When they announced "Here's Johnny" the other night, most of the audience knew where Carson was coming from: the lawyers. The estranged Mrs. Carson had just asked for $220,000 a month in temporary support.
Here, indeed, was material for a monologue. While his lawyers cringed, Johnny picked up his cue.
Once in childhood, he explained, his hero had been Babe Ruth. Then, as a young professional, he had looked to Jack Benny. During the past week, however, he had latched on to a new hero: Henry the Eighth.
Now, under the circumstances we can understand Carson's nostalgia for the good old days when a man could sever his attachments so neatly. Henry, after all, had six wives. Johnny has had three. Two of Henry's wives ended up beheaded, while one of Johnny's will end up heading her own fortune.
The catalogue of expenses Joanna Carson claimed is enough to support a minor principality, or princess-ipality. The most stunning revelation is that she is used to spending $37,000 a month on jewelry and furs and $5,000 a month on clothing. I cannot figure out how you spend that much on furs without buying an entire zoo, but there it is.
The request for $2.6 million a year surely makes Joanna Carson a candidate for the hit parade of top 10 spenders. Who can resist the temptation to award her the title of money-grubbing divorc,ee of the year?
But if this is going to be a dialogue instead of a monologue, someone should present the other side. In the role of devil's advocate--although I would get paid more as either of the Carsons advocate--allow me to suggest this: if the Carsons were still married, we would regard her as no more than the overindulged wife of an overindulged performer. It is only upon divorce that the wife of a rich man is reclassified as a greedy Harpy who is "trying to take him to the cleaners."
Is it more outrageous for Joanna to be awarded $220,000 a month by Johnny than for Johnny to be paid $1.5 million a month by NBC? If the wife of a pauper is a partner in his nothingness, isn't the wife of a millionaire a partner to his millions?
What is at stake here isn't just a fur allowance but a conflict in our attitudes toward the economics of marriage. This conflict runs through the newly published study on "American Couples," by Philip Blumstein and Pepper Schwartz.
The two researchers asked lots of questions about the role of money in couples' lives. They report that couples who are truly committed to a future with each other are more likely to pool their money. Indeed, they concluded, "if we were going to use one major indicator to determine when these couples became solidified as a unit it would be the point at which they joined their resources." At some moment money was no longer yours and mine, but ours.
At the same time, the researchers note, "the amount of money a person earns--in comparison with a partner's income--establishes relative power." Each person may continue to keep track of his or her share in "our" money.
Whatever conflicts lie latent in marriage tend to surface immediately in divorce. It's not just the former couple who experience them, but anyone observing the messy process.
On the one hand, we think of long-term marriage as partnership, two people working as one mutual fund. If they split, surely the fund should be split. This theory is the law in California.
On the other hand, we understand the way the economy works. Whether we are Johnny Carson or Johnny Carson's chauffeur, we are being paid as individuals. The weekly paycheck bears one name.
In the end, I favor the partnership theory, but not because of what happens when people separate. I favor it because of what it takes to hold a marriage together. As the authors of "American Couples" said, "There are many centrifugal forces that tug at relationships. To endure, couples need countervailing forces. One is financial interdependence."
We still need to maintain marriage as a shared venture, something that people nurture together, something that is larger than one or two paychecks. That's true whether the joint income is $15,000 a year or $1.5 million a month. We can only support that ideal by treating it like a partnership when it dissolves.
As for Johnny Carson, if Henry the Eighth is his role model, he'd better hustle. Henry died at 56. Carson is 57 and only ending his third marriage. Is there a fourth Mrs. Carson in the wings? Somebody better lend her a history book.
Copyright; (c) 1983, The Boston Globe Newspaper Company