What Ellen DeGeneres Could Learn From Johnny Carson

Posted on August 7, 2020 by Martin Oaks under Community, Hello world, Resources
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The public flogging Ellen DeGeneres has recently endured is part of the life cycle of prominent personalities in Hollywood. Enthusiastically embrace them on the way up, and vilify them when the slightest incongruity between the star image and real life behavior is reported. Founded or not, accusation is now assumed to be proof of guilt –the more salacious the allegation, the better.

Few will ever really know if DeGeneres is the authentic, adorable sprite she appears to be on her television show, or if she really is just a virtue-signaling Dr. Hyde.

Since humans are multi-dimensional, maybe she is a little of both. Such shades of nuance don’t matter to the sensationalists — rumors attract more attention.

Those who live in glass houses would do well to refer to the Johnny Carson playbook (ironically, DeGeneres got her first big break on the Carson show in 1986, see below).

The most successful talk show host in history, Carson, in the relatively few interviews he gave during his 30-year run on The Tonight Show, made no bones about it– on screen, he was the most charming performer; off screen, he was a loner who was capable of misanthropic behavior.

“I couldn’t care less what anybody says about me,” Carson told Playboy.  “I live my life, especially my personal life, strictly for myself. I feel that is my right, and anybody who disagrees with me, that’s his business.  Whatever you do, you’re going to be criticized…I think I owe one thing to my public — the best performance I can give. What else do they want from me?”

In keeping with this philosophy, Carson’s shows were not terribly self-referential. Jokes were made about him being much-married (4 times), given to drink, and mercurial, but details were left to the tabloids.

Carson maintained a very private life off-stage.  Ed McMahon, his longtime announcer, said, “He doesn’t give friendship easily or need it. He packs a tight suitcase.”

When asked about this, Carson quipped, “I don’t even talk to myself unless I have an appointment.”

He died alone on January 24, 2005 at Cedars-Sinai-Medical Center in Los Angeles. The man who regularly appeared before 11 to 18 million viewers (his last show was seen by more than 50 million) left this world with no one by his bedside.

The usual tributes and the usual nasty scuttlebutt all flowed in the press — the kind of flattering commentary and rank speculation that Carson said he shrugged off.

In 2013, Henry Bushkin published Johnny Carson, a behind-the-scenes biography — Bushkin, for 18 years, was Carson’s lawyer, manager and best friend. The relationship ended abruptly and completely when Carson lost trust in the way Bushkin was handling a business deal. The escapades in the book are sometimes bawdy, but for a regular Carson viewer, not surprising.

One Bushkin anecdote, however, is telling and touching. Carson was very close to his executive producer, Fred de Cordova. That is, until the night de Cordova committed a major transgression: off camera, during a Tonight taping, he signaled Carson to wrap up a segment because the show was running long. The segment was an emotional tribute by Carson dedicated to his recently deceased son, Rick. Carson was so furious about de Cordova’s insensitivity that he banned the producer from the studio — he retained his title, but became, in Bushkin’s words, “a non-person.”

The coda to this story came ten years later when de Cordova passed away. His widow, Janet, discovered that the producer had burned through their savings. It was so bad that she had to move in with her housekeeper.

Carson sent Janet a check for $100,000 along with this note: “I am sorry for the loss of Freddie. I will always remember the great moments we shared…I admired him greatly. I know Fred was not a great money manager, and you are no doubt encountering unexpected financial demands. Please look on the enclosed as a bonus for almost 25 years as Tonight Show producer. Right now I have this strange feeling that Fred is telling Saint Peter how to do his job better. Love, Johnny.”

Janet de Cordova decided to make this story public because, in her words, “people should know what a classy guy he was.”

Over time, other stories of Carson’s anonymous generosity appeared. A large portion of his $450 million estate went to charity. Never once did Carson allude to this side of his personality when he was on television: he was an entertainer, not a self-promoting philanthropist.

“The only thing you’ve really got is your talent,” Carson once said. “It’s the only thing you have to sell.”

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