About the closest Johnny Carson ever came to explaining himself to his audience was during a vintage “Tonight Show” appearance by celebrity interviewer Rona Barrett.
Up until then, America knew little about the man aside from his marriage problems.
Carson — who was born on Oct. 23, 1925 — rose up the entertainment ranks before the days of TMZ and tell-all confessionals. It was a time that stars understood that the less we knew about them, the better.
Barrett took the opportunity to do what she did best, which was ask probing personal questions of stars. Carson, always a perfect host with a deep sense of what viewers cared about, obliged Barrett. He was now a guest on his own show. Barrett started things off by asking Carson where he grew up.
Carson: I grew up in the Midwest, kind of normal — I guess what you’d call [a] normal upbringing. You know, the heart of the country. My folks were supportive in what I wanted to do.
Barrett: Did you always know what you wanted to do?
Carson: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.
Barrett: From the very beginning?
Carson: Oh, sure.
Barrett: How old?
Carson: I must’ve been about 12, 13 years old. I knew I wanted to entertain.
Barrett: You like the attention?
Carson: Oh, sure.
Barrett: But why? Why you? I mean why at age 12 or 13?
Carson: Because I was in a play or something, and I got up and I did something and people laughed, and all of a sudden you say, Hey, that sounds pretty good. So it makes you the center of attention.
Barrett: Yes. But why did you want the attention?
Barrett: Why did you want the attention?
That was the moment. For the first time ever, Americans saw that Carson was stumped. There was no clever comeback, no funny facial gesture, the kind he’d learned from Jack Benny — the king of nonverbal comedy. There was just a long pause.
Carson: Why did I want the attention? (Another pause, as if he hadn’t heard the question.) Because I was shy.
Carson: Because I was shy. Now that sounds like ambivalence, right?
Barrett: Not at all.
Carson wasn’t finished, and now felt the need to explain his shyness.
Carson: On stage, you see, when you’re on stage in front of an audience, you’re kind of in control. When you’re off … the stage or in a situation where there are a lot of people, you’re not in control, and I felt awkward. So I went into show business thinking I could overcome that shyness.
Barrett: Where do you think the shyness emanated from?
Carson: I bought it in Chicago. [audience laughter and applause]
The man who used humor to bring America together nearly every night of the week while on the air used his talents here to take back control of the interview. He used it as a defensive weapon.
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Carson spent much of his time escaping from life, as we learned from the recent biography “Carson the Magnificent: An Intimate Portrait,” by Bill Zehme. And no one, even Carson, knew why. But what made him great? What made him the king of late night, without peer?
Two things come to mind: his timing and his generosity.
“He had the perfect barometer in his head of when to go and when to stay out,” comedian and former late-night host Arsenio Hall once explained. “He could save you if the show needed it, or he could let you do your thing. His ego could let you do your thing.”
That timing was a product of his love of magic, explained a magician friend of mine, a member of the world-famous Magic Castle in Los Angeles. Carson was a member, too. “Johnny loved magic,” he told me, “and he used lessons learned from the craft as a host. It was a part of his life from early on, and it played a real role in his success.”
John William Carson’s love of magic started early. He was born in Iowa, but when he was eight, his family moved to Norfolk, Nebraska, where his father, Kit Carson, worked for the local power company. Johnny had a younger brother, Dick, and an older sister, Katherine, who was the favorite of their mom, Ruth Carson.
In the later years when he revisited his childhood home, he explained to the boy who was the current resident the lengths to which he would go to get his mom’s attention.
“I used to sit with a deck of cards. I did magic when I was about your age,” Carson told the boy. “Every place in the house, I had a deck of cards in my hands. Drove my mother crazy — my mother would be upstairs in the bathroom and you may not believe this, but I would go into the bathroom and say, ‘Take a card.'”
As Johnny got older, he learned the craft of illusion, of becoming bigger, of projecting and misdirecting and giving himself a greater sense of something that maybe wasn’t entirely always “him” — and there was a one big reason why.
“I took up magic when I was young because I thought that would be a good way to go to parties. I read those ads, ‘Be the life of the party and get girls!’ — mainly I did it to get girls. Neither one worked well,” Carson explained. “Lots of people do that. They like to get up and perform. You can be the center of attention without being yourself as such.”
If magic helped inform Carson’s timing — and his career — so did his generosity. He never cared if his guests scored big and bested him.
“In the end, he put out a better product because he was smart enough to know how to give room to funny or engaging people and let them shine,” Bill Zehme, Carson’s biographer, explained.
Many of those guests included up-and-coming comedians, and Carson was always in their corner. Indeed, his show launched many of the great comedians of the past half-century — people like Gary Shandling, Ellen DeGeneres, David Letterman, Jim Carrey, Steven Wright, and many, many others.
