January 4, 2017

The man behind the curtain

We were surfing around the other night, looking to see if there might be one of those Time-Life infomercials we could light on for awhile - and what does that say about the bilge that populates television most nights, when an infomercial – an infomercial! – may well be the most interesting thing on TV at any given time? Actually, we do this fairly often, which may be an alarming commentary in and of itself.

At any rate, we stopped on a commercial for the latest Johnny Carson Tonight Show collection. I’m not sure how they keep coming up with these various sets; there seems to be an awful lot of duplication in the clips they show, which leads me to wonder if most of it isn’t just being repackaged and resold. This one had the standard fare – Johnny with Robin Williams, Johnny as Art Fern, Johnny listening to Jimmy Stewart’s bad poetry, Johnny with cute zoo animals, Johnny and Ed doing Carnac the Magnificent, Johnny with stand-up comedians of the past (Jerry Seinfeld, Drew Carey, Gary Shandling) making their Tonight debuts, Johnny singing with Bette Midler. (And what did he see in her?)* I could go on, but you get the point. In fact, you’ve probably seen most of these clips yourself.

*I know, I know.

I think the offer being made (if you called in the allotted time to get your free bonuses) amounted to 10 discs for $100.00, plus a little booklet that didn’t tell you anything you didn’t already know. As I’ve said, there’s a real sense of déjà vu watching this – if any of you out there buy this set, let us know how much of it is content that’s already on other sets.

A lot of it was funny, some of it very funny – and some of it simply depends on what you think of the guest star in the clip. (If you feel about Robin Williams the way I do, you probably just skip to the next section on the disc.) It got me to thinking, though – at least as much as anyone thinks about these kinds of things at midnight – just what it is about Johnny Carson?

For people of a certain age, he remains the king of late night. (David Hofstede had a very good piece a while back on why that is.) I wrote about him myself, on the occasion of his death. And yet, as Terry Teachout wrote, an entire generation today (anyone under, say, thirty) probably doesn’t even know who Carson was.

I remember Carson, of course. I watched hundreds of his shows, particularly during the summer when I was in school. I watch clips of him on YouTube, especially the great Carnac bits. I made a point of watching that last show, because I knew it was the end of an era. And yet, I’ve never had the slightest desire to buy any of these Tonight Show collections, even though I own similar sets from Jack Paar and Dick Cavett and Merv Griffin, even though there’s probably enough in them to keep me laughing for quite a while.

We know, from much of the evidence out there, that Johnny Carson wasn’t a very nice man. Although he had many close and enduring friendships, he also could be nasty, aloof and unforgiving even to people who’d been with him for years. He didn’t handle booze very well, nor marriage. There was something I found vaguely unlikeable about him, and I suppose that has colored my feelings about him, about the way I watch the show, almost as if it requires permission to laugh at what he says. And in the last years of the show, his humor was often lazy, as if there was nothing left for him to prove, and yet he kept on with it anyway.

Yet, as I said earlier, if you watch him for any length of time at all you’re apt to see something very funny, something that makes you laugh out loud, even if the humor’s not in what he says, but in what he does. Few people knew how to play the straight man, to know how to react, as well as he did. His partnership with Ed McMahon is one of the greatest in show business history, the two of them playing off of each other perfectly. And he was unparalleled at hosting the Academy Awards; he was one of the few emcees who was even bigger than the movie stars sitting in the audience.

Perhaps, then, the answer is the same as it is with so many celebrities. There’s no evidence that Johnny was any worse a human being than, say, Frank Sinatra. The problem, as it was with Sinatra, is that Johnny was always playing himself, without an acting role behind which he could hide. In essence, he had to invent a character – “Johnny Carson” – every time the curtain parted, one whom the television audience could know and love. Whether or not “Johnny Carson” in any way resembled Johnny Carson was almost beside the point; for the notoriously shy and antisocial Carson, the only way he could relate to people was to assume this role, the role of a lifetime. That was how we knew him, and that was what we lost when he died.

Cary Grant once said that the way he “became” Cary Grant was to play him as the person he wanted to be, until he actually became that person. Was “Cary Grant” any more real than “Johnny Carson”? We’ll never know, but it doesn’t appear that Carson was ever really interested in becoming that alter ego, the one that millions of Americans saw. It strikes me as a terrible way to live, as if one always has to keep track of who he’s supposed to be at any given time, how he’s supposed to act, what he’s supposed to say. Maybe Carson was comfortable with it, maybe he just got used to it, maybe it was something that dogged him until he retired and disappeared from the spotlight. Again, I don’t know.

In the end, I still don’t think the Tonight Show sets interest me enough to buy them. Maybe there’s that block between the two Carsons that I’ll never be able to get past myself. In order to do so, you have to keep telling yourself that this isn’t Johnny Carson, but “Johnny Carson” making you laugh every time he walks out on stage. As the Wizard says to Dorothy: pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

1 comment:

  1. I was one of those kids, growing up in the 70's, who also would watch The Tonight Show during summer vacation. It was exciting to be allowed to stay up late and watch the show. Watch Carson do his monologue, comic bits and of course interview a lot (if not all) of the famous celebrities of the time as well as the past. Besides enjoying the show there was a feeling that, hey, you're not a little kid anymore cause you're allowed to watch this "adult"* show.

    * - adult, of course, having nothing to do with porn.

    My cable started airing Antenna TV a few months ago so I was able to begin watching the reruns of Carson's Tonight Show every night. But do I? Not really. I may catch a bit of the monologue or when I see a stand up comic listed as a guest, knowing this may be their first or second appearance, I'll check it out. But I don't usually watch the shows.

    For me, I don't think it has anything to do with how I feel about Johnny, as a person. I think it's more of my disinterest with talk shows generally (these days I avoid them like the plague) and well, it's been over 40 years since I was a kid staying up late, watching Carson's Tonight Show and I really don't feel the "need" to do so anymore.

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