Fifty years ago this week, this shy, low-key man from Iowa began hosting the show with which his name is synonymous. He set the standard.
Yet Johnny Carson was far from your typical celebrity. He was an introvert. Interviewers begged, and were turned down. Biographers tried, and failed. Most people, even his family, said they didn’t really know the most well-known, or at least recognized, man in America.
Some of it was because, well, Carson had some skeletons in his closet. There were affairs. There were lawsuits. He was married four times.
But there’s more to it than that, because he was remote and low-key even before these scandals materialized. Johnny Carson apparently was just a very shy individual who didn’t need attention and validation 24/7. He said what he did on the show spoke for itself and he had nothing extra to add through interviews. His life was compartmentalized, unlike today’s “celebrities” who never seem to give us down-time, who blur their public and private lives so much that I don’t even think the concept has meaning anymore. Does Ashton Kutcher ever have a private thought?
I have wondered, many times while writing Welsey Shaw, why we feel we must know the “secrets” of the people who come to us on television screens but not, say, the plumber who unclogs our sink, or the airline pilot who flies us to our destination. Even internet celebrities generally get more space—Steve Jobs is one of the very few I can think of who has been scrutinized as closely as a Carson or a Liz Taylor. Even with the impending Facebook IPO, we know little about Mark Zukerberg (most of what they told you in The Social Network is untrue or so partially-true as to be virtually meaningless) beyond the fact that he lives, supposedly simply, with his girlfriend and his dog, and has a wardrobe of about a billion T-shirts. He eats lunch in the neighborhood and as far as I know doesn’t own a home with a twelve foot wall around it. Why can’t we let TV and movie people off this easily?
Away from the camera, Johnny Carson wanted to disappear, to blend in. He liked to go back to his quiet midwest roots. He spent a lot of time alone, reading, walking on the beach in Malibu, listening to jazz, drinking wine, avoiding parties and other celebrities. His cohort Ed MacMahon says he rarely spoke to his boss outside the show.
This week, PBS’ American Masters is airing a documentary about Carson. (High time!) But even they admit there aren’t a lot of revelations in store. Carson left his fingerprints on very little.
Yet somehow it seems fitting that this man who lit up late night for thirty years became as private a citizen as possible when the show was over. More celebrities should try this trick. Mr. Carson, a master of timing, knew it was always best to leave the audience wanting more. Here’s to you, Johnny.