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Carson as Carnac the Magnificent

Carnac the Magnificent was a role played by Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and later continued on Late Show with David Letterman, occasionally by Paul Shaffer. One of Carson's most well known characters, Carnac was a psychic with a large elaborate turban and a plethora of envelopes, all of which (according to Ed McMahon) "a child of four could plainly see" were "hermetically sealed" and had been kept in "a mayonnaise jar on Funk and Wagnalls' porch since noon" that day. On the way to his desk after arriving on stage Carnac would invariably trip and fall. (On one memorable occasion, Carson's desk had been replaced with a balsa-wood version and he smashed right through it.)


Carnac's act involved a variation of the magician's billet reading trick: divining the answer to a question putatively written on a card sealed inside one of the envelopes, then opening the envelope to reveal the question. (In many cases, McMahon would repeat the answer after Carnac "divined" it, sometimes resulting in a sneer or other putdown from Carnac.) The resulting jokes were usually either intentionally corny and often involved puns in some way or involved an unexpected question following a seemingly straightforward answer, such as "Sis boom bah" leading to "Describe the sound made when a sheep explodes" (a video of the clip), and The La Brea Tar Pits leading to "What do you have left after eating the La Brea Tar Peaches?"

Audience reaction played a major role in the skit. If a joke generated a negative response from the audience, Carson/Carnac would cast a comedic curse ("may a rabid holyman bless your nether regions with a power tool", "may a bloated yak change the temperature of your jacuzzi", "may you walk a mile under a diseased camel") upon them. One memorable curse was "may your only son become the goalie on a nude hockey team". Occasionally the curse would be directed at Ed McMahon if his introduction of Carnac's abilities became too 'over the top'. Such "curses" were also standard when the crowd cheered as McMahon announced the final envelope.

Shaffer as Carnac the Magnificent

The Late Show With David Letterman sometimes pays homage to the skit, with Paul Shaffer as Carnac. Usually this takes place during the Late Show's "Stump the Band" feature which is also taken from Carson.

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