An invitation from Carson to sit on the couch after a performance instantly changed a stand-up’s life. “It was like the pope blessing you,” Carl Reiner once said. Overnight, comedians would go from feature act to taking meetings with the biggest talent agents in the business.
In 1981, at age 27, Jerry Seinfeld made his debut on Carson’s show. “I don’t wonder what it’s like to be an Olympic athlete and spend years on something that goes by in five minutes because I know,” he said of the experience. “If you’re on ‘The Tonight Show’ and Johnny Carson likes you, you’re in show business, and if he doesn’t, you’re not.”
Things worked out for Seinfeld — who would appear on the Carson show on many more occasions after that.
“You knew you were bringing your little gift to him of a joke, and you knew he was gonna open it and love it,” the late Joan Rivers once recalled. “And he knew where you were going. He knew when to come in and say, ‘How fat was she?’ And he knew when not to say it.”
A grateful and very emotional Drew Carey described his first appearance on “The Tonight Show” in the PBS “American Masters” series documentary “Johnny Carson: The King of Late Night” as follows:
The curtain opens. Johnny Carson introduces me. And it’s just like I dreamed of. I go on stage. I hit the mark … I remember seeing Johnny Carson holding onto the desk because he’s laughing so hard and he doesn’t want to fall off the chair. He’s like, convulsing. And he goes like this [doing a wave-me-over motion]. And I go, “Who, me?” And he goes, “Yeah, you.” And I’m like: Nobody gets called over for “The Tonight Show.” That’s a big thing. It was like a religious experience. And after that my career was made.
When so many of us think of Carson and his show, memories of our family pop into our heads. “My dad would always say the same thing,” late-night host Conan O’Brien recalled. “Let’s just watch the monologue. Let’s just watch a little bit of the monologue. I’m laughing and my father’s laughing and how often can you watch something with your father, you know? He [Carson] crossed generations.”
One thing that helped Carson was his fierce discipline on the political front. Unlike late-night hosts today, who are overtly partisan and overwhelmingly favor Democrat politicians, Carson had too much respect for his audience — and his show — to choose sides.
“I think one of the dangers if you are a comedian, which basically I am, is that if you start to take yourself too seriously and start to comment on social issues, your sense of humor suffers somewhere,” Carson told Barbara Walters back in 1984.
“Some critics over the years have said that our show doesn’t have great sociological value, it’s not controversial, it’s not deep,” Carson added. “But ‘The Tonight Show’ basically is designed to amuse people. To make them laugh.”
“Johnny would come out and equally make fun of everybody.”
“You never knew Johnny’s politics,” Jay Leno explained with admiration. “Johnny would come out and equally make fun of everybody.”
Carson had one other talent: He had the ability to make the audience feel like they knew him, even if those around him — like his wives — didn’t.
He also mastered the art of self-deprecation and allowed his bandmates — Ed McMahon and Doc Severinsen were a part of his merry team — to tease him about his marriage problems.
In his New Yorker profile of Johnny Carson, Kenneth Tynan noted that Carson mastered “the art of the expected.”
Every night for what seemed like a lifetime, the show’s bandleader would start that great late-night theme song, and near the end, Ed McMahon would joyfully croon, “Heeeeeere’s Johnny.” And for an hour or so, or until we fell asleep, the world was a better place.
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When Johnny Carson announced his retirement, there was a lot of speculation about the person who would replace him. Jerry Seinfeld had a different take.
“What nobody realized is that when Carson left, he was going to pack it up and take it with him, which is what he did. Because that show never existed again. There never was a ‘Tonight Show.’ It was Carson.”
America never tired of Johnny Carson. He walked away from his show in 1992 after 30 years at the top of the late-night ratings.
In the dramatic finale, which featured an exquisite performance by Bette Midler, Johnny Carson had this to say to his audience: “And so it has come to this. I am one of the lucky people in the world. I found something that I always wanted to do and I have enjoyed every single minute of it.”
He continued: “You people watching, I can only tell you that it has been an honor and a privilege to come into your homes all of these years and entertain you. And I hope when I find something I want to do that I think you will like and I come back, that you will be as gracious inviting me into your homes as you always have been.”
And then, as so many Americans held back tears, Carson — holding back tears of his own — said these words: “I bid you a very heartfelt good night.”
Except for a few fleeting television appearances after he retired, Carson never did come back. Filmmaker and “King of Late Night” director Peter Jones sent a letter to Carson every year or so asking for his cooperation in a TV biography of him, but the answer was always no.
“The reason I really don’t go back or do interviews is because I just let the work speak for itself,” he told Esquire magazine in a rare 2002 interview.
Johnny Carson died on Jan. 23, 2005, from emphysema. He was 79 years old.
The work, if you look it up on YouTube or are lucky enough to own the great DVD sets, still speaks for itself.
Lee Habeeb is VP of content for Salem Radio Network and host of “Our American Stories.” He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and his daughter, Reagan.