Did Johnny Carson Copy the Famous “Pretend to Eat a Potato Chip from a Potato Chip Collector” Gag from David Letterman?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about TV and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the TV urban legends featured so far.

TV URBAN LEGEND: Johnny Carson stole the “pretend to eat a potato chip from a potato chip collector” routine from David Letterman.

Johnny Carson was famous for having guests on the Tonight Show who weren’t necessarily celebrities, but were just interesting people for whatever reason. Even when the show reduced in length from an hour and a half (and therefore they had much less time for guests, so they no longer had on the authors that they used to have on as the final guest of the night) they made sure to keep these non-celebrity guests on the show. They gave the Tonight Show a certain sort of charm. Especially since Carson also famously did not mock these people. He treated them like regular guests, although, of course, he knew that doing so would make the AUDIENCE laugh, but it is important to note that Carson played these interviews straight.

That is why, when Carson actually pulled a little gag on one of these guests, it stood out so much. People weren’t used to Carson messing with a regular person (Carson would, of course, would pull pranks on his celebrity friends, but not a “civilian”). It was more something that you would see on Late Night with David Letterman.

And that, in fact, is what led to a legend involving one of the few times that Carson DID mess with a regular person.

In October 1987, Carson had on Myrtle Young, who worked at a potato chip factory checking the quality of the chips. She would then collect the irregular potato chips as part of her collection and so she went on the Tonight Show to show off her treasures and at one point, Carson’s sidekick, Ed McMahon, distracted Young and while her back was turned, Carson pretended to eat one of her chips…

Her reaction really sold it. Such shock! But then Carson consoled her and she totally laughed at the situation and it was all good. A classic TV movement.

However, a lot of folks over the years noted that Young actually made her FIRST late night debut on Late Night with David Letterman, and many remember Letterman doing the same thing! I’ve seen it in a few different places, but here’s from the YouTube comments of the Carson clip…

As I recall, she was first on Late Night with David Letterman. Letterman did the exact same joke, eating a random potato chip pretending it was one of hers. I always wondered if Carson called Letterman and asked if he could use that joke, or if they just ripped it off altogether. I wish the Letterman interview with her were online.

I, too, was obviously curious about this, so I asked the greatest resource for David Letterman clips known to man, Don Giller, and he found the original Letterman clip and posted is so that we could see that no, Letterman did not do the “pretend to eat a potato chip from a potato chip collector’s collection” routine before Carson.

Therefore, the legend is…


Thanks a lot, Don!

Everyone, feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

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