PBS, on their American Masters series a few nights ago, gave us two uninterrupted hours of Johnny Carson. I thought they’d just be showing us highlights from his show, but it was more about his life than his show. He was a strangely complicated man—a womanizer married four times; a drinker who, by his own admission, turned into the classic “mean” drunk; a friend to many but never close to any of them; a troubled, solitary man who retreated from the world when he retired from The Tonight Show after thirty years. Most of the people interviewed were standup comics who essentially got their start by appearing on The Tonight Show: Ray Romano, Jay Leno, Don Rickels, David Letterman, Phyllis Diller, Ellen DeGeneris, Conan O'Brien, Dick Cavett, Mel Brooks, Steve Martin, to name only the most prominent. All of them admired Johnny for his comic timing and delivery, all of them said how much they all owed to Johnny, all of them were in agreement that he was a man one could never get very close to. Jane Embry, the zoo person he had on the show a number of times, described two of the more memorable moments when he encountered her animals: the marmoset she put on his head which then marked his territory when she removed him, the odd look on Johnny’s face when he realized he’d just been peed upon; the lynx that jumped at him when he approached its cage, sending Johnny dashing back to his desk where he leaped into Ed’s arms. And of course, the segment with Ed Ames and the hatchet-throwing he’d learned for his tv role as Davy Crocket, with Ed throwing the hatchet directly into the crotch of the target person.
Here he is as Carnac the Magnificent, one of the characters he created. Thirty years. Lots of memories his many viewers share. It was revealed that when he died, Johnny gave over $150 million to various charities, a monetary payback for the thirty years the viewing public gave him.