Monday, May 14, 2012

King of Late Night

Tonight, PBS aired a documentary on the legendary Johnny Carson, host of the long-running "The Tonight Show" on NBC. I sat for two hours and watched it -- something I rarely I do. However, it was well worth my time and if you have the opportunity to watch it again in a rerun, I highly recommend it.

Following is a review from The Boston Globe

Closer look at the ‘King of Late Night’
 by Don Aucoin

Even the title of PBS’s new addition to its “American Masters’’ series, “Johnny Carson: King of Late Night,’’ tells you how much the television landscape has been transformed since Carson’s reign as host of “The Tonight Show’’ came to an end two decades ago.

Who today could legitimately be called king (or queen) of late night? Jay Leno? David Letterman? Conan O’Brien? Jon Stewart? Stephen Colbert? Chelsea Handler, Jimmy Fallon, Craig Ferguson?

With all due respect to those talented (in a few cases immensely so) performers, none of them can lay claim to Carson’s crown. Partly, of course, that’s because they have to cope with a level of audience fragmentation that Carson never had to confront. Viewership is now divided across scores of cable channels, often in narrow demographic slices, rather than just a few broadcast networks.
Carson, by contrast, spoke to the whole country. As that country underwent wholesale change during his tenure from 1962 to 1992, he still managed to maintain late-night preeminence.

“King of Late Night,’’ which airs Monday night at 9 on Channel 2, tries to explain how he did it.The documentary is fast-moving and fairly comprehensive, but it doesn’t break much new ground. It fails to adequately reflect the fact that Johnny lost his fastball in the final years of “Tonight,’’ and it doesn’t address the aura of Rat Pack-style sexism that prevailed on “The Tonight Show’’ and whose after-effects can still be felt on late-night TV today. Still, “King of Late Night’’ is a highly watchable chronicle of a career whose like we won’t see again.

It may be that Carson’s very middle-ness was central to his success. He was quick-witted but not brilliant. He was handsome but not devastatingly so. He was risqué but not raunchy. He had uncanny timing, but he had learned that (as he readily admitted) from Jack Benny.
Carson’s true genius lay in the balancing act he pulled off decade after decade, sustaining a persona that blended a certain knowing urbanity with enough boyish traces of his Nebraska upbringing to cement his hold on Middle America.

But who was he offscreen? An enigmatic loner, by most accounts in “King of Late Night.”
The most well-known TV personality in America was no king to his coldly withholding mother. When a Time magazine reporter watched Carson’s monologue with her, her only comment, when it was over, was: “That wasn’t funny.’’ Then she got up and left the room. In his own personal life, Carson apparently became a distant father and an unfaithful husband. “I’m sure there were females,’’ says a tight-lipped Joanne Carson, the second of his four wives. “I didn’t know about them; I didn’t want to know.’’

A certain sadness now and then could be detected around the edges of his confident demeanor. Lots of us remember Carson teaming up with Bette Midler for a duet on “Here’s That Rainy Day’’ near the end in 1992, but “King of Late Night’’ features some wonderful, touching footage from decades earlier that I’d never seen of a guitar-playing Johnny singing that very same wistful classic.

When it came to working in television, what Johnny knew — and what far too few of his successors in the late-night arena seem to understand — is that although it’s called a talk show, the essential skill is to listen. Carson represented the host as perfect audience. Time after time in “King of Late Night,’’ former guests marvel at how Johnny, as an interviewer, gave them room to shine. “He had the perfect barometer in his head of when to go and when to stay out,’’ says Arsenio Hall. “He could save you if the show needed it or he could let you do your thing — his ego could let you do your thing.’’

“The Tonight Show’’ was a proving ground and launching pad for stand-up comics, who prayed Johnny would give them a thumbs-up after their set or — the ultimate nirvana — that he would beckon them over to the couch for a chat. “King of Late Night’’ lets us hear from many of the comedians whose careers received a significant boost from, or were influenced by watching, Carson: Leno and Letterman, of course, but also Jerry Seinfeld, Steve Martin, Ellen DeGeneres, Ray Romano, David Steinberg, Drew Carey, Garry Shandling, and Conan O’Brien.

He did not have the usual comedian’s insecurity about cracking up at the material of others; one of this documentary’s virtues is that it reminds us what a great, generous laugh Carson had. “You could see his joy, and his love of your comedy if he thought you were good,’’ says Mel Brooks.

If you crossed him, though, watch out. Carson never spoke to Joan Rivers again after she agreed to host a rival late-night show without giving him advance warning. “Johnny was a tough, aggressive killer,’’ Rivers says. “That’s how he got to be Johnny Carson.’’

That’s one view, and one side, of a many-sided man. We’re probably fated to always wonder who, exactly, Johnny Carson was. He had begun his showbiz career as a teenage magician, and “King of Late Night’’ suggests that the art of illusion remained central to his entire career.

“Carson is the Great American Sphinx,’’ says Bill Zehme, a Carson biographer. “He was on view like a monument. Daily, nightly, there he was: Carson. Right there before us. And what did we really know?’’


  1. Johnny Carson just " might " ring distant bells to me. You wrote such a thorough post about him.
    Somehow, I have a picture of a man in an " old-fashioned " suit, looking old-fashioned as well. Am I on the right track?
    His show has never been seen over here, perhaps just a small glimpse of it. Maybe I remember that small glimpse. The show seemed so very old-fashioned American.
    Conan O´Brien show was seen over here some years. I never watched it. He even visited Finland. The visit was a b i g thing. All over the media.
    I liked reading your review of the TV document, as I am not watching TV anymore.

  2. Carson hosted the show 30 years, from 1962-1992. Not old-fashioned; he was cutting edge in his day; risque but never vulgar or in bad taste. Should have posted a picture with this and am going to do so now. He was very popular in the U.S. I should not have stayed up so late watching; should have recorded and gone to bed. I so rarely watch anything on TV except, like you, news.


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