I just finished reading King of the Night by Laurence Leamer, a biography of Johnny Carson. I had personal reasons for wanting to read about Johnny Carson which I won’t go into except to say that I got to meet him once.
And as always, I shall build my review around the health aspects of his life. First, he lived 79 years and died of emphysema. That, of course, is a smoking-related disease, and he was a heavy smoker for most of his life. So, I have to think that if he hadn’t smoked, he would not have gotten emphysema, and he would have lived a lot longer.
And he did try to quit smoking at times, repeatedly, but he always went back to it, although I can’t say he was smoking at the time of his death. But, I think he was lucky to have lasted as long as he did considering.
I believe the secret of his success was his brains. He was smart. You have to be smart to be funny. It's all about seeing associations that others don't see, and the delight is in the surprise of it. It takes brains to be funny, and that's why they call it wit. As a boy, he got involved with card tricks and expanded it to a whole magic show. After high school, he joined the Navy, and he caught the end of World War II in the Pacific. And even in the Navy, he was involved doing magic and being involved with entertainment. Once, he even put on a magic show for the Secretary of the Navy.
And it was only natural for him to work comedy into his magic show. It may not be true of all magicians, but it was true of him. After the war, he attended the University of Nebraska, majoring in radio and communications, and with a minor in physics. That’s right: he had a minor in physics. And he graduated with a minor in physics. As I said, Johnny Carson was a smart guy, and he would have excelled at anything he put his mind to.
After college, he went to work in radio and that quickly segued into television. But, his career did not take off until he went to California 1951, which was the year I was born.
But getting back to his health, it sounds like he had a good constitution. The book I read, which was written long before his death, said nothing about any health crises impacting his life or his career. He was slender by nature, particularly when he was young. Not being fat is a big advantage.
My impression is that Johnny Carson was not a food person. He wasn’t a foodie. He ate to live; he didn’t live to eat. His taste in food was very conventional, not high-brow by any measure. Steak was mentioned as a favorite food, but, he wasn’t a big eater. But, he wasn’t the least bit drawn to health food ideas, even though there were people in his life who tried to get him into it, such as his second wife Joanne and his youngest son Cory.
Then, alcohol was a big element in his life. He had periods when he was frankly alcoholic. And it was emphasized that he did not handle alcohol well at all. He got inebriated quicker than most people do. He couldn’t hold his booze. I recall that it was when he was doing the Tonight Show from New York that he had his worst time with alcohol, and Ed McMahon was his drinking buddy. There were a lot of drunken times.
So, the heavy smoking was bad enough, but the heavy drinking was another huge burden. That’s why I say that he made out like a bandit making it to 79.
Then there was stress, and he had a lot of it in his life. He lived an amazing life but not an enviable one, in my opinion. For instance, I think he made a big mistake trying to become a business mogul. What did he need it for? He was paid a vast amount of money, more than he could ever spend, and he had no need to buy banks and tv stations and other businesses which were more than investments- they were enterprises which had to be run. And as fate would have it, many of them didn’t turn out well, and he lost money. But, the greatest cost was all the time involved and all the stress that it imposed on him. Frankly, he should have just bought regular passive investments and not tried to build a business empire.
He was married 4X, and when three of the marriages ended, they ended badly, it was very stressful. He got off easy financially speaking the first time since he hadn’t hit it big yet. But the second and particularly the third divorce were very expensive and very stressful. You might wonder why he didn’t just give up on marriage. The answer is that he didn’t like being alone. That was emphasized repeatedly.
Even his 4th marriage which lasted until the end wasn’t without its problems, and It’s fair to say that his relationship with his three sons was difficult and stressful throughout. And then his middle son Richie died tragically in a car accident at the age of 39. So, there was lots of stress and pain on the fathering side of his life too.
I realize that in everyone’s family there are joys and sorrows, but I got the distinct impression that for Johnny, there was a lot more sorrow than joy.
And then the other irony was that even though he was beloved by millions, Johnny Carson had few friends, and the friendships he had often ended. Especially by the end of his life, he had very few friends.
But, what were the positives health-wise? As I said, he tended to be thin, and he stayed thin. He didn’t get fat. It was automatic when he was young, but as he got older, he worked at staying fit and trim. He had a full Universal gym in his home which he used religiously. He was also an avid tennis player. He was diligent about exercise.
And the Tonight Show was an outlet for him. He had his problems, but he knew that people were turning him on at night to escape from their problems. He felt a responsibility to them. He wanted to make them feel good in the hour before they went to bed. His commitment to his audience was absolute. I believe it superseded everything and anything else. His devotion to his audience was unwavering.
Was he a nice guy? Well, he gave away a lot of money, both during and after his life. He helped people in need, and he often did it anonymously. But, he wasn’t by nature sunny. He had a dark side. And there was a big difference between his public persona and the real Johnny Carson.
He had such an unusual life. If you said he was one in a million, you’d be way off. He was much rarer than that. He was an American institution. He was very, very American, and Americans were proud that he was American because he was class act, and he made the whole country look classy. Johnny Carson was as American as apple pie and the 4th of July, and not because he wore patriotism on his sleeve, but because he embodied the American spirit without doing that.
I think it’s fair to say that Johnny Carson was one of the most beloved entertainers of all time, and people felt that they knew him. He was Johnny- one of those people for whom a first name was enough. Had he never smoked, he surely would have lived a lot longer, but it wasn’t remotely possible. Like most people, he was a product of his time and circumstances. It's true of the rich just as it is of the poor. And it’s very possible, even likely, that no one will ever match what he did, which was to become the late-night viewing habit of this entire country. Who is going to be the next Johnny Carson? Nobody.