The Man Who Retired

Ten years ago, the king of late night went away for good, vanished. The Garbo of American comedy. But now, just one last time, here's Johnny.

By Bill Zehme

Photograph by Harry Benson

THERE ARE NIGHTS, he will tell you, that he finds himself back where he was, back where we had him, before we could not have him anymore. "I still, believe it or not, have dreams in which I am late for The Tonight Show," he will say. "It's a performer's nightmare, apparently. I've checked with other people, and it occurs to them frequently. And it's frightening. Because I'm not prepared. It's show time and I'm going on—and I've got nothing to say! Jesus! I wake up in a sweat. It's now been ten years since I've been done with the job. But I will be back there—it was two thirds of my adult life, remember—and people at the show will be as real and fresh and current as ever in the dream, and all of a sudden, I'm having to go on and I'm not prepared. You think you're on the air. And you're not ready. You hit the wall."

Here, but of course, is John William Carson, civilian, president emeritus of American Humor, seventy-six years in life, one decade in remove, sharp as a shiv, all-knowing, all-seeing, all-omniscient, and a potential consultant for the federal witness protection program. Here, indeed, is Johnny, and he is fine, thanks. Or, as he will tell you, should you ask: "I'm fine, thanks." (He is shyly succinct like that.) Since his elegant abdication from public view—on the woeful night of May 22, 1992—I have occasionally borne personal witness to his fineness during visits to the Santa Monica office suite that until weeks ago housed his production company, a small enterprise that has masterfully archived his legacy. (I had made friends with his loyal staff of three and would drop by for semiregular fresh fixes of Carsonian proximity.) Usually, he was not around, but sometimes he would come ambling along the quiet corridors and pop through a door and make funny banter—and, in an out-of-body sort of fashion, I would banter back while realizing that this lively, compact, white-haired man in blue jeans was Johnny Fucking Carson and that, like a thousand fools before me, I was trying to make him laugh and, when he did laugh (he is very polite), I felt new reason to continue living. I recall one such bull session in 1996 when the topic turned to the forthcoming HBO film The Late Shift, which dissected all Leno-Letterman dramaturgy as prompted by his own retirement. "Can you believe that awful shit? It's just ridiculous," he said, chuckling, fully bemused by the shambles left in his wake. Whereupon I kidded about the casting of impressionist Rich Little, who played him in the film. He rolled his eyes, as only he can, thus implying volumes, as only he could. Largely, what he would imply most in such moments was that the world—while hardly utopian during his long reign—had merely gone straight to hell during his absence.

"I think I left at the right time," he says now. "You've got to know when to get the hell off the stage, and the timing was right for me. The reason I really don't go back or do interviews is because I just let the work speak for itself." Inasmuch, I have come to know that he is far better than simply fine; he is supremely self-assured of his place in the firmament, secure about the lasting worth of that which he quit doing for television cameras and for his country. He is contented in a way wise humans can only aspire to be but rarely are. Always with a shrug and a whiff of final punctuation, he regularly repeats to friends and family three short words: "I did it." Nobody argues.

Living as a satisfied apparition, however, offers small solace for wistful masses that are forced to subsist solely on a strict limited diet of refreshed memory—on wee-hour infomercials for videotape and DVD compilations of his spriest Tonight Show moments, or on the interactive pleasures pulsing within Still, people wonder about him—about what exactly it is that he has been doing with himself since disappearing. Therefore, as the tenth anniversary of his Final Night began to draw near, I did not ask Johnny Carson so much as warmly inform him in a letter that I would be commemorating that milestone by collecting tales of his retirement years from cronies and colleagues. If he wished to offer me any ground rules, I urged him to please do so. He called shortly after reading the letter and said, "There are no ground rules at all. If anybody wants to take a shot at me, I don't care anymore." He also cheerfully started telling me things about his life of late. As suddenly as that, the King sounded ready to play again…

There is sharp focus in his look, even right now. His eyes brighten widely as they absorb what you say. Those steely-blues, as Ed calls them, are nowadays set in a somewhat fuller face, but a face posed to laugh as ever before. The genial countenance is unchanged from memory, as he answers innocent questions and asks some of his own. Has any man asked more questions with more people watching him do so? So many thousands of those questions he gave not one shit about, but it looked like he did, like he really wanted to know. And now, here we are, making with the small talk, at his conference table, early on a February afternoon, sitting kitty-corner, a few feet between us, him tilting back in his chair, sunburned fingers laced behind his head; he reaches for his hot coffee mug once in awhile, then resumes laced-finger recline. Because he knows you have been learning things about him, he asks: "So who have you talked to?" He likes asking questions when no one is watching, it turns out. He likes hearing the latest still…

"Feel like grabbing some lunch?" he says, and quickly rises, and lopes, for he is a loper, into the next office to ascertain reservation plans from wondrous Helen. And then you follow him past the hanging magazine covers featuring his younger face, and you enter the elevator with him. His sweater is camel color and snug across his broad chest. He wears black pants into whose pockets he jams his hands, just as he often did between monologue jokes. You notice that he goes unnoticed, that perhaps because he has conditioned people to no longer see him, they cannot see him even when he is right in front of them. Heads do not turn, really. Outdoors, tucked in a corner table, facing the rest of the patio, he lifts his Cabernet and says, "Well, cheers," and clinks glasses…

Suddenly, he stops talking because he is craning his neck, gazing toward the ground, where a pigeon waddles up. "Any messages?" he asks the bird.

May 22, 1992 was the last broadcast of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Since then, the biggest star in television has been almost entirely silent. He has not granted an interview since 1993, and he has not been photographed. Carson literally disappeared. Until now.



For more Johnny, read "The Man Who Retired" in the June Esquire. Carson talks about:

His refusal to be lured back by NBC to celebrate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the network: "That ain't gonna happen. That ain't gonna happen. Uh-uh. I know NBC means well. But I am retired. I ain't going back on television. I made that decision a long time ago and it's served me well."

The state of television since he left, especially Reality TV: "These people are in just about as much jeopardy as I am having dinner. People forget that there's a crew there. There's a catering service. The crew has to eat! It's not like they are going to die out there in the jungle. These silly people will do anything the director suggests because they want to be on television! They want to be somebody!

Current events: "Can you believe this Enron mess? I love how [President Bush's] good friend 'Kenny Boy' suddenly turned into 'Mr. Lay' . . . Give me a break! It will be a long time before we ever understand what's going on behind that story."

And, of course, he speaks Swahili: "Mimi nasema Kiswahili vizuri kwa sababu inafaa na tunaweza kufumba na kubadilisha dunia!" (Rough translation: "I speak Swahili quickly because it is fitting and we can mystify and change the world!")

And much, much, more…


What Johnny Means to Me: 13 Tributes to the King