Johnny Carson: Quintessentially human

Tibor Machan: CNJ columnist

Johnny Carson 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. Carson’s genius was, in part, to forge a link with millions of Americans.

The first time I wrote about Carson was when “TV Guide” published a piece 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 the “TV Guide” misunderstanding.

Then I wrote a farewell column when Carson retired in 1992, and now, following his death on Jan. 23, I wish to focus on one remarkable element of his contribution to popular culture.

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.” 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, Carson 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: self-awareness or reflection.

It is not that Johnny Carson gave some kind of erudite academic lecture 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.

Carson had this capacity, I believe, of carrying on with his 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 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 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!

Tibor Machan advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at