Friday, August 12, 2016

Book Review: King of the Night: The Life of Johnny Carson, by Laurence Leamer (1989)

The paperback cover of King of the Night, by Laurence Leamer. King of the Night was originally published in 1989. This is the updated edition, published in 2005, that contains a short afterword covering Carson's life from 1989 until his death in 2005. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor.)

Johnny Carson doing what he loved best, sometime during the 1970's.
In my summer-long quest to learn everything about Johnny Carson, I read Laurence Leamer’s 1989 biography of Carson, King of the Night: The Life of Johnny Carson. Even though it was published more than 25 years ago, Leamer’s book is the definitive biography of Carson. Leamer did his homework on Carson, as he interviewed hundreds of people who knew him. 

King of the Night gives the reader a fascinating portrait of Johnny Carson, a man who was able to connect with millions of Americans every night as the host of The Tonight Show, but who found it difficult to connect with people in his private life. Carson was married four times, had difficult relationships with his three sons, and had very few longtime friends. 

Leamer dissects Carson’s life in detail, and the reader is fully immersed, for better or worse, in the various investments and lawsuits that Carson was embroiled in. King of the Night makes an interesting counterpoint to Henry Bushkin’s 2013 memoir, Johnny Carson, which I reviewed here. Bushkin, who was Carson’s lawyer for many years, also handled many of Carson’s investments, and according the Bushkin, those investments were quite successful. However, Leamer paints a different picture, and after reading King of the Night it sounds like Bushkin’s investments were not very successful at all. Now I wonder how much of Bushkin’s book was an attempt to change his image from King of the Night. 

Honestly, reading King of the Night made me a little sad for Johnny Carson. I hope he was a happy man, and yet I have the feeling, from all that I’ve read about him, that it was a challenge for him to find happiness. He brought such joy to so many people for so many years, and yet, like so many entertainers, it seems as though he had a difficult time finding a similar joy in his private life. Also, like so many entertainers, Carson was happy and fulfilled when he was doing The Tonight Show, but the other hours of the day were more difficult for him to fill.

Carson was brutally honest in a 1986 interview in which he said, “If I had given as much to marriage as I gave to The Tonight Show, I’d probably have a hell of a marriage. But the fact is I haven’t given that, and there you have the simple reason for the failure of my marriages. I put the energy into the show.” (p.352) 

One of the most insightful quotes from King of the Night comes from Jeanne Prior, who was Carson’s secretary in the 1960’s. She told Leamer, “Except for the beginning years of his life, I don’t think Johnny has ever been rejected. Just think of the fact of going around for thirty years and never being rejected by almost anybody, not waiters, not anybody. What do you think would be easier to live with, his life or the life most of us live? There is a cost, and that’s why he insulates himself.” (p.160) I think that gives the reader some idea of what it would have been like to be Johnny Carson, and why success can be so difficult to deal with. 

Whatever he was like off the screen, on screen Johnny Carson projected warmth and a likability that came through the television set. Shelly Schultz, a talent coordinator for The Tonight Show in the 1960’s, said of Carson, “I think that he is one of those rare phenomenal people who understood the medium.” (p.143) That’s very true, and Carson’s understanding of television served him well during his long career.

Johnny Carson presided over a media landscape that is totally different from 2016. King of the Night opens in 1987, as Carson is celebrating the 25th anniversary of his hosting The Tonight Show. Yet even then, as Leamer writes, “The networks had begun to decline, viewers lost to cable networks and video recorders. It was unlikely that any other performer would ever have the same hold over the American night.” (p.2) Of course that’s even more true now, as no one on late night television has the same reach that Johnny Carson did. Carson’s career is unique in late night television history, and it will remain so. Johnny Carson is the man who set the standard; he is the late night host that all others are measured against. 

Johnny Carson was one of television’s biggest stars, and King of the Night allows us a look at his private and professional life. If you’re interested in Johnny Carson, King of the Night is the book that paints the most complete picture of Carson’s life.

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