[Dixielandjazz] Shyness - Johnny Carson - Musician Similarity

Steve barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Sat Jan 29 06:44:27 PST 2005

A while back, we had a thread about some musicians perceived as rude or
standoffish. Johnny Carson was often perceived as being standoffish too.
He was, like many jazz musicians, quite shy.

So, after reading the article below, when you run across a jazz musician who
is not extroverted, seems to ignore you and wants to be left alone, please

Steve Barbone

January 29, 2005 - NY TIMES - By NICK MADIGAN

Quiet Times, but Lots of Laughs, in the Years After 'Tonight'

LOS ANGELES, Jan. 28 - There were only a few places where Johnny Carson let
his hair down. The poker table was one of them.

Mr. Carson's notorious off-screen reserve dissipated during the monthly
poker games that the film producer Daniel Melnick held for years at his
house in the Hollywood Hills. The regulars included a panoply of well-known
names, like Steve Martin, Neil Simon, Chevy Chase, Carl Reiner and Barry

"In our game we all became adolescents," Mr. Melnick, who had known Mr.
Carson since their early days in television in New York, said in an
interview this week, after receiving news of the former "Tonight" show
host's death on Sunday.

"There was a lot of kibitzing, a lot of laughing," Mr. Melnick said. "We
were a little more raucous than we'd be under other conditions."

Still, Mr. Melnick said, he always had to warn Mr. Carson in advance if he
planned to invite a new player to the game, usually to fill the chair of an
absent regular. It was a long drive from Mr. Carson's home in Malibu, and he
did not like surprises.

"John was not comfortable playing with someone he didn't know," Mr. Melnick
said. "I'd have to brief him beforehand."

Mr. Melnick, a producer on two of Mr. Martin's movies, "Roxanne" (1987) and
"L.A. Story" (1991), said the poker games were still being held, in Mr.
Martin's house, and that Mr. Carson had played as recently as last month.

"He looked fine to me," Mr. Melnick said. "We knew about the emphysema, but
he wasn't carrying oxygen. He looked tanned from spending all that time on
the boat."

Johnny Carson's shyness, which he readily acknowledged, was one of the
paradoxes of his character, and it became startlingly evident after his
retirement from a 30-year run on NBC's "Tonight" show in 1992, when he
disappeared from public view and refused virtually all requests for
interviews and personal appearances. He focused on tennis, spent a lot of
time on his yacht, immersed himself in books, and learned Russian and
Swahili. And he played cards.

After his retirement, Mr. Carson also supervised the editing and marketing
of the videotape and DVD compilations of his years on the "Tonight" show,
working with his nephew, Jeff Sotzing, the president of Carson

"He and I put those together," Mr. Sotzing said. "We had to see which
segments worked and which didn't work."

Mr. Carson continued to write after leaving the "Tonight" show. He
occasionally sent jokes to David Letterman, host of CBS's "Late Show." Mr.
Letterman used some of them in his monologues. Mr. Carson also wrote for The
New Yorker after his retirement.

In November, Mr. Carson donated more than $5 million to the University of
Nebraska, his alma mater, in Lincoln, and also made substantial donations to
a number of institutions in Norfolk, Neb., the town in which he grew up. He
gave more than $2 million to a cancer treatment center in the town, and
$500,000 to the local library, among other gifts. A memorial to Mr. Carson
is scheduled for Sunday afternoon at the Johnny Carson Theater at the high
school in Norfolk.

After Mr. Carson retired from "Tonight," Ed McMahon, who sat next to him on
the couch for three decades, saw considerably less of the host. "We'd meet
for lunch maybe three or four times a year," he recalled. "But after a time
I felt I was intruding. For the last year or so I only talked to him on the

Ed Hookstratten, a Beverly Hills lawyer who represented Mr. Carson for 15
years, said his client "was very much a man of privacy."

"He would do the show, get in his car, go home, have dinner with his wife
and relax," Mr. Hookstratten said. "He did not need people socially. He
loved tennis, and he loved his yacht. After he retired, he moved his office
onto his yacht, and he'd go there daily."

Mr. Carson spent a good deal of time traveling, often in the company of Bob
Wright, the chairman and chief executive of NBC Universal, and Mr. Wright's
wife, Suzanne. They went to Africa in 1994, England the following year and
Scotland the year after that, among other places. They visited the San Juan
Islands on Mr. Carson's yacht, the Serengeti.

Mr. Wright, who estimated that about 90 percent of his relationship with Mr.
Carson was "outside the workplace," said the former "Tonight" host was "not
reclusive at all." 

David Steinberg, the Canadian comedian and director who was a frequent guest
and guest host on "Tonight," said in an interview that most people who came
into contact with Mr. Carson did not really know him.

"You do the show, but you don't necessarily hang out with him," Mr.
Steinberg said. "He was socially comfortable only in his own small group -
very at ease. But if we had lunch together, he'd be witty, well-read and
always knew what was happening in the world."

More than anything, Mr. Carson "hated phoniness and he hated show-business
phonies," said Mr. Steinberg, a director of the HBO show "Curb Your

Mr. Steinberg surmised that Mr. Carson would have been glad to avoid the
commotion over his passing, especially the many laudatory television
interviews this week with comedians who had appeared on "Tonight" as Mr.
Carson's guests - people like David Brenner, Phyllis Diller and Don Rickles.

"He would probably say that his death was a boon to a lot of comedians who
haven't been on TV for a while, including me," Mr. Steinberg said.

Mr. Steinberg said that, after retirement, Mr. Carson remained "very
accessible to his friends" and that the two saw each other every so often
for lunch or dinner.

Four or five years ago, when Mr. Steinberg was booked for a stand-up night
at the Moonlight Tango Cafe in the San Fernando Valley, Mr. Carson called to
make a reservation.

"When I heard he was coming it was as scary as could be for me," Mr.
Steinberg recalled. "It electrified the room."

He said that in honor of Mr. Carson and his wife, Alexis, Mr. Steinberg
built his routine around his stints on the "Tonight" show but did not force
its former host to take a bow.

"Noooo!" Mr. Steinberg said, feigning horror. "He wouldn't have liked that."

Mr. Melnick, whose poker games became a hot ticket not only because of the
heady company but because he had a fabulous cook, said Mr. Carson, a
dexterous magician, was not an extraordinary player.

"He wasn't cheating - he lost as much as he won," Mr. Melnick said. "But he
was really good with his hands. He'd run a quarter through his knuckles to
stay limber. I think he and Steve Martin became magicians because it was
probably a way, in adolescence, to deal with shyness."

Mr. Simon, the playwright and screenwriter, remembered the poker games as a
friendly, low-stakes affair, full of banter.

"No one came to make a lot of money," he said. "And Johnny was quiet at the
table. When he said something, it was funny. He didn't come to make jokes;
he came to listen to jokes. When Johnny laughed, I really had a charge.

"I was the worst player," Mr. Simon said, laughing, "and he was the second

Despite Mr. Carson's comedic gifts, Mr. Simon said, "he wasn't like so many
comics, who want to push their comedy at you - they're in your nose, and you
want them to back off. Not him."

After Mr. Carson's retirement, he occasionally invited Mr. Simon to the
Malibu house to play tennis.

"I saw him socially a little, but he didn't go out much," Mr. Simon said.
"It amazed me that he was able to pull away and stay away from it all after
he left. I was amazed to see that he would stay at home and write jokes for
David Letterman."

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