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.
I haven’t read Bushkin’s new biography of Johnny Carson, but prior to my Voyage of the Damned cruise in May, I downloaded King of the Night: The Life of Johnny Carson, Laurence Leamer’s earlier biography, for the Kindle. It’s a remarkably depressing book, but I don’t think that’s the author’s fault. The higher Johnny’s career and net worth rose, the more popular he was on television, the more insular his life became. By the end of the Tonight Show, it’s basically Johnny versus the world, as Carson had become alienated from Bushkin, Joan Rivers, Ed McMahon except on a professional level, the management of NBC, and everyone else, with the exception of his last wife – and even there, the strain was palpable, according to Leamer. You end up with the impression that Carson was a machine: wake up, drive to the studio, bang out the monologue in conjuction with the writers, go onstage for an hour, project a strange sort of empathy into the camera lens, then go home. Rinse and repeat the following day.
Comedy writers who are hired to write material for a superstar personality such as Bob Hope, Jackie Gleason, or Carson refer to their job as “feeding the monster.” All too often, the phrase can be taken far too literally. Crosby, Crane, and (especially) Carson were men of a particular talent — a charisma that drew millions in, via the camera lens and the boom mic. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that there was much “there” there, behind the charisma, once the cameras and lights were shut down for the day.
It’s too bad — it must be a strange feeling to know that millions adore you, and yet be so empty inside yourself.