Here’s Johnny

It’s interesting how we have a peculiar interest in certain cultural figures. I think back sometimes on the men who were giants in 1970s and 1980s culture. A generation exists now that knows their names but little about them. In another generation or two even their names may be largely unknown.

When I was growing up, the talk show host Johnny Carson was possibly the biggest celebrity in the country. His lawyer, Henry Bushkin, recounts how Carson went to an A-list party in 1979 at the home of Henry Mancini. Cary Grant, James Stewart, Sean Connery, Roger Moore, famous composers, directors, etc. were there, but Johnny Carson was the man these people anxiously awaited.

The exuberant Tonight Show theme and Ed McMahon’s booming voice would sound every weeknight at 11:30, the air full of possibility, the good life, a party. Carson had broad appeal. Old people liked his small-town charm. Young comics admired him and sought his approval. He had an urbane swinging feel and a mystery about him that appealed to middle aged men and even dumb kids like me. His interactions with regular folks and zoo animals were legendary, as was his repartee with Ed McMahon, Tommy Newsom, and Doc Severinson (much of it scripted, it turns out). Johnny was funny and self-deprecating. He always knew what to say. He was a guy you wished you knew, small town and L.A., a bon vivant living the dream.

In the American Masters biography of Carson, one of the commenters noted that Carson and Hugh Hefner were the forefathers of the sexual revolution. While overstated, I think there is somewhat of a tie. Carson was a more refined proponent of Hefner’s joie de vivre. Hefner was a legend in his own mind who gave the pretense of high culture amid the nudie pictures, but it was a layer of varnish and glitter over a seedy core. He wasn’t the kind of libertine you’d bring home to meet mom and dad.

Carson was more like the guys in the Rat Pack. The double entendres and flirtations were there but never alienated his audience. He could appeal to a Vegas crowd, a class reunion, students and teachers. Johnny dressed well. He made millions from his own suit line because men wanted to look (and be) like him. Like so many in the industry he had multiple (4) wives, trading in old models for new each go-round. The marital woes became a running joke and part of his image.

Johnny stayed atop the Hollywood heap for several decades, known and feted everywhere. Never an actor himself, he hosted the Academy Awards many times. He hosted the first Reagan inaugural at the behest of Frank Sinatra. Of course, sexual temptation is relentless for the famous, like a fat man presented with cake and candy at every table. Carson had flings and long-term girlfriends. He was a star attraction who did Vegas shows a few weeks yearly for many years. Craven casino owners created for him a playground of self-gratification: fancy suites, food, gambling, saunas, and of course women. After he finally tired of Vegas, there were yearly trips to Wimbledon and the south coast of France. He had huge mansions in Bel Air, then one in Malibu overseeing the Pacific. A private tennis court. A staff to cater to his needs.

As these things usually go, image and reality didn’t align: Bushkin thought Carson a generally unhappy soul (incidentally, Johnny started out as an illusionist). The allure of hobnobbing with the rich and famous wore off as he realized that so many of them were as dull as flat paint and had little of interest to say without a scriptwriter. Carson himself was often a loner, preferring home with his drum set or telescope, a private bar stool at Jilly’s, or playing alley cat to holding court at a party. The famous deal with similar problems: Who can you trust? What does this guy contacting me really want? Weirdo fans. Celebrity so often breeds a desperation to stay on top. Bushkin notes that if A-listers find themselves at a party with a bunch of nobodies, they get paranoid, thinking that someone is trying to “demote” them. Such are the stresses of status.

Carson finally called it quits from the Tonight Show in 1992. He never did specials after that so the mystique remained. As his life wound down, he became increasingly remote from others including his final wife. The last few years of his life were spent largely alone, staring out at the sea and sailing in his boat, until the longtime smoker contracted emphysema and died in 2005 at age 79. It is a sad and empty spectacle to ponder a longtime toast of the town dying nearly alone. Even the great Tonight Show theme can’t cover that.

I find these types of biographies profitable on occasion. The titans of the earth go naked to the grave like the rest of us, and what good is celebrity in front of the Lord? If you end up in hell, what profit lies in the self-gratification of decades past or some guy watching a Youtube clip of you 30 years hence? Even if, unlike Johnny Carson, you die among a crowd of adoring friends you can’t take them to act as character witnesses at the judgment seat.

Fame seems more curse than blessing, offering up great distractions from God’s reality and eternity itself.

Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell—and great was its fall. (Matt. 7:26-7)

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