Ed McMahon Outranked Johnny Carson In The Military

A late-night talk-show host is nothing without his sidekick — at least, not in the American version of the tradition. Jimmy Fallon has Steve Higgins, Jimmy Kimmel has Guillermo Rodriguez, Conan O'Brien has Andy Richter. Though ostensibly these men play second fiddle to the men whose names appear in the show title, their contributions to the format are invaluable. They introduce the host, banter with him, and play the straight man to the host's bits, among other duties.

Fallon, O'Brien, Kimmel, and their sidekicks all work in the shadows of the two men who made late-night TV what it is today: Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon. For decades, the two were the host and co-host, respectively of "The Tonight Show," leaving an indelible mark on the history of broadcast TV.

Like a lot of men of their generation, Carson and McMahon both served in the military during World War II, one in the Navy, the other in the Marine Corps. This overlap in their pre-television careers has given birth to a persistent rumor that McMahon was the commanding officer of Carson. In fact, it's not true, but McMahon did have a higher rank than Carson, as Snopes explains.

McMahon and Carson Were in the Military at the Same Time

Johnny Carson joined the Navy in 1943, according to Showbiz Cheat Sheet, when he was 18 years old, a couple of years after the attack on Pearl Harbor. During his three-year service, he reached the rank of Ensign, the lowest officers' rank

Ed McMahon, who was a couple of years older than his eventual boss, also enlisted in 1943, according to the Defense Department, and served for three years, though he remained in the reserves for two more decades and was even called back up to duty during the Korean War. He retired as a Colonel, a few steps up the ladder from Carson's Ensign (albeit in the Marine Corps).

Though he outranked Carson considerably, the difference in rank played no role in their relationship. Carson never saluted the higher-ranking officer, nor did the senior officer give any commands to the junior. That's because the two men were likely nowhere near each other at any point during their overlapping military careers, according to Snopes, to say nothing of the fact that their jobs didn't overlap and they were in different divisions. The two men didn't even meet until 1958, according to another Showbiz Cheat Sheet report.

Carson's and McMahon's military service

After enlisting in the Navy through a special program, according to Military, Johnny Carson was assigned to the battleship USS Pennsylvania, one of the ships attacked in the raid on Pearl Harbor (though obviously she survived). His job was to decode enemy radio traffic that had been encrypted.

Carson never saw direct combat, although in a rather gruesome reality of war, he was put in charge of overseeing the removal of the dead bodies of 20 of his fellow seamen onboard the ship, which had been torpedoed (while he wasn't on it).

Like Carson, Ed McMahon didn't see direct combat, either – at least, not during World War II. He served instead as a flight instructor, although according to the Defense Department, he was close to being sent into combat before the Japanese surrendered. However, McMahon was called back into duty during the Korean War, during which he flew 85 combat missions over North Korea in an unarmed spy aircraft.