Thursday, August 4, 2016

Alex Haley Interviews Johnny Carson, Playboy magazine, December 1967

Author Alex Haley appears on The Tonight Show on February 2, 1977, to promote his book Roots. Haley handed Johnny Carson a hefty tome that contained his family's genealogy going back hundreds of years. This show is discussed in Kenneth Tynan's 1978 article about Carson, "Fifteen Years of the Salto Mortale."
Johnny Carson, 1960's.

One of the most revealing interviews Johnny Carson ever gave was to journalist Alex Haley, published in the December 1967 issue of Playboy. While Carson was cautious about sharing any of his private beliefs on The Tonight Show, in the pages of Playboy he was much more honest and forthcoming. You can read the entire interview online here.

At the beginning of the piece, Haley writes, “Out of the camera's range, however, Carson maintains a passionately private life that has earned him an unenviable reputation as an uptight, lonely misanthrope.” It’s interesting that even as early as 1967 this was already the standard description of Johnny Carson. 

Carson tells Haley of the meetings he has with random strangers, saying, “Everybody I meet in public seems to want to audition for me.” That would have been fatiguing for anyone, and I can imagine it would have been hellish for Carson, who deeply cherished his privacy. 

As someone who writes about pop culture, I spend a decent amount of time thinking about celebrity and fame, and how it affects the people who gain it. I found Johnny Carson’s opinion to be very interesting. Carson said:

“I don't think it's you that changes with success—it's the people around you who change. Because of your new status, they change in relation to you. Let me give you an example. I loved the towns I grew up in as a boy, and after I became a celebrity, I went back several times. I would have had the time of my life seeing the old places and the old faces again, but the attitude of those same people was, ‘I guess you're so big we bore you now.’ What was I supposed to say to that? Agree with them? They'd be furious. But if I said I was enjoying myself, they'd say I was being condescending. You see what I mean?”

Carson makes an interesting point: that people change in relation to a celebrity. I’ve thought about this quote as I’ve been reading Laurence Leamer’s biography of Carson, King of the Night. Leamer interviewed many, many people who knew Johnny Carson. Some of them have great memories of him; some of them have terrible memories of him. But their memories of Carson remain fresh in their minds because of his celebrity, not necessarily because what Carson did was interesting or noteworthy. In the 1982 TV special Johnny Goes Home, which followed Carson back to Norfolk, Nebraska, the town where he spent much of his youth, Carson attended his high school reunion. During his speech, he read a letter from a schoolmate named Georgine who remembered that back in second grade, during an activity where teams were being chosen, young Johnny shouted out, “Don’t pick Georgine, she runs like a duck.” Georgine also wrote to Carson, “I never watch your show…in my opinion, you were a spoiled brat.” While Carson took it in good humor, it shows that people remembered even the most mundane encounters they had with Carson. Despite having never watched The Tonight Show, Georgine probably told people that story about young Johnny Carson a million times.

While Carson’s comedy may seem tame to 2016 audiences, it’s important to remember that during the 1960’s he was constantly pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable to say on national television. Carson told Haley:

“But nearly anything you say, you can't help offending somebody out there. If I say ‘naked,’ if I use the word ‘pregnant,’ I'll get probably 500 letters complaining that I'm hastening national immorality. A lot of them are from nuts—you can tell that—but many are from perfectly sincere people who happen to think that practically anything is immoral.”

In Playboy, Carson wasn’t shy about his opinions on the pressing issues of the day. He had this to say about race in America:

“Too many whites are in favor of integration and equality only so long as it never touches them, only until some Negro makes a move to buy into their block, until they find themselves competing with Negroes for the same jobs. This isn't to say that there hasn't been some progress in the past decade; but it's been too little and too slow—just enough to give Negroes a taste of freedom and equality, but not enough to make either a reality. So the discontent and frustration erupt into violence. It's understandable, but we all know it's not going to solve anything.”

Carson also criticized the government for not giving the public more information about what was happening in Vietnam. While Henry Bushkin described Carson as an “Eisenhower Republican” in his 2013 memoir, most other writers have described Carson as an unapologetic liberal. Carson’s political views also influenced the creation of his character Floyd R. Turbo in 1977. Floyd was a knee-jerk conservative who always dressed in a plaid hunting jacket and delivered editorials in opposition to many liberal ideas. One of Floyd’s famous lines was, “If God didn’t want us to hunt, He wouldn’t have given us plaid shirts.”

In a 1970 article in Life magazine, Carson explained some of his liberal views:

"In my living room I would argue for liberalization of abortion laws, divorce laws, and there are times when I would like to express a view on the air. I would love to have taken on Billy Graham. But I'm on TV five nights a week; I have nothing to gain by it and everything to lose. I don’t care what the critics say about the show’s blandness.”

It’s interesting to me that Carson was so upfront and honest about his opinions in a major magazine. Obviously he wasn’t too worried about anybody being offended by what he said. That’s one reason why his 1967 interview in Playboy is so compelling, as Carson comes across as not an inscrutable loner, but rather a man who had very definite views on many different subjects.

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