Much has been written about the great Johnny Carson since his death. His work made the late night talk show an integral part of American television. He was a cultural icon by any standard. As I listened to the many tributes to this man it’s obvious that he achieved a unique status in many American households. He was a part of the family dialogue…someone we had a conversation with each night. He was the average man’s insider that gave us insight into famous people’s lives and personalities and often disarmed them to the point that we could see them for who they were outside of the characters they portrayed. He took the days news and transformed it into simple and ordinary concepts about our world and our lives…all in words that made us laugh while bringing a subtle but succinct clarity to the topic. His persona brought a reliable voice to a world often seen and felt as uncertain and frightening. For many people he brought an acceptable end to an otherwise unacceptable day and he did it for thirty years, a time frame far longer than the average marriage and that includes his own four marriages.
The primary reason for my fondness of Johnny Carson is unknown to others…it won’t be discussed on any television program or during any tribute to the man…and yet it is a testament to his greatness. I grew up around my Italian immigrant maternal grandparents. They were an integral part of my daily life and played a huge role in influencing my perception of the world, of relationships, and of the struggles life can bring. They both came to America as young adults in search of a better life. They took great risks and left the familiarity of home in hopes of achieving the promises only great dreams engender. They met and married in New York City where my grandfather worked as a laborer on the Empire State Building. Shortly after having their first child, my aunt, they left New York for Colorado, again in further pursuit of opportunities born of their dreams.
In Colorado they found success amidst the struggles typical of foreign immigrants. They spoke broken English and were often seen as outsiders but they persisted and made a place for themselves in their community. They were able to do this primarily because they knew how to make people welcome, how to show hospitality, and how to make people feel at home around them despite their differences. Amidst the successes was the tragedy of losing my other Aunt to Lupus at the age of sixteen. Nothing can take away the pain of such a loss but even in despair, my grandparents understood the greatness of America and the freedom it represented. In simply being able to take their daughter to the Mayo Clinic, the best medical facility that one could find, they were celebrating the benefits of America thereby making the struggles they endured to come to this country seem insignificant. Unfortunately, the loss of my aunt spelled the beginning of my grandmother’s struggles with severe depression and a life of mental instability. Her life would never be the same.
During much of my childhood, I knew of my grandmother’s sadness. I remember living briefly with my grandparents while my parents completed building our new home. I was entering second grade and I wanted to make my grandmother happy. I remember talking to her about reading and writing since I was learning to do both in school. I knew my grandmother had limited reading and writing skills in English and in a child’s own way, I thought if I helped her read and write better she might be happier. I remember telling her I was saving all of my phonics and writing lessons so I could teach her what I was learning. For weeks I stacked them all neatly in the bottom of their phonograph player.
Shortly after we moved to our new house, my mom and my grandmother had a falling out when I wouldn’t agree to stay overnight at my grandparent’s house. I don’t recall all the details but my cousins were visiting and my grandmother thought I should spend the night. I didn’t want to although I don’t recall any specific reason for saying no. In retrospect, I think children often just respond to questions without any overriding reason and simply react on a moment’s impulse. I do recall my grandmother making the accusation that I didn’t want to stay because my cousin might wet the bed. It wasn’t my reason and after I called my grandmother a liar, the situation deteriorated into an argument between my mother and grandmother. For what I think was over a year, we had limited contact with my grandmother. Fortunately, before my grandparents left on a trip back to Italy, my mother’s cousin orchestrated a reconciling and we put the issue behind us as best we could. Lost in the ordeal, I would never revisit the reading and writing lessons again.
As the years went on, I became more and more aware of my grandmothers unhappiness. Scarred by a bad relationship with her father in Italy, she really never developed a trust of men which probably explains her doubting my reasons for declining to stay overnight. Her marriage to my grandfather was a constant source of turmoil and she often spoke of leaving the marriage. Sadly, her unhappiness wasn’t sufficient motivation to facilitate her to actually change her life. I remember one particular Christmas when she was agitated and insistent she wanted to end her marriage. By then, I knew she couldn’t do it on her own and I told my parents and my aunt and uncle that they should help her get out of the relationship. I simply wanted her to be happy and being away from my grandfather seemed like a way to make that happen. Nothing came of the discussion and my grandparents stayed together until my grandfather died. My grandmother would live another twelve years and, despite no longer being with my grandfather, she remained troubled and unhappy until her death.
When Johnny Carson died last year, I felt overcome with emotion and I was struck with a sudden understanding. For all the years I knew my grandmother, only a few things ever brought her any degree of happiness. There were obvious things like her grandchildren and great grandchildren. She enjoyed shopping. I think it was time she could spend alone and distracted from her sadness. She also loved to cook and her food was fantastic and it was all done without measurements or recipes. It was what she knew best and it was what she could confidently give to others. In my moment of awareness, I realized she also found happiness in Johnny Carson.
Her connection to Carson was profound. You have to realize that she barely watched any television and if she did have it turned on; it was simply to have the distraction of other voices in the room. Few things in her life ever remained a constant focus and a source of contentment besides The Tonight Show. When she talked about Johnny Carson, it was like she was talking about her friend. When she spoke of him or the show, there was an obvious enthusiasm that was otherwise seldom seen. Regardless of her troubles, she always made a point to watch Johnny Carson. I think she knew he would bring her some measure of happiness and contentment no matter her state of mind. For my grandmother, he was one of the few men she ever trusted and admired. Not once did she doubt Johnny Carson and I never heard her speak a negative word about the man.
He was the common man’s man who had an uncanny ability to connect with his audience by making everyone feel welcome and at home. He was a very private person although his personal tribulations were well known. Carson was gracious and it always seemed appropriate to me that despite his lost innocence, he chose to make graciousness its logical substitute. His mannerisms, expressions, and subtleties exhibited much of the candid innocence seen in children and it came across as sincerity, integrity, and as self-effacing honesty. Perhaps that’s why young and old alike were drawn to him. Given his own personal difficulties, I would guess the work he did on The Tonight Show did for him what cooking a great meal did for my grandma. It was what they did best and what they could consistently give to others. He pretty much said as much on his final show. In the end, for a little boy that desperately wanted his grandma to be happy, I realized that the one man that did that for her day in and day out was Johnny Carson. I will never forget that and I am forever grateful and I know of no better tribute to a remarkable man.