When I was growing up in Nebraska, the favorite son was, and probably still is — Johnny Carson — he made it big in late-night television and he and his estate have donated millions of dollars to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  I was always terrified watching Johnny Carson because I knew what few others outside of Nebraska knew — he was a cunning and cold man, and if you needed any evidence of such, you need only look into his steely, dead, eyes.  Carson had cruel, killer, shark eyes — and his message was not “I’m warm and friendly!” but rather, “Watch out; and leave me me alone!”

He’d rather kill you than kiss you.

The fact that so many people were entertained by Carson has always fascinated me because he certainly didn’t enjoy his job.  In fact, he loathed it.  He was a performer who preferred privacy.  He was a famous man who craved anonymity.  He sought the limelight to pay the bills and, perhaps, as a recent New York Times article suggests, to  win back some love into his cold, undead, heart:

When it comes to inner demons, it’s either the father or the mother, and in Carson’s case, it was his mother, Ruth, a Nebraska homemaker with a wild sense of humor but not much warmth.

The film paints her as a cool, withholding parent who favored his older sister and had a way of deflating Johnny, her middle son, even after he became famous. She once watched his monologue alongside a Time magazine reporter who was working on a cover article about Carson. “That wasn’t funny,” Mrs. Carson said, and left the room.

As a shy and insecure teenager Carson took up magic to win his mother’s affection and fell in love with the sense of control he felt onstage. Ex-wives and former colleagues describe Carson as intensely private, standoffish and not a lot of fun offstage. But it is Carson himself who gives the best — and certainly most succinct — analysis. On “Tonight” he once told Bea Arthur that he went into show business because “you can be the center of attention without being yourself.”

The sad fact of the live stage and television and the movies is that so many of the performers are broken people.  They are searching for healing and for fixing within by winning the attention of strangers to make themselves feel better.  However, the hole in them can never be filled by adoration alone, and so many of them turn to the bottle, the pillbox, and the syringe for comfort — or sometimes they simply self-medicate by disassociation and becoming distant and disconnected and unemotional and cold and apart from the falsity of the reality they sought to construct.

I remember one childhood trip to Norfolk, Nebraska when the family wanted to drive by Johnny Carson’s childhood home.  We navigated to a small white house and there was Kit Carson, Johnny’s dad, sweeping the driveway.  It was a cool August evening and Kit was wearing a white polo shirt and dark blue dress pants.  I remember that vivid image of him because of what happened next.

In a carful of ogling adults, I was the only kid peering out at him from the corner of a backseat window and Kit looked up for a second from his sweeping and stared directly at me with the same Johnny Carson eyes that nightly terrified me on television, and the message was clear, “Get the hell outta here!  I’d rather kill you than be sweeping my drive!”

3 Comments

    1. I think it’s a Midwestern thing, Gordon. We’re trained to cover that hardness with the Midwestern Mask of Friendliness. If you think about it — what sort of people would choose to live in such a cold, humid, hot, freezing, unforgiving land with no real lakes or bodies of water? Adults choose. Children suffer. It’s like sweltering inside a prison of weather — and so you steel yourself against that reality by going outside yourself — but you need to hide the truth of the eyes, too, to be covertly successful.

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