Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Urban Legend: Mrs. Palmer on 'The Tonight Show'

Is an urban legend about golf actually a suburban legend?

There's a story that's told about Arnold Palmer's wife appearing on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. This would be Winnie Palmer, and the time was the late '60s. According to this legend, the following snippet was part of the conversation between Winnie and Johnny:

Johnny: Do you do anything for Arnold before a tournament as a sort of good-luck charm or superstition?

Mrs. Palmer: I kiss his balls.

Johnny: Well ... I bet that makes his putter flutter.

I've heard many people tell this story. Even had one friend who insisted that he watched it in real time.

But there are a couple problems with the story. First, why would Carson have Arnold Palmer's wife on the show? Winnie Palmer was not herself famous. Second, nobody who knew Winnie can imagine her going on a talk show, nor - especially - coming anywhere near such a double-entendre.

And, sure enough, a check of the Johnny Carson archives confirms that it never happened. Winnie Palmer was never a guest on The Tonight Show.

Urban legend. Never happened.

If that's the case, why do so many people think it happened, and why do some people claim to remember seeing it happen? Memory is a funny thing. The act of trying to remember something can actually modify or falsify existing memories, or create new ones. Hearing the story about Arnold Palmer's wife on The Tonight Show, being told that it really happened (even though it didn't), can lead to the formation of a "memory" of the non-existent event. Memory research shows over and over how easily we fool ourselves, and how easy it is to create false memories.

But how did the Winnie Palmer story get started in the first place? Probably as a joke that somebody dreamed up, later misunderstood or intentionally transformed into a supposedly real event. In other words, your standard-issue urban legend.

The urban legend website Snopes.com has an entry on the Arnold-Palmer's-wife-on-The-Tonight-Show legend, and points out that Mrs. Palmer wasn't even the first golfer's wife about whom the story was told. It's been told about Jack Nicklaus' wife, about Sam Snead's wife, and also about the wives of tennis players and couples from other sports. Basically any sport that involves balls also involves the creation of double-entendre ball jokes.

Snopes also points out that Arnold Palmer himself has said it never happened, including during an (actual) appearance of his own on the Jay Leno version of The Tonight Show in 1994. In that appearance, Leno asked Palmer about the story. Arnie told him that it was actually Carson, speaking to Arnold (not Arnold's wife), who made a ball joke:

Leno: ... apparently Johnny said, 'Is there anything your wife does to bring you good luck?'

Arnold Palmer: No, Johnny said, 'Does your wife kiss your balls before you go play?' And I said, 'I don't even go to bed without pajamas.'

Some of you reading this are shaking your heads, thinking, "but I saw Winnie Palmer on The Tonight Show!" No, you didn't. You need to wrap your mind around the fact that you are "remembering" something that never happened. Winnie Palmer never appeared on The Tonight Show (something that has been confirmed numerous times by Tonight Show archivists), and Arnie himself says it's an urban legend.


  1. She was sitting on the couch next to her husband Arnold, and Johnny asked her the question specifically to her. At which point after the final comment by Carson, she got up and left.

    The reason why so many people claim to have seen it, is because it actually happened. If you yourself are not even at least 60 years old, you would not be old enough to remember it. But to tell other people they don't remember something that happened in their lifetime is absurd.

  2. I am 60 and used to watch Johnny all the time. I remember when he took over after Jack Parr did the show. Here is what I remember: The newspapers had Arnold Palmer billed as the person on the show, not his wife. When she came on stage she explained he was doing a charity event and could not make it. I was really let down. She went on for a while talking about the charity and things were kind of boring. Then at some point Johnny asked if she did anything to give him luck on the golf course. She blurted out " i kiss his balls". The audience started laughing before Johnny could say anything which started her being irritated and Johnny in his usually style said " I bet that makes his putter flutter". He did not use the words "stand up"! as some on the internet have said. I remember him saying those words as if it was yesterday. It amazed me he was so quick witted to come up with putter flutter. After he said this they cut to a commercial and when they came back she was gone and nothing was said as if she had never been there.The show as far as I know was never rerun. It was one of the funniest lines he ever said. Someone told me when we were talking the next day that she sued the show but I cannot verify that.

  3. Yes, it did happen. I was in the Air Force at McChord AFB Wa. from March 1973 to Aug. 1975 when I got off work on the swing shift. Back then the show was 90 minutes long. I got home and turned on jonny as I always did. I was on the couch and fell of to the floor when Jonny said "I bet that makes your putter flitter". Arnold and his wife sued and won. The film was destroyed and never to be talked about again...This was very big back then and for you to say it did not happen, Who are You????

    1. What a classic case of false memory. You not only remember something that never happened, you've invented a story ("burned the tape") to explain why it's impossible to find any record of the thing that never happened. And "Arnold and his wife sued and won"? Don't you think that would be public knowledge? That anyone could go to the Google newspaper archive and find tons of stories about the lawsuit, which would have been HUGE news at the time? No such stories exist because there was no lawsuit. Because no such incident ever happened.

      You're such a classic example of false memory, I almost think you're trolling me.

      Please understand, I mean no offense to those who claim to remember it. I am not calling anyone a liar. I do not doubt that you have this memory, but you are "remembering" something that didn't happen.

      And there's nothing unusual about that. We all like to think we have great memories and that our memories are trustworthy. But we don't, and they aren't. Memories are inherently faulty and can very easily be create or changed. That's what's happening with these Johnny/Arnie "memories."

    2. Well, if it did happen, it wasn't from 1973 to August 1976. That joke started in the late 60's. I heard about it, but never saw it. Probably never happened.

  4. The Tonight Show was prerecorded at 5:30 in the evening. Back then NBC probably would have bleeped the comment when the show aired six hours later. Thus it probably never happened.

  5. It happened. I remember as if it were yesterday.


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