Update, 10-23-2013: I invite you to go into comments at the end of this posting. A most insightful experience with Johnny Carson has been shared with us by John Searing.
photo from Carson Entertainment
Last night, I watched an excellent new documentary on Johnny Carson's life put out by American Master's on PBS. If there really is a deep mystery about the man (that's how some like to view him), this two-hour program, a crystal clear account of the entertainer's life, should put such idol speculation to rest. He was one very shy, very private person who was a great actor before the cameras. Away from the set, he was a chronic loner obsessed with his television career and with a series of easy affairs offered him by many beautiful women, some of whom he married.
Said Carson once during an interview, explaining why he was so shy and ill-at ease at public gatherings, he simply did not enjoy the same comfortable control of situation as he did when hosting the Tonight Show. That's why.
Carson craved a certain love that he evidently could only get from an audience. He was unable or unwilling to try getting it from either his wives (for very long) or from his three sons by his first marriage, to whom he displayed a cool distant indifference. The culprit seems to have been Carson's very own mother, Ruth, a strange heartless Mommy Dearest character who nastily discouraged her son in his theatrical ambitious, even ridiculed him during his most successful days as king of late night. Carson was born in Iowa and grew up in Nebraska. Yes, that's where Mommy Dearest came from. So much for those lionized mid-west "family values."
During his 14-year retirement away from the spotlights, Carson privately and without fanfare wrote out millions of dollars in checks to charitable causes. How sadly ironic are those mortals like Carson who can give so lavishly to strangers but can't give hardly a shred of affection and support to their own kin. The man may have been just plain selfish. In the end, sharing space with his fourth wife Alexis Maas, he spent most of his time reading books, lobbing tennis balls back and forth, and sitting alone out overlooking the edge of the Pacific Ocean, savoring the waves of Malibu and beyond.
Onto the waves of Facebook, and to the hyperventilating media blitz over its first day on the stock market. Experts called the event a virtual flop. And I am smiling. Having watched and believed the searing film, The Social Network, I view Mark Zuckerberg as an opportunistic scoundrel who stole the idea from some college classmates, and then betrayed a few who considered him friends and helped him on the upswing. Zuckerbeg was something of a loner himself, who couldn't get a date and is now setting out to bring the world closer together in the facebook universe.
With every new electronic gadget (make that "toy" if you wish) that comes down the iPike, the average human being may be turning more insular and isolated, and -- worse still -- not pausing to consider the long term consequences to the spirit. The Facebook phenomena arguably combines personal isolation with the illusion of intimacy, and I wonder if there is a danger in a "virtual reality" that may encourage people to settle for safe easy fantasies of the mind over actual social realities lived out in the flesh. Perhaps this rapidly expanding electronic world will redefine the very essence of human life on the planet.
Back to Johnny Carson. The American Masters profile, masterfully assembled and formed, in the end rendered the man not a mystery at all. And I have no desire to learn anything more about his private life, for I think there isn't much more to learn. I'd much prefer experiencing the king of late night in the manner of, as Norma Desmond puts it in Sunset Boulevard, "all those wonderful people out there in the dark," waiting to see the curtain part and to hear Ed shout, "Heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeere's ............... Johnny!"
originally posted May 19, 2012