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American Masters’ Johnny Carson: King of Late Night premieres Monday, May 14 on PBS at 9 ET/PT

Johnny Carson gets the last laugh in PBS documentary
The King of Late Night left his mark on generations of insomniac fans
By Alex Strachan, Postmedia News
May 10, 2012

VANCOUVER — For a moment there, the inside joke in the American Masters’ documentary unit was that, in the words of series creator Susan Lacy, “Only on PBS could the King of Late Night be on at 10 in the morning.”

As it happens, the feature-length American Masters biography Johnny Carson: King of Late Night will premiere, if not in late night exactly, in the early hours of the evening, on May 14.

The earlier morning hour was for a press conference in Los Angeles earlier this year, where King of Late Night filmmaker Peter Jones, close Carson friend Angie Dickinson, stand-up comedian and TV host Drew Carey and Lacy herself met the press, to talk about the late-night legend nicknamed “America’s best guest.” It’s been said — though difficult to prove — Carson was seen by more people on more occasions than anyone else in American television history.

Carson was a listener, not a talker. That alone makes him a breed apart. If they were giants in those days, Carson was a quiet giant.

“In today’s fragmented media world,” Lacy said, “it’s hard to imagine how a single entertainer could become so much a part of everyone’s life.”

Leno, Letterman, Fallon, Ferguson, Kimmel, Conan — the list goes on. All of them are adept at what they do. Hardly any, though, can lay claim to the respect and lingering cultural cachet Carson commands to this day.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Carson taking over The Tonight Show from Jack Paar, and the 20th anniversary of his retirement.

It’s also the year that, according to Mayan prophecy, the world will end. Carson, who died in 2005, might have appreciated the irony.

Despite his affable, gregarious screen persona — Carson conducted an estimated 22,000 interviews during his 30 years on The Tonight Show — he was notoriously shy and protective of his private life off-camera.

Filmmaker Jones pursued Carson for 12 years, with a yearly letter asking the late-night legend’s permission to be the interviewee for once, instead of the interviewer. Carson always respectfully declined, Jones recalled.

“In 2002, he finally called me, actually called me,” Jones recalled. “I thought it was a joke. The PA said, ‘Peter, Johnny Carson on 601.’ He said, and I remember these words exactly, ‘Peter, it’s Johnny Carson. I want to tell you, you write a damn fine letter. But I’m not going to participate in anything on my life because, you know what? I don’t (have anything to say). One day something may get done, and you’re probably the guy to do it. But it will never happen while I’m alive. I’ve done everything I wanted to do. I’ve said anything I want to say. There is nothing more.’”

There was something more, though, Jones believed. Johnny Carson: King of Late Night is the result.

The program includes interviews with more than 40 of Carson’s friends, family and colleagues, including Carey, Dickinson, Dick Cavett, Doc Severinsen, Mel Brooks, Joan Rivers, Steve Martin, Garry Shandling, Carl Reiner and David Steinberg, among others, and is narrated by actor Kevin Spacey.

The program touches, too, on the elephant in the room — Carson’s turbulent, often difficult relationship with women over the years. He frequently joked, on-the-air, about his four wives.

“I think it traces back to his relationship with his mother, Ruth Carson,” Jones explained. “For his entire life, he tried to gain her approval, and her love. And she withheld it, no matter what he did.

“When he premiered on October 1st, 1962, hosting The Tonight Show, an interviewer asked Mrs. Carson what she thought. She said, ‘Well, I really liked Jack Paar. Johnny’s not as controversial.’

“His whole life, his relationship with women was defined, I think, by that principal relationship, or lack of relationship, he had with his mother. Because none of the marriages ever worked. It was one of his deepest regrets. They all genuinely loved him, and he loved them. But it was something that was just difficult for him to do, to be true to his wives. He did have an issue with philandering. It was something that he didn’t like about himself, but it was something he couldn’t help.”

Jones’s earlier films for PBS include an American Masters biography of old-school Hollywood mogul Sam Goldwyn and the Peabody-winning profile of Los Angeles’ Chandler family, a media dynasty, in Inventing LA: The Chandlers and Their Times. Carson proved a tough nut to crack, though, in part because he was so reclusive.

Eventually — and as the man himself predicted, only after Carson was no longer part of this world — the Carson estate made Jones’ film possible, granting Jones unfettered access to Carson’s personal and professional archives, including videotapes of episodes that survived from 1972 to Carson’s retirement in 1992. The first 10 years of The Tonight Show are lost to history, because the practice at NBC at the time was to erase videotapes and re-use them, as a cost-saving measure. When Carson learned of this, 10 years into his tenure on The Tonight Show, he began collecting the tapes for himself, Jones recalled.

