Before Jimmy Fallon, there was the “king of late night”

jimmy-fallonTonight, Jimmy Fallon, takes over the hosting spot on the Tonight Show. He’s an incredible talent and the perfect choice for a younger generation. Some are likening Fallon to Johnny Carson, who hosted the Tonight Show for 30 yrs, from 1962 to 1992. I actually think Jimmy Fallon will be even greater than Carson because IMHO he is more versatile–he’s often so “off the wall” and his musical bits and impersonations are hysterically funny. As Fallon settles into the well-worn chair of the Tonight Show, there is another sense in which I hope he never becomes like Johnny Carson.

I’ve just finished Johnny Carson, by Henry Bushkin, who was Carson’s lawyer, wingman, fixer, confident and best friend. Bushkin has written a revealing account of one of the most johnny_carsonpopular, celebrated entertainers of the 20th century. For many years, he was the highest paid entertainer ever, he was the king of late-night. Johnny was also the most enigmatic, complex, mercurial person to ever dominate the television landscape.

On camera, Carson was charming and witty, but off-stage, he could be petty, vindictive and downright mean. He became a man who was full of himself with a huge ego that had to be stroked constantly by Bushkin and others. There is one story among many which reveals Johnny’s out-of-control narcissism even to the point of becoming despotic. The author, along with his companion at the time, Mary Hart (from

Johnny and Joanne Carson

Johnny and Joanne Carson

Entertainment Tonight) and Johnny and his 4th wife, Alex, were vacationing on a chartered yacht in the Mediterranean. They stopped at a small island near Cannes for dinner. The yacht captain booked them a table for dinner. The captain handed Johnny a walkie talkie (this was several years before cell phones came on the scene), and said “We will be waiting here at eleven-thirty to bring you back to the yacht, but if you have any change in plans, call us.” Johnny then hands off the walkie-talkie to Bushkin who reluctantly accepted it. He told the ship’s crew to come back at two o’clock so that he and Mary could enjoy the sights a bit longer.

The author writes, “We headed back a little before two. As we neared the dock, we could see several people standing by the yacht’s tender, and one was Johnny….I thought to myself, what is going on? Before I could say anything, the captain of the ship was blurting out his apologies. “Mr. Bushkin, I have told Mr. Carson that I was very sorry that I was six minutes late in arriving, but he refuses to accept my regrets.”

Johnny snarled an expletive and said, “I didn’t pay $150,000 to have you late in picking me Carson Mcmahonup. We will be leaving the boat tomorrow morning. Call you headquarters and have them arrange a flight from Nice to Los Angeles for the five of us. I will not stay on this boat any longer.”

Bushkin writes, “I was dumbfounded. We all were. Johnny had actually arrived at the dock five minutes early, five minutes before the tender was scheduled to arrive. He refused all efforts to get him to lighten up. He just sat there and fumed for three hours. We spent the next couple hours in the saloon of the yacht trying to reason with Johnny. By four a.m., he was willing to accept a new captain. Henry Bushkin writes, “That was the last vacation I took with Johnny.”

johnny carson people magJohnny Carson was a deeply flawed individual and you can’t hold that against him because we all go through life with certain degrees of brokenness. It’s a rare person who can’t admit to having any flaws. But at the root of Johnny’s neurosis was his mother, Ruth, a cold, distant woman who was immune to all of Johnny’s charms. She would never utter a complement or ever acknowledge Johnny’s success at anything in life. The night before that incident on the yacht, Johnny admitted to Henry, “I don’t have much talent for happiness. I never have. My mother saw to that.” Throughout his entire life, Carson suffered from having been raised by a cold, affectionless mother. The author reveals Johnny Carson as a little boy inside a grown man’s body, who was never loved and never really felt like he was accepted by his own mother. He spent his entire life trying to please his mom and seeking her approval.

As I read this candid, revealing account of Johnny’s life, I wish Johnny could have known johnny_carson4that there was one who truly loved him just the way he was, with all his brokenness and faults. I wish Johnny could have known that Jesus died so that he could be loved and accepted by God, the Father. For his entire life, Carson sought the approval of his mother, but he could have known that God already approved of him, warts and all. God already knew that Johnny was “damaged goods” and God stood ready and willing to pour out his love upon Johnny, a love that he had never known, yet had constantly sought. He often said that he wanted to be loved for himself and he didn’t trust people and their flattery because he was so often afraid that it was disingenuous. For certain, he could trust himself to the one who created him and cared about Johnny–more than any other human being.

johnny-carson6Johnny needed a whole lot of “fixing”–we all do. We all need to be loved and accepted, just for us–not for our looks, our abilities, our fame, fortune, intellect, or what we can bring to the table. When it comes to knowing God, we need to be emptied of ourselves, because we are all so “full of it” and we need to admit that apart from Jesus, we can’t be saved. We all need a savior, and if we don’t come to Jesus, we’ll turn to something else. But as Pascal writes,

“There’s a god-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man that can only be filled by God alone, made known through his son, Jesus Christ.”

We’ve all tried to fill that emptiness with everything but Jesus. Johnny Carson tried to fill that emptiness with women, fame, fortune, talent, money, success, and alcohol, Yet, he johnnycarson5still found himself lonely and empty because he tried everything, but Jesus. Jesus could have saved Johnny, from himself, and Jesus alone could have “fixed” Johnny in a way that no one or no thing could–not all the fame or fortune or awards or adulation. Jesus is the only one who could heal Johnny Carson’s brokenness, as well as yours and mine. When all is said and done, nothing else really matters except knowing Jesus and being known by Him.

1 John 1:1-4 (NLT)
1  We proclaim to you the one who existed from the beginning, whom we have heard and seen. We saw him with our own eyes and touched him with our own hands. He is the Word of life.
2  This one who is life itself was revealed to us, and we have seen him. And now we testify and proclaim to you that he is the one who is eternal life. He was with the Father, and then he was revealed to us.
3  We proclaim to you what we ourselves have actually seen and heard so that you may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.
4  We are writing these things so that you may fully share our joy.