Johnny Carson: King of Late Night (2012) – A Review

Johnny Carson The Tonight Show
Johnny Carson: King of Late Night

PBS had aired an episode of their American Masters series in mid-2012 and this particular episode I really wanted to see. I was disappointed that I had inadvertently missed it. Finally a year and half later I managed to watch it on DVD.

As you can already tell by the title and the photo the documentary was about Johnny Carson. It explored his mid-Western upbringing, his showbiz climb, his personal life and of course him becoming one of the most famous faces in America and hosting one of the most popular programs in television history for thirty years.

It’s an interesting look at a performer who arrived when television was still in its infancy. The documentary recounts the step-by-step evolution of this young kid who was teaching himself magic in his room and struggling to get his foot into the door of the equally young television medium.

Before success came there were a lot of misses. It’s fascinating to see some of Carson’s early television appearances. I always think of Carson as this gray-haired, classy figure standing in front of that rainbow curtain. That’s how I used to watch him and always knew him as. When I see him as a young skinny, gawky man on these old black and white shows it’s as if I’m looking at another person.

His life’s turning point came as he was struggling with a showbiz career that was not leading to much. On top of which his removed personal demeanor was causing a strain between his then-wife and young sons difficult.

Then in 1962 the Tonight Show falls into his lap. We’re taken through the evolution of the show and the cool reception Carson first received after having replaced Jack Paar. See, even in those early days of television audiences were cynical of new casting.

I always find it an unforgivable crime that practically all of the first ten years of The Tonight Show, from 1962 to 1972 were erased by NBC. Ten years worth of one of the most popular television programs in history gone! What were they thinking? They really needed the storage space or were just to cheap to reuse the tapes??? Unreal.

As a result the early parts of the show are filled in by photos. There are a few small clips of Johnny in black and white during the first ten years of the show – of course we see the memorable tomahawk toss.

Early Carson

Of course eventually The Tonight