VIDEO VAULT: Johnny Carson mocks Nevada sagebrush in roast of Silver State

Johnny Carson poses with some sagebrush during a segment mocking Nevada and then-Gov. Richard Bryan.

Last week, the Nevada state flower was a news item when it was briefly changed on Wikipedia as a play on the name of Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Mark-André Fleury.

That sparked memories of 32 years ago, when the Sagebrush was one of the items used by the King of Late Night to roast the Governor of Nevada.

It started with a throwaway line a couple of months earlier on "The Tonight Show."

"In California they say, 'What's the difference between a girl in Nevada and a parrot?' Answer: You can teach a parrot to say no," quipped host Johnny Carson in November of 1985.

The line elicited a laugh from the studio audience in Burbank, and the comedian moved on the next item in his monologue.

Then, in January of 1986, he repeated the humorous jab, this time from behind his desk.

"It's a silly, harmless little joke," explained Carson afterward. "And you would assume somebody with a reasonable sense of humor...there are a lot of serious things going on in the world and this isn't one of them. You'd think someone would say 'Oh, that's kind of dumb and silly'. But noooo..."

As Carson trailed off the last word for comedic effect, sidekick Ed McMahon guffawed from the couch.

Nevada Gov. Richard Bryan had been used to dealing with important matters.

"And I urge Nevada voters to approve the estate tax credit measure on the ballot this fall," said Bryan earnestly at news conference around the same time.

Bryan wrote Carson a letter.

"Dear Johnny," quoted the comedian at the Tonight Show taping. "It has come to my attention that that on Wednesday, November 18, 1985, you told a joke on your show. Quote, 'What's the difference between Nevada women and a parrot? You can teach a parrot to say no.' I'd compare your remark to an ethnic joke. All it does is perpetuate a myth. A stereotype that does not exist. It does not befit Nevada women, nor a man of your stature. Sincerely, Richard Bryan, the governor."

Carson and his writers turned this critique into comedy bit, which he explained as he walked from the couch to a new set with a podium and a reader board above it displaying lights that spelled the name of the piece and that of the man being lampooned.

"This gives us a chance to inaugurate a new little segment on our show, which we're going to call 'Lighten up.'"

What followed was a series of jokes at the Silver State's expense.

"Your state flower is the Sagebrush," deadpanned Carson as he brandished a light brown shrub. "Romantic, don't you think? What woman wouldn't be thrilled to receive a beautiful bouquet of Sagebrush?"

"And Gov, Nevada is the seventh largest state, with the sixth smallest population," he continued. "Does that tell you anything?"

This time -- according to the newspaper at least -- Bryan took Carson's advice.

“I thought it was funny,” allowed Bryan in a Las Vegas Review-Journal interview. “It was good humor done in good taste.”

"So come on, Governor, lighten up," Carson had counseled to enthusiastic applause and laughs as the segment ended.

That was the end of the light-hearted spat. Richard Bryan went on to become a two-term U.S. senator, and today he is an attorney for Fennemore Craig. Johnny Carson passed away in 2005.

close video ad
Unmutetoggle ad audio on off