Carey, for his part, noted the greatest moment of his career, early on, was when Carson called him over to the Tonight Show couch, following Carey’s Tonight Show debut as a stand-up comedian.

That almost never happened with comedian guests, Carey recalled.

“It was all based on your performance,” Carey said. “If he liked you a lot, he would wave you over. . . . I’m not even saying this as a joke but people talk about the feeling of the Holy Spirit going through you and your body changing, and you feel like something’s changed in your life forever. Being called over to the couch on the Johnny Carson show was the closest I ever came to that. That’s what it felt like going over there. I felt like I was in a dream the whole time. It was like being saved by Jesus, honestly.”

Being waved over to the couch was the ultimate honour for a struggling, unknown comedian.

“Very few got called,” Carey said. “And they all became really famous. Ellen DeGeneres — called over to the couch. Roseanne Barr — called over to the couch. I got called over. If you look at the people who got called over to the couch on their first Tonight Show appearance, they all became really famous. Jerry Seinfeld was one. It was crazy. It was like he had a knack: ‘This is the guy.’”

When Carson walked away at the end, he meant it.

“Some people said at the time, ‘Well, he’ll come back when he finds the right project,’” Jones recalled. “When he was done on that last show, though, he was really done. He didn’t need any more adulation. He was offered many awards, but only accepted a few. He didn’t cultivate a public image.

“He did make one appearance, on the David Letterman Show. He was on Letterman just the year after he retired. He didn’t say a word. He just walked out, delivered a Top 10 list, received a 90-second standing ovation, walked off the stage. And that was the last time he was seen on television.”

American Masters’ Johnny Carson: King of Late Night premieres Monday, May 14 on PBS at 9 ET/PT.

Johnny Carson’s final ‘Tonight Show’ monologue

Here is the monologue from Johnny Carson’s final The Tonight Show, May 22, 1992:

“Around the studio, we are still on an emotional high from last night; we have not come down yet. I want to thank Robin Williams and Bette Midler for last night, for giving us an excellent show. They were absolutely sensational.

“The show tonight is our farewell show; it’s going to be a little bit quieter. It’s not going to be a performance show. One of the questions people have been asking me, especially this last month, is, “What’s it like doing ‘The Tonight Show,’ and what does it mean to me?”

“Well, let me try to explain it. If I could magically, somehow, that tape you just saw, make it run backwards. I would like to do the whole thing over again. It’s been a hell of a lot of fun. As an entertainer, it has been the great experience of my life, and I cannot imagine finding something in television after I leave tonight that would give me as much joy and pleasure, and such a sense of exhilaration, as this show has given me. It’s just hard to explain.

“Now it’s a farewell show. There’s a certain sadness among the staff, a little melancholy. But look on the bright side: you won’t have to read or hear one more story about my leaving this show. The press coverage has been absolutely tremendous, and we are very grateful. But my God, the Soviet Union’s end did not get this kind of publicity. The press has been very decent and honest with me, and I thank them for that . . . That’s about it.

“The greatest accolade I think I received: G.E. named me “Employee of the Month.” And God knows that was a dream come true.

“I don’t like saying goodbye. Farewells are a little awkward, and I really thought about this — no joke — wouldn’t it be funny, instead of showing up tonight, putting on a rerun? NBC did not find that funny at all.

“Next question I get is what am I gonna do? Well, I have not really made any plans. But the events of this last week have helped me make a decision. I am going to join the cast of Murphy Brown, and become a surrogate father to that kid.

“During the run on the show there have been seven United States Presidents, and thankfully for comedy there have been eight Vice Presidents of the United States. Now I know I have made some jokes at the expense of Dan Quayle, but I really want to thank him tonight for making my final week so fruitful.”

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2 thoughts on “American Masters’ Johnny Carson: King of Late Night premieres Monday, May 14 on PBS at 9 ET/PT

  1. Thank you for this info! I LOVED Johnny Carson! His humor and wit always left me wanting more. Each time I’m crusing the 800 channels on cable (with nothing on) and I come across an infomercial with the collection of Johnny’s shows – with the clips form all of his guests & special performances – I’m hooked! I can’t stop watching while he’s on the tube.
    I have a big post-it note on my computer screen so that I don’t miss the show (and I will dvr the thing too!).
    Bless your pointed little head Mr D 😉
    ~J

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