by Steve Rizzo
Years ago I was watching a Barbara Walters special on television. She was interviewing a major personal comedic influence of mine, Johnny Carson. Of course, Johnny Carson was an inspiration to an entire generation of performers.
As the host of “The Tonight Show,” Carson spent 30 years as the top dog in television comedy. To me, at least, it seemed like no one on Earth could have been happier and more successful, and I tuned in eagerly to hear what such a fortunate man might say.
The interview came during Mr. Carson’s last year as the host of the program. As you may know, Walters has a reputation of being very direct when interviewing celebrities, but if anyone could handle “The Woman Who Pulls No Punches,” I thought surely it would be “The King of Late Night Television.”
In the end, I was surprised, shocked even, at the way Johnny responded to Walter’s questions. I expected the carefree attitude of a man, having conquered the world, going out on top. Instead of the usual barrage of rapid-fire jokes and wisecracks when he was questioned about his personal life, he gave short, awkward replies that didn’t at all suggest confidence. There was an aura of melancholy about him that I believe even took Walters by surprise.
At the end of the interview, Walters alluded to Carson’s fame and long list of accomplishments, any of which were far more than any I — as an up-and-coming comedian — could have imagined attaining. Then she asked one last question: “Are you happy?”
I couldn’t help myself. I blurted out, “What a stupid question! Of course he’s happy! He’s Johnny Carson!” I was shocked when he stumbled over what seemed to be a very simple question. It was obvious that he was uncomfortable giving his answer.
“I don’t know,” said The King of Late Night Television. “I honestly don’t know.”
Why, I wondered, was someone who gave so much joy and laughter to millions of people five days a week for almost 30 years unable to answer the question, “Are you happy?”
Of course, you could say that he was in a low mood because he was leaving the show that was a great part of his life. I could buy that. Surely anyone would be sad under similar circumstances. But even after being reminded of his accomplishments in the television and entertainment industry, and the monumental impact he made in people’s lives, he still couldn’t answer the question.
On the final episode of “The Tonight Show,” Johnny gave his farewell address to the millions who were watching. And it was then that the reason why was evident. Let me explain.
Most people would say then that Johnny Carson had the world in the palms of his hands. But, perhaps, having the world in the palms of your hands shouldn’t be the point of focus. What really matters is the realization that you always hold your own world in your hands — and the choices you make as you are holding it. Your entire life is based on the choices you make. It is important to know that some choices are made consciously, while others are made unconsciously.
Either way, there are always consequences for the choices you make. This is not a threat but a universal fact. We would all stand a better chance to live a happier life if we were more conscious of, and put some thought behind, our choices. The problem is that many of our choices are made unconsciously; therefore, we don’t think they are choices.
Believe me, they are. In fact, everything that is occurring in your life at this moment is a result of choices you made in the past. Those choices that were made, consciously or unconsciously, are key factors that determine your quality of life right now. I have you thinking now, don’t I?
On that final episode of “The Tonight Show,” Carson said, “I am one of the lucky ones in the world. I found something I always wanted to do and enjoyed every minute of it.”
I’m sure he did. But not too long after that statement he revealed deep regret and apologized to his sons Kit and Cory for “not being there enough,” adding that he loved them. He also expressed sorrow and guilt about the death of his son, Richard, who died in a car crash in 1991.
Let us not forget that Johnny was married four times. His ex-wives were often the butt of his jokes. Behind the mask of humor was there someone who truly wanted a lasting relationship? It was apparent that he was so caught up in his role as “The King of Late Night Television” that he had difficulty identifying himself with anything or anyone else.
It’s obvious that Carson gave much and received much, but he paid heavily. It makes one wonder: Is there always a price to pay when what we do for a living becomes our whole life, no matter what the level of success that’s achieved? We have to ask ourselves: Is the price worth it? And,is there a way to find a happy balance?
Find him on Twitter @RealSteveRizzo, Facebook at Riz’s Biz Steve Rizzo, LinkedIn and Google+.