The word “balls” has long been used as the basis for double entendre jokes. Because it is widely recognized as a slang term for a portion of the male genitalia (the testicles) but also has some very common and innocuous meanings (e.g., spherical objects used in sports and games; formal social dance gatherings), risqué puns that play on the word can be slipped into contexts where jokes featuring more direct sexual references would be considered inappropriate and unacceptable. (A well-traveled joke-cum-urban legend involving a traffic cop keys on the dual meaning of “balls,” for example.)
Broadcast history includes a number of legends involving broadcasters who supposedly sneaked onto the air bawdy puns utilizing the duality of the phrase “kissing balls.” One of the more well-known examples was commonly attributed to comic Bob Hope during his days as a radio personality:
Like Howard Stern, Hope was much discussed and quoted morning after each Tuesday night’s show, sandwiched between the Fibber McGee and Molly and Red Skelton shows. The next day, junior-high boys’ rooms across the nation were thick with cigarette smoke and delicious tales of what lascivious lines Hope had allegedly gotten off the night before to “sweater girls” like Jane Russell, Terry Moore, Marie (“The Body”) MacDonald, Anita Ekberg, or Jayne Mansfield. He wisely did nothing to discourage the stories, which turned up in all the columns, fueled by his secret womanizing and bad-boy penchant, as in this exchange (swiftly drowned out by organ music) with Dorothy Lamour when Lamour said, “I’ll meet you in front of the pawnshop,” and Hope, after replying, “Okay,” added, “… and then you can kiss me under the balls.”
A similar legend has been attributed to a variety of baseball play-by-play announcers, most notably former Cardinals pitcher Dizzy Dean:
Myth has it that during a camera shot of lovers smooching in the bleachers, the late CBS baseball broadcaster Dizzy Dean remarked to partner Pee Wee Reese, “Look at that, Pee Wee, he kisses her on the strikes, and she kisses him on the balls.”
The version of this gag with a punchline about “kissing balls for luck” has been associated with a number of professional golf and tennis stars (e.g., Jack Nicklaus, Rod Laver) and put in the mouths of the athletes themselves, their wives, or hapless sports announcers. The most pervasive form of this legend has either golfer Arnold Palmer or his wife innocently blurting out the punchline to Johnny Carson during a Tonight Show appearance in the mid-1960s, prompting a ribald response from the talk show host:
The story goes that during a Tonight Show appearance, Arnold Palmer was asked by Johnny Carson if he had any good-luck rituals. The golfer replied, “Yes, my wife kisses my balls.” To which Carson supposedly quipped, “I’ll bet that flutters your putter.”2
Certainly Arnold Palmer’s wife never proclaimed on the Tonight Show that she kissed her husband’s balls for luck: the wife of a pro golfer, not herself a celebrity, simply wasn’t the type of guest Johnny Carson invited to appear on his highly-rated talk show. (Indeed, Arnold Palmer’s representative confirmed to us that Mrs. Palmer was never a guest on that program.) As for Arnold Palmer himself, comedian Jay Leno asked him about the legend in 1994, a few years after taking over as permanent host of the Tonight Show following Carson’s retirement in 1992, and Palmer indicated to him that the story was based on nothing more than a joke deliberately told by Carson:
Leno: … apparently Johnny said, “Is there anything your wife does to bring you good luck?”
Palmer: No, Johnny said, “Does your wife kiss your balls before you go to play?” and I said, “I don’t even go to bed without pajamas.”
Leno: I thought that was a tactful way … but thanks for getting right to the point. So we cleared that up. That’s like a famous one, like Jack Benny’s, “Your money or your life … I’m thinking it over.” I wanted to find out … so it is true?
Palmer: There you’ve got it. And I don’t want to hear about it any more.
Anecdotal evidence indicates this specific form of the legend was around well before Johnny Carson took over the Tonight Show desk in 1962, as author Ben Alba attributes it to an incident featuring the wife of golfer Sam Snead and occurring during Steve Allen’s tenure as the original Tonight Show host in the mid-1950s:
On another night, after interviewing others in the audience, Allen eventually came to a lady and announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is Mrs. Sammy Snead, the wife of the famous golfer.” Everybody applauded very respectfully. Allen asked her, “Did Sammy have any superstitions when he plays golf?” She answered, “Yes, before each game I kiss his balls.”
The camera went on Allen. “He just didn’t change the expression on his face,” recalled Steve Lawrence. “And the longer he stayed with it, the longer [director] Dwight [Hemion] stayed on him, and the audience got hysterical. Tears were coming out of [Dwight’s] eyes. The audience got hysterical laughing, and of course, they didn’t stop for about two minutes. And Mrs. Snead realized what she said and blurted, ‘I mean his golf balls!’ Which made it even worse. It was one of the funniest deadpans that I’ve ever seen on live television.”
This version is a little more plausible in that it doesn’t require the non-celebrity wife to be herself a guest on a talk show, merely a coincidental audience member. However, an excerpt from a July 1954 newspaper column by journalist Walter Winchell suggests the “kiss his balls” joke was a known broadcast gag even before Steve Allen’s debut as a network TV talk show host:
Mrs. Sammy Snead’s dead-pan fo-pah while interviewed by J. Tillman (on the air) still has locals in stitches. Tillman’s comment made it hilariously worse!
Presumably the “J. Tillman” mentioned here was John Tillman, then a newscaster and “man of all trades” affiliated with WPIX, Consolidated Edison’s television station in New York, but it isn’t possible to discern from this brief snippet whether Winchell himself actually witnessed the interview he described (or was merely told about it by someone else), whether it was actually aired on television (or was filmed but edited out before broadcast), or whether it even took place at all. (Plenty of reporters over the years published apocryphal broadcast stories that were relayed to them by someone else as genuine news items.)
Since nearly all the kinescopes, videotapes, and films of the Tonight Show (both the Steve Allen and Johnny Carson versions) made prior to 1972 were subsequently destroyed, and much of what was broadcast live on television in the 1950s was either never recorded or similarly destroyed afterwards, whether this humorous faux pas ever played out in real life is unlikely to be definitively proved or disproved. But, as with many tales of this nature, the yarn was likely once just a colorful joke until someone once decided to spice it up by presenting it as a true story. For maximum effect and embarrassment, the set-up of the gag requires that the inadvertently-uttered punchline be witnessed by an audience, so setting the anecdote within the framework of a television interview nicely fit the bill.