Sunday, 23 October 2011

Johnny Carson

Johnny Carson with Bette Midler
(a picture really does speak a thousand words..)

Several of our friends don't own a television, and of course a good many more have only ever been able to receive terrestrial channels. Still, I doubt whether even within these increasingly select groups, there will be more than a handful who haven't heard of Johnny Carson – which says as much about Johnny Carson as it does about American popular culture, or talk shows or even television.

Most Americans smile when you mention Johnny Carson, and in my limited experience of American TV, I can't off hand think of anyone else of whom you could say that, except perhaps (put your hand on your heart and raise your eyes to heaven) Walter Cronkite.

I think of two things when I hear Carson's name. One is the occasion that Lynn and her good friend Judy, courtesy of the then producer of the Tonight Show, were plucked from the queue outside the studio and escorted to the VIP row in front of the stage. Johnny's guest for the night was a hero of Lynn's, Steve Martin, there to talk about the imminent release of the movie Three Amigos – which makes it 1986. Lynn is an impeccable judge of character, and she liked Steve Martin as much in person as she had on screen. The same for Johnny Carson. Everybody liked Johnny.

The second thing I think about is something I was told about Carson years ago, and found hard to believe – I still do, although it's patently true. Despite the fact that in front of the cameras he was relaxed, chatty, funny, erudite and indeed everything you would expect him to be as the king of the talk shows, when the little red light went out he was reticent, awkward and painfully shy. His fellow talk show host Dick Cavett once said, 'I felt sorry for Johnny in that he was so socially uncomfortable. I've hardly ever met anybody who had as hard a time as he did.'

Isn't that something? I warmed to him for that because I share the same affliction (though sadly mine doesn't go away when the cameras roll; it gets worse).

Carson didn't give interviews as a rule, and when he did he used to provide, in advance, the following list of ten answers which were intended to cover any question he might conceivably be asked:

1. Yes, I did.
2. Not a bit of truth in that rumor.
3. Only twice in my life, both times on Saturday.
4. I can do either, but I prefer the first.
5. No. Kumquats.
6. I can’t answer that question.
7. Toads and tarantulas.
8. Turkestan, Denmark, Chile, and the Komandorskie Islands.
9. As often as possible, but I’m not very good at it yet. I need much more practice.
10. It happened to some old friends of mine, and it’s a story I’ll never forget

Johnny Carson died in January 2005. He would have been 86 today.

[Thank-you, by the way, to a correspondent in Martha's Vineyard for putting me right on the spelling of 'Cronkite' and 'Cavett'!]
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