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.