Late Night Last Century: Pelé Teaches Johnny Carson Soccer Tricks

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Late Night Last Century: Pelé Teaches Johnny Carson Soccer Tricks

Late Night Last Century is a new weekly column highlighting some of the funniest and most unforgettable comedy from late night, talk shows, and variety shows of the 20th century that’s currently streaming on YouTube. This week we look at a clip of Pelé teaching Johnny Carson his soccer tricks.

On June 11, 1975, the 34-year-old Pelé, at the end of his professional career, upended the football world once again. He left his native Brazil and signed with the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League. The three-time World Cup winner was so revered that police helicopters circled overhead as hundreds of reporters and fans waited for him to finalize a $4.75 million contract at the city’s storied 21 Club. 

Yet there was a small problem. The Brazilian government had declared Pelé an “unexportable national treasure,” prompting involvement from the U.S. State Department and some contractual maneuvering. Pelé, who had two gold hits in Brazil as a guitarist, would be employed as a “recording artist” at Atlantic Records, which shared a parent company with the team. From then on, he was a man on a mission: to bring soccer to the American people. “Now you can say to the world,” Pele said after signing the contract, “soccer has finally arrived in the United States.”

Pelé got a head start two years earlier, when on May 9, 1973, he appeared as a guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Though Pelé could speak little English, and Carson no Portuguese, the two had a conversation about Pelé’s career and America’s lack of enthusiasm for soccer. Despite the language barrier, the off-the-charts charisma makes the interview a great watch. I believe this is what they call “having it.” 

The best part of Pelé’s appearance comes after they ditch the couch and desk for a pair of soccer balls. Pelé, in dress shoes, captivates the audience with his command of the ball. Carson puts on a pair of Converse sneakers and follows Pelé’s lead. He tries his best, and at other times his worst—that’s comedy baby. The segment is a great showcase of Carson’s abilities as a physical comic. Do yourself a favor and follow his eyes as he and Pelé make head passes to one another. 

Near the end of the segment, Pelé wows the crowd with a pair of bicycle kicks. “Did you see that,” Carson asks off screen to his sidekick, Ed McMahon. As Carson prepares to attempt the kick himself, the band begins to play the somber bugle call, “Taps.” 

Whenever I think of Carson, I think of something Don Rickles said: Carson knew how to make his guests look good. He certainly does that here with Pelé. But what is most enjoyable to watch in this segment is how Pelé returns the favor. He not only shows off his skill, but playing the capable straight man to Carson’s clown.

Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic and researcher, who first contributed to Paste in 2022. He is an assistant editor at Cineaste, a GALECA member, and since 2019 has hosted The Video Essay Podcast. You can follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter and learn more about him via his website.

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