|Johnny Carson in 1976, not even halfway through his run of hosting The Tonight Show.|
|A 1976 ad for Johnny Carson's clothing line. He looks very dapper and dashing here as he goes stargazing.|
In February of 1978, Kenneth Tynan, the British theater critic, published a lengthy profile of Johnny Carson in The New Yorker under the title “Fifteen Years of the Salto Mortale.” The term salto mortale refers to a dangerous leap on a high wire that could produce a lethal outcome, or more generally, to a dangerous undertaking. “Salto mortale” is used in the article by the director Billy Wilder, who compares Carson’s nightly hosting of The Tonight Show to an aerialist working without a net.
Tynan’s profile of Carson ran more than 22,000 words, and it’s one of the best articles about Carson. (You can read all 22,000 words online here.) Tynan did his homework, as he weaves in jottings from his Tonight Show viewings from 1976 and 1977. Tynan even accompanied Carson and his third wife Joanna to Harvard University, where Carson was presented with the Hasty Pudding Theatricals’ Man of the Year award. Tynan’s piece captures Carson at a peak of his popularity, as by 1978 an average of 17 million people a night tuned in to The Tonight Show. Tynan also captures Carson halfway through his reign over the late-night airwaves. Articles about Carson from the 1960’s and 1970’s inevitably ask, “How much longer will he keep doing this?” The answer turned out to be longer than anyone, perhaps even Carson himself, could have predicted.
“Fifteen Years of the Salto Mortale” offers several insightful observations about the personality of Johnny Carson. In May of 1976, Carson gave the commencement address at his old high school in Norfolk, Nebraska. During a Q&A session, a student asked him, “Has success made you happy?” Carson’s answer was: “I have very high ups and very low downs. I can all of a sudden be depressed, sometimes without knowing why. But on the whole I think I’m relatively happy.” Tynan also happened to be watching The Tonight Show when Carson said to actress Madeline Kahn, “I’ve had a little therapy myself, to cut down the hills and get out of the valleys.”
These are interesting admissions for Carson to make. As I was reading Henry Bushkin’s 2013 memoir, titled simply Johnny Carson, and Bushkin was describing some of Carson’s mood swings, I thought to myself, “You know, maybe Johnny Carson wasn’t this cold, aloof person, maybe he was just depressed.” (I reviewed Bushkin's book here.) Obviously I can’t say with any certainty if that’s true or not, but it crossed my mind. Writers have been trying to analyze Johnny Carson’s personality since about 1965, and it’s debatable if any of them have been successful or not. And yet, here I am writing this piece, an article about an article about Johnny Carson, plowing onwards in my attempt to learn more about this fascinating man. I suppose what fascinates us about Johnny Carson is that he made everything look so effortless on the show, but nearly all sources indicate that he was anything but effortless off the show. I doubt that so much ink will be spilled over Jay Leno, Carson’s successor at The Tonight Show, since Leno gives a pretty good indication that he’s exactly the same on and off screen. But Carson was more mysterious, and thus it becomes a challenge to analyze him, to figure out “what made him tick,” so we can learn his secrets.
Throughout the article, Tynan is critical of what he sees as Carson’s unwillingness to address controversial topics on the show. Carson said in response, “I don’t want to get into big debates about abortion, homosexuality, prostitution, and so forth. Not because I’m afraid of them but because we all know the arguments on both sides, and they’re circular. The fact is that TV is probably not the ideal place to discuss serious issues. It’s much better to read about them.” I agree with Johnny here. Carson was always adamant about keeping the focus of The Tonight Show on entertainment, not on politics. Towards the end of the article, Tynan writes:
“If the most we ask of live television is entertainment within the limits set by commercial sponsorship, then Carson, week in, week out, is the very best we shall get. If, on the other hand, we ask to be challenged, disturbed, or provoked at the same time that we are entertained, Carson must inevitably disappoint us. But to blame him for that would be to accuse him of breaking a promise he never made.”
Perhaps the most revealing exchange between Tynan and Carson was this:
Q: Why do you dislike going to parties?
CARSON: Because I get embarrassed by attention and adulation. I don’t know how to react to them in private. Swifty Lazar, for instance, sometimes embarrasses me when he praises me in front of his friends. I feel much more comfortable with a studio audience. On the show, I’m in control. Socially, I’m not in control.
And that pretty much sums up Johnny Carson. On stage, he was perfectly at ease, off stage, he wasn’t. Carson also hated superficial praise and small talk, which made cocktail parties real agony for him.
During Carson’s 1976 commencement address, he gave the students this valuable piece of wisdom: “If you’re happy in what you’re doing, you’ll like yourself. And if you like yourself, you’ll have inner peace. And if you have that, along with physical health, you will have had more success than you could possibly have imagined.” That’s a great quote, and I hope that Johnny Carson found that inner peace.