American Masters: Johnny Carson: King Of Late Night debuts tonight on most PBS stations at 9 p.m. Eastern—check local listings for exact times.
Twenty years ago next week, Johnny Carson ended his three-decade run as the host of The Tonight Show, closing the door on an era of television that would never be seen again. Late-night talk shows have carried on in his wake, of course, but none has commanded the same audience or power when it comes to the national dialogue. People wanted to hear what Johnny—whom they’d address by his chummy first name, like an old friend—had to say about that.
And to many in the showbiz world, particularly comedians and the late-night hosts who succeeded him or competed with him, Carson was a god. They’re all on hand to sing his praises—including successors who’ve picked up their own single-name monikers, like “Letterman,” “Conan,” “Leno,” “Fallon,” and “Seinfeld”—in Johnny Carson: King Of Late Night, the latest entry in PBS’ American Masters series and the closest anyone will likely ever come to a documentary about the famously private Carson.
The story goes that writer/director/producer Peter Jones sent Carson a letter every year for 15 years asking him to be the subject of a documentary, all of which went unanswered until Carson called him in 2003—to say no. (“You write a damn fine letter, Peter, but I don’t have anything more to say.”) When Carson died in 2005, Jones changed his quarry to Carson’s nephew, Jeff Sotzing, who controls the Carson archives. Eventually Sotzing and the Carson Entertainment Group cooperated, opening the late host’s personal archives of photos, home movies, interviews, and all of the existing episodes of The Tonight Show, which are buried in a subterranean mine in Kansas.
Even with access to all of that material, and the long list of admirers sharing their stories, Jones still can’t paint a full portrait of Carson, who didn’t even have a memorial service when he died. Only his second wife, Joanne, is interviewed—Carson married four times—but neither are his two surviving sons. (Middle son Richard died in a car accident in 1991.) Even Sotzing, who gave Jones access to all the material, isn’t on camera. “We must have inherited the privacy gene,” Carson’s son Cory told People magazine when his father died.
Early in King Of Late Night, former Tonight Show writer and Simpsons showrunner Al Jean suggests his old boss was television’s Charles Foster Kane, a powerful man haunted—and propelled—by personal demons that he rarely shared with anyone. The film does what it can with the obvious, public ones—booze and marital discord—but can only speculate or rely on hearsay for the others, like infidelity, his regrets as an absentee parent, and the distant mother whose approval eluded him, even long after he’d become the most powerful man on television. (In one heartbreaking scene, she’s quoted dismissing Carson’s monologue as “not funny” in a Time magazine cover story about him. She’d also told him that she didn’t think he could stand up to his Tonight Show predecessor, Jack Paar.)
Even at a robust 114 minutes, King Of Late Night has a lot of ground to cover, and it doesn’t necessarily do it smoothly. Clumsy segues become more numerous as the film progresses, like shifting from the story of Joanne Carson’s massive divorce settlement into Johnny’s love of drumming. Another segues from the suggestion that Hugh Hefner and Johnny Carson were at the forefront of the sexual revolution into a quick tidbit about Carson’s signature clothing line into a quick history of Ed McMahon’s “Here’s Johnny!” It gives the sense of Jones working through a list of points to make, even if they don’t necessarily fit together.
Some points just don’t sound right, either. New York Times writer Bill Carter, author of the essential late-night TV books The Late Shift and The War For Late Night, asserts that Carson was “really hip,” though by the end of his run, Carson had a reputation for being anything but. This was a time when Arsenio Hall became the first real threat to Carson’s supremacy by, as Hall says in King Of Late Night, going after “the children of Johnny’s audience.” Saturday Night Live even lampooned Carson’s aging mores in its “Carsenio Hall” sketch, where Dana Carvey played an “urban” Johnny Carson pandering to Arsenio’s audience. (Carson was not amused.)
But even an aging Carson was still Johnny Carson, and Conan O’Brien notes that he was able to pull off something no one has since: He could be broad and funny and still come out like the coolest guy in the room. “No idea how he does it,” O’Brien says.
Some of the interviews, too, can’t help but sound hyperbolic. At one point, Doc Severinsen, Carson’s longtime bandleader, says “We thought we were developing ourselves, but Johnny was developing who we were.” But even if logically it doesn’t make sense, the sentiment does: Severinsen owes Carson everything, and the love and loyalty he felt for the host is real—he can’t even talk about when he learned of Carson’s death.
Garry Shandling also chokes up about Carson’s death. In a film that can only go so far into its subject’s life, it makes sense that some of the most powerful moments would come from the people whose lives he touched. In one deeply moving scene, Drew Carey, voice cracking as he fights back tears, describes his first performance on The Tonight Show, where he made Carson laugh hysterically and got invited to the couch—a rare seal of approval from Carson that was mythic among comedians. As Jerry Seinfeld notes, there aren’t that many definitive moments in life like that one. “Before, you’re wanting to be a comedian—and after, you are one.”
King Of Late Night can only do so much for a subject whose famous sense of privacy has miraculously outlived him by nearly a decade and counting. But for fans of Carson, and fans of late-night TV in general, any peek into the life behind the legend is worthwhile.