Joan Embery Interview: Famed Zoological Ambassador Recalls Her Animal Escapades with Johnny Carson
Image attributed to Joan Embery
Joan Embery serves as goodwill ambassador for the Zoological Society of San Diego, which includes the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Wild Animal Park in the San Pasqual Valley. Nationally known for her television appearances with animals, Embery has appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Good Morning America, CBS This Morning, Entertainment Tonight, Hollywood Squares and many others.
On October 4, 2016, Time Life celebrates one of the all-time TV greats with a new-to-retail collection, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson: The Vault Series, offering the best of Johnny, Ed and Doc, guests including Bob Hope, Dean Martin, Bing Crosby, Muhammad Ali and the numerous appearances made by comedian Tom Dreesen, magician Lance Burton and animal handler and environmentalist Joan Embery.
“I got out there, sat next to Johnny, opened the box and said, ‘You can take them out.’ Even if he was a little nervous or unsure, it was alright as long as I told him it was okay. He would do anything for a laugh, so he put his hand in the box. I thought, ‘Oh, this is perfect. If I can get him to take it out, I don’t have to.’”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Joan, tell me about your first appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
Joan Embery: I think back to it as almost like a deer in the headlights type of thing. I got a call from Shirley Wood who was the talent coordinator for The Tonight Show in New York, and she said, “We just watched a segment on our news about you working with your elephants and that you trained one to paint pictures. We are coming out for our first trip to NBC Burbank with Johnny Carson, and we’d like to know if you could bring your elephant to the studio.” I said, “Sure.” I thought, “Yeah. I could do that. The elephant was pretty well trained, and I was proud of her.”
Then, after I hung up the phone, I thought, “Oh, what have I just done? I’m a woman working in a man’s field. If I make a mistake, it’s live on camera. Everybody’s going to see it. It’s an elephant in a studio.” (laughs) So, I did worry a bit. We had gotten caught in traffic, so I was late to the studio, and they rushed me backstage. The next thing I knew those big curtains opened and there sat Johnny Carson. I remember thinking, “Oh, my gosh!” He introduced me first, and then the keepers pushed the elephant out. Better yet, when the curtain opened, and I looked over, out came the elephant, and her eyes were as big as saucers. I thought, “Oh no.”
All I could think of was getting over to that elephant to start talking to her to get her dialed in to the fact that I was there, we’re working and everything’s okay. She was a big hit, so they came back and called again, and then they eventually moved the whole show from New York, which was big news at the time because it had been based in New York for quite a time.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You were basically just thrown into uncharted waters!
Joan Embery: Oh, I was, and I wasn’t really looking to television as a part of my career. I wanted to work with animals. I wanted to go into the veterinary field, and here I am at NBC Burbank. But, Johnny made it work. He was the guy who could make it work. He was at his best when everything was spontaneous and just happening, and he was reacting to it. He liked that. That was one of his great strengths, and he had a connection with his audience.
Prior to my working in this format, a lot of the animals you saw on television were trained animal acts and trained to work in movies and trained to do things on camera. But, the animals I was taking from the zoo had never appeared on television before, and it was very spontaneous in whatever happened. I found myself in the position of being with a wild animal that could be somewhat unpredictable on one side and a comedian that could be unpredictable on the other. I was in the middle of the two (laughs). I think Johnny enjoyed the animals just because they were so fresh and unique, and he knew he’d never be able to tell exactly what was going to happen. I just think he enjoyed that.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Johnny Carson would tease you about your dislike of insects (laughs).
Joan Embery: (laughs) He was very astute that way in picking up on things. I actually was very proud of myself because I remember having tarantulas and millipedes on my desk for a couple of weeks because the talent coordinator at the time had come down to the zoo and had seen them. He said, “Oh, these are perfect.” I said, “But, I don’t really like those.” He said, “Oh, I know you can do this, Joan. This is great. You have to bring these to the next show.” So, I really tried hard to overcome my inhibitions to insects.
I got out there, sat next to Johnny, opened the box and said, “You can take them out.” Even if he was a little nervous or unsure, it was alright as long as I told him it was okay. He would do anything for a laugh, so he put his hand in the box. I thought, “Oh, this is perfect. If I can get him to take it out, I don’t have to.” (laughs) Then, when he went to put it back, he showed it to me. I must’ve sat back just a bit or something because he asked, “You’re afraid of insects?” Johnny had the tarantula crawling up his sleeve. Of course, he had his audience right there, and he was having the time of his life because that was when he was in his element.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You also made several appearances on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. What were the differences between Johnny and Jay as hosts?
Joan Embery: I did. I think we probably did about 70 with Johnny and about 30 with Jay. We did about 100 between the two of them. Jay was a lot of fun. It was a transition moving from Johnny to Jay because he had been a guest host for Johnny and was a standup comedian. They are used to just themselves alone with the audience, used to a kind of shtick, their jokes and lines and a more controlled situation.
So, sometimes when they first start as a host, they’re not necessarily as comfortable with guests. It took Jay a little while to get a grasp of it. But, he’s really a good guy, just like the guy next door and the greatest guy to work with. But, of all the people I’ve worked with over the years, the hosts and the guest hosts on The Tonight Show would come in and ask for animals, and everybody wanted to emulate Johnny Carson. Nobody really could, not in the true sense of everything that Johnny was. He was extremely spontaneous, had extremely good timing, was very observant and well read.
I remember taking a marmoset. It jumped from my arms to the top of Johnny’s head, and I thought, “Oh, my gosh! I hope it doesn’t get loose in the studio.” The first thing out of Johnny’s mouth was, “I’m the only person on the planet of four and a half billion people with a marmoset on my head.” I’m sitting there thinking, “Really? He knows the world’s population just like that at that moment?” He just had a way of whatever happens, just roll with it. He was so quick witted and so on target.
Now, we have cell phones and iPads and computers, but back then, people had to sit down and watch television. There were only three networks, three major channels. Nobody went up against Johnny because he was at the top of his game, and he was the “go-to viewing,” so the whole American public would tune in to The Tonight Show every night.
Whitney Houston debuted on The Tonight Show when she was just a kid. On one show, our animal segment ran long, and the person that got bumped was Ellen DeGeneres making her first appearance on The Tonight Show. I mean, here I am watching Tom Selleck on television as a kid, and then I’m sitting next to Tom Selleck on The Tonight Show. It was surreal in a way because I was not a television personality. I was an animal person.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You mentioned earlier about being a woman working in a man’s field. What did that mean to you?
Joan Embery: For me, it meant that I couldn’t make a mistake, that there was no room for error, that I had to be at the top of my game whether it was driving a two-ton truck with an elephant trailer or handing a big animal on camera and pick it up if necessary. Luckily, I’m tall and a pretty big gal.
I’ll never forget the first couple of shows I did when the makeup artist put false eyelashes on me. I said, “False eyelashes? I don’t wear false eyelashes!” But, he was basically trying to bring out the feminine side of me and glamourize me as a wild animal handler. I was almost embarrassed by that. As far as I was concerned, my whole job was to get those animals out there and properly presented, safely on and off stage and try to create the best possible showcase for wildlife.
I always felt challenged. All of the years I did it, I never got over just worrying about every little detail to make sure it worked. One of our last shows was an 8,000-pound elephant picking Johnny up with her trunk. She was a big animal, and there was lots of responsibility there. But, I learned to do my job pretty well, and I gained the experience under my belt to do what I was doing. Even today, I look back and think, “I can’t believe I did that!”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Where did your passion for animals come from?
Joan Embery: We were an animal loving family and an outdoor family. We camped and had pets. But, I would spend summers with my uncle. He was a veterinarian, and I’d go out on horse calls with him. That’s when I said that I wanted to be a veterinarian. I went to our vet school here in Northern California, and I quickly found out there were no women in the veterinary program.
There was one woman because she was valedictorian of her class, but they pretty much felt that women wouldn’t excel in the field because they would invest time in all that education, then get married and have kids. They wouldn’t practice or they weren’t physically capable. Today, 70% of the graduating veterinary programs are women. So, women did prevail, and I’m still very much interested in that field.
I have a horse ranch. I have a wildlife collection here. I have a non-profit that is focused on conservation education, so I’ve pretty much stayed true to my initial interest and what I’ve always wanted to do. I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to do it.
Johnny Carson gave us the window to the world and some exposure to showcasing really magnificent animals, bringing people a little closer to that, which he was really good at. Johnny was very respectful of his guests. Even though he was cracking jokes and having fun, he would always give me the time to say the things that I felt needed to be said in showcasing the animals. I always very much appreciated that about him.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What are some of the animals that are in danger of extinction now, and what can be done to help the situation?
Joan Embery: Right here in California, one of the rarest birds, the California condor, dropped to only 23 total birds. We had to step in and remove all those birds from the wild and begin a captive breeding program. We now have 423 condors with over half that population now flying in the wild again and beginning to reproduce and rear chicks in the wild. So, human intervention definitely saved that bird, but it does require constant vigilance. We can bring the condors back into captivity. We can introduce them in the wild. But, we have three major problems, the first and foremost being lead shot.
There is now legislation that has been put forward to reduce or eliminate lead shot in condor habitats because if the condors are going to thrive in the wild and support themselves in the wild, we need to remove lead from their habitat. Microtrash is another problem. The adults feed their chicks microtrash, so we need to educate people who live around condor habitats how the trash and litter they throw out impact these birds. Birds are pre-conditioned and trained before they leave captivity with imitation power lines with a charge in them so that they find, if they sit on that line, it’s not comfortable, and they won’t try to do that while they’re in the wild, which could cause their death by electrocution. We look at the problems, how we can solve them and how we can apply those principles in wild habitats.
In Africa right now, elephants and rhinos are under extreme pressure, and they’re only going to survive if we can control the protein problems for their ivory and the horns on the rhinos, so they’re becoming quite rare. As our population increases, we have impacts on wild habitats, and those impacts and pressures, if they continue, sometimes take animals to the point they can’t any longer sustain their population.
I think we’re moving into an era where we’re going to have to be better managers of wildlife. We’re going to have to begin to consider the impacts that we have on natural environment. We need to make some changes and be more aware of how important a healthy environment is, not just for animals, but for people, too.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What are you doing now, Joan?
Joan Embery: I’m a conservation ambassador. I do education programs. I work on boards training students. We have college and high school students here learning to work with wildlife and present animals to the public and educate the public. I raise money for projects in Africa and different countries that need help to carry out their conservation efforts.
I’m very much involved today. I haven’t really retired. I retired a little bit from the whole television scene, but I’m working very much with conservation education.
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