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Johnny Carson, Bing Crosby, and the Birth of the Cool-Warmth

It's too bad -- it must be a strange feeling to know that millions adore you, and yet be so empty inside yourself.

by
Ed Driscoll

Bio

October 17, 2013 - 1:00 pm
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We think of William Randolph Hearst and the fictional Charles Foster Kane as media tycoons encasing themselves in living mausoleums as old men, but Johnny Carson was basically entombed the minute he was hired by NBC to replace Jack Parr as the host of the Tonight Show, except that we were invited to tune in and watch every night. As an audience, particularly during the blow-dried bell-bottom polyester lacuna of the 1970s, we were lucky Johnny was as cool as he was, a byproduct of the early 1960s Sinatra, JFK, Miles, Steve McQueen definition of cool, not the Brando/Fonzie primitive angry young greaser definition of the word. When Marshall McLuhan defined television as a cool medium in the mid-1960s, Johnny personified it – both cool and television. Especially the latter half of the equation.

Or as Kenneth Tynan wrote in his epic 22,000-word(!) 1978 New Yorker profile of Johnny Carson, “I once asked a bright young Manhattan journalist whether he could define in a single word what made television different from theatre or cinema. ‘For good or ill,” he said, ‘Carson.’”

But all transactions involve tradeoffs. While Johnny’s net worth soared as the most popular man on the most popular medium of the mid-20th century, Johnny paid a terrible personal price himself.

In her post yesterday on the new biography of Carson by Henry “Bombastic” Bushkin, his former business advisor and close friend, Kathy Shaidle mentions “Carson’s cool-warmth — that charming-yet-menacing mien — was always obvious to me, and I say that as an admirer of his abilities.”

Kathy mentions Carson and Bob Crane as defining the “cool-warm” personality, but wasn’t the grandfather of ”cool-warmth” Bing Crosby? Crosby displayed amiable warmth on the big screen, adopted a style of singing that let the microphone do the work, a much cooler style — though the word hadn’t been invented yet — than any other singer during the 1920s or ’30s, and in the process, became an international superstar who would go on to master live performing, records, radio, movies, and later, television, both as an actor and producer. (Bob Crane became famous on Hogan’s Heroes, a Bing Crosby production.) While not a macho figure, or a suave sophisticate like Cary Grant, Crosby lived out the cliche that “women wanted him and men wanted to be like him” — heaven knows my dad did — and yet, offscreen, Crosby was, according to his sons, the male equivalent of Joan Crawford in Mommy Dearest.

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All Comments   (6)
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I've often heard about the price paid for fame. I dunno. I suspect that Carson, Morrisey, Lohan and Cyrus would be just as squirrely or hostile or detached if they were as obscure as I am. We just wouldn't know about their demons.
Some of our big stars have had fulfilling lives away from performing. It seems to have been true of Jimmy Steward, Ronald Reagan, Tom Selleck, Paul Newman -- I'm sure many others as well.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Media personalities are jus that, a millimeter of gloss paint over what amounts to a mirror in which we project ourselves, or a primed canvass on which we paint our desired images. It is the entertainer's gift, that ability.

Once they leave the stage, in many cases, there is no real personality that the entertainer can slip back into. Marion Michael Morrisey was the Duke on screen as John Wayne, but who was the man off screen that tended to beat his wives? Off screen Carson was an insecure, possibly paranoid mental case who lived like a hermit.

That we assign such high levels of cultural value to these poor creatures says more about us than it does about them.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I remember Gore Vidal, a friend of Carson, said that the "coolness" was a direct result of Carson's days in the armed forces. A lot, if not most of that "Greatest Generation" adopted that stance faced with losing friends all around them during WWII. It never left many of them in dealing with the world.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I never had much to do with Carson (nothing personal, but I am an early-riser and seldom stayed up that late). Bing Crosby, however, has always been a huge favorite of mine. I don't go in for idolizing Hollywood type, but I have always wanted to imagine the he--and John Wayne--were just exactly as I always imagined them to be. Thank God I grew up in an era where media still left us a bit of mystery around our favorite performers. If I grew up today, knowing every sordid detail about Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus...well, I would retreat to a cave and bang rocks together.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I don't feel sorry for Carson. Right now millions of people are working jobs that, if they're lucky, only take out 40 hours a week from their personal lives or involve a personal interest. Carson was lucky, did exactly what he wanted to do. If he didn't like it, tough. Try driving a bus. Carson led an easy dream life.

Others might work in a warehouse for a base pay of 50 grand a year but be forced for 2 hours overtime virtually every day plus a 4 to 10 hour sixth day. Where is there time in their lives to have a family, hobbies, eat, sleep and do all the other things that define our personal lives? You haven't lived til you've worked in a freezer warehouse nor ever felt cold like that in your life.

Work can be all-encompassing; bills must be paid. Look at Howard Stern and many others like him. He eats and sleeps his radio show. Hope he likes it, it's all he has. That and millions of dollars he essentially has nothing to do with.

This is why they say "love your work," cuz you're going to be spending an awful lot of your life doing it.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Well said. I wonder if simply aging had something to do with Carson's "emptiness?" Obviously, some people age "gracefully." Others seem to petrify. There's a kind of inflexibility to them. They've spent so many years "being themselves" that they're incapable of being anything else - even when their lives, their jobs, the people they love all seem to call for a change. People like that can become lonely and unhappy.

Not sure exactly what I'm describing, but I've definitely seen it. Maybe Johnny just couldn't stop being Johnny.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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