Monday, January 24, 2005

Column on Johnny Carson, RIP

Johnny Carson, An American Natural

Tibor R. Machan

Johnny Carson, who died recently, was perhaps the greatest comic
craftsman in American popular entertainment. But this is not to say he was
in any way parochial. Indeed, being a master comic in America is being a
master comic of the modern world, inasmuch as American culture is host to
nearly every other culture in the world and Johnny?s genius was in part to
forge a link with so many millions of Americans.

The first time I wrote about Carson was when TV Guide published a
in which he had been identified as speaking only to Americans. Having come
from Europe and yet finding Carson so able to keep me in stitches night
after night, for years on end, I wrote a letter correcting TV Guide?s
misunderstanding. Then I wrote a farewell column when Carson retired in
1992 and now I wish to focus on one remarkable element of his contribution
to popular culture. Yes, while focused directly on comedy and
entertainment, there was something about Carson that went way beyond
these, namely, his continuous display of self-awareness, of being fully
conscious of himself as he was doing his work and enjoying so much of it.

I recall one occasion when Carson was about to do one of his
stints on
The Tonight Show, one of thousands over the 30 years he dominated late
night television entertainment as the host of The Tonight Show with Johnny
Carson. He was about to use his forehead to break one of those wooden
boards, mimicking a feat of certain martial artists. About to charge
against the board that was being held firmly in front of him by two
experts who appeared as guests on his program, Johnny looked up suddenly
and said, something along the lines of, ?What am I doing?? He went on for
a few seconds in this vein??I am nuts?? ?Whatever has happened to my life
that I am doing such a thing
as this??

I have no idea whether this, as other apparently spontaneous
episodes on
his program, was something that had been scripted but it certainly
appeared to be a very natural, impromptu piece of behavior and was very
funny as well as rather educational. By stepping back for those few
seconds to reflect briefly on the moment, Johnny Carson probably managed
to bring home to millions of his viewers?on this and one many similar
occasions?the significance of something quintessentially and universally
human, namely, self-awareness or reflection, being in the position to
observe and think about oneself and place oneself and what one is doing
within a larger context, indeed, perhaps, within the known scheme of

It is not that Johnny Carson gave some kind of erudite academic
about the human capacity of self-awareness, certainly not. What he did
without skipping a beat in the comic performance he was embarking upon is
to show how natural and uncomplicated it is for a normal human being to
think about what one is doing, to keep alert and not get totally lost in
the moment even as one is fully engaged in that moment.

Johnny Carson had this capacity, I believe, of carrying on with
artistry in a most natural, unforced fashion while also exhibiting the
value of knowing what one is doing, of taking a few steps back and making
sure it all fits. (The few interviews he gave about his work I have
witnessed show
his clear awareness of its nuances and his own interest in an almost
scholarly study of comedy.)

Millions of people who were getting belly laughs night after
night from
this man, the master of comic timing and recovery, were also reminded, in
a relaxed and uncomplicated fashion, of one of the most outstanding
aspects of being a human being: thinking about what one is doing, how it
is to be understood within the larger scheme of reality.

What I personally enjoyed so much about Johnny Carson was his
ability to
put on display an attitude of self-confidence that was never boastful, of
a natural humanity that never fussed a great deal about delivering to us
all something very comforting every night, after we had gone through the
day with its tedium and serious tasks?a solid and reliable dose of genuine
comic relief. Yet mingled with this were probably more important lessons
about our humanity than even Carson had fathomed.

Thanks Johnny!

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