at Rockefeller Center in NYC or in Burbank, California – while Johnny guided me through my lines and tried to make me look good.

If I had to pick out the one appearance on the Tonight show I had with Johnny that really made a difference above all others, I’d have to say that it was the one in which we exposed the trickery of TV preacher “reverend” Peter Popoff. That all came about when I obtained a copy of the original Popoff broadcast, with Elizabeth Popoff’s audio transmission to her husband synchronized and dubbed in. It had been prepared by Alec Jason, the private investigator who voluntarily did the research – and recording – for me. Alec shared my dismay at the cruel deception of this pair. I took it to producer Fred DeCordova at the NBC Tonight Show office and played it for him. Fred was speechless, and quickly alerted his staff to re-schedule an event for that night to accommodate this item. When he reached for his phone to alert Carson, I stopped him. “Fred,” I said, “don’t tell John.” He countered, “You know that John doesn’t like surprises.” I leaned back in my chair and slowly suggested: “Just think of the look John will have on his face.” Fred paused, then smiled. “Okay,” he said, “but it’s on your head!” I decided I’d take that chance…

The result – now seen countless times around the world on YouTube – was a sensation. I often show it to my lecture audiences, to great effect.

Our bit consisted of an on-camera discussion about Popoff’s claims between Johnny and myself followed by the broadcast “healing” and then by Alec’s enhanced version with Elizabeth Popoff’s voice added in. What my audiences didn’t know is that during the Tonight Show taping, when Johnny heard Elizabeth’s voice in the second version, he suddenly realized what the gimmick had been, how the information about the audience members had been sent to Popoff by a radio signal, not by an angel or divine knowledge. He threw up his hands and let out an “Oh, sh**!” exclamation that the studio audience heard, but since the show was always recorded a few hours in advance so that editing could be done if needed, the audio engineers carefully excised that involuntary expression of surprise…

True to his character, when we’d seen the two versions of the Popoff exposure, Johnny was visibly upset, and commented

You know, that’s – that is disturbing. When you see it, you tend to laugh at it, and yet…

There were tears in his eyes. He was playing with his pencil, which all who knew him recognized as a sign that he was uncomfortable, ill at ease. Johnny was deeply affected by seeing Popoff’s scam at work, knowing what damage the man was causing his victims. Later, as the studio audience filed out at the end of the show, ever the gentleman and empathetic, Johnny looked up at producer DeCordova as he approached the desk. It was an awkward moment. Fred said, “We’re gonna get letters!” Johnny saved the situation by pointing at Fred and telling him, “Yes, Fred, and you’re going to answer them!” Fred showed a weak smile. As expected, the subsequent mail reaction was very strong…

Johnny called me many times in the weeks that followed, and then well into his retirement. He’d often start off the call with the announcement that he’d just seen Popoff again on TV, still working his scam. “I thought we put him out of business!” he’d exclaim, and I always answered something to the effect that these people were unsinkable rubber ducks because the believers just didn’t listen or learn… But what got me about those calls was that about 20 minutes into them, Johnny would suddenly stop and apologize for having kept me on the phone for so long. Can you imagine my not wanting him to run on…?

Johnny Carson was uncomfortable with people he didn’t know, but sought out those with whom he shared some interest. Thrice, following my Tonight Show appearances, I found him waiting for me on the NBC studio lot in his white Corvette just inside the studio exit. He waved me over, and invited me in to sit and chat before he took off. The windows were wide open, and Johnny was always fanning away the tobacco smoke that he knew I found difficult. Our chat was invariably interesting, calling for a sleight-of-hand move or two, or about his concern over the kind of matters in which the JREF is involved. He really cared about what we did at the JREF, and the donations he sent to us punctuated that interest. I had one of his letters framed and on my office wall; I moved it out into the outside hall after he died. Since it was all hand-written and addressed, and bore his home address in Malibu, I’d kept it to myself to protect his privacy. He’d sent this one following appearances by “psychic” John Edward on both the Larry King Live! show, and on Montel Williams. It reads:

Dear James: After watching John Edward on Larry King last night, I was reminded of Bacon’s admonition – “A credulous man is a deceiver.” On the gullibility scale, Larry is second only to Montel Williams. I hope the enclosed will help to educate them both.

My best, Johnny Carson.

“The enclosed” referred to one of his major donations to the JREF. I responded by e-mail, trusting that he would understand that I was jesting:

John, thank you very much for the welcome contribution to the JREF. It is appreciated, as always. However, it is certainly not sufficient for the purpose that you designated. That would take a lot more…

His response by e-mail was typical, laconic, and quite sufficient:


Johnny Carson’s assistance to the JREF has continued through the John W. Carson Foundation in the form of welcome support for our annual Amaz!ng Meetings, which give us the opportunity to produce high quality skeptical online educational content, as well as being sources of support for JREF’s other projects and programs of public education and outreach.

I’m told that no one knows where Johnny’s ashes are buried. I don’t have to know, because somehow, he’s still with me.




James Randi is founder of the James Randi Educational Foundation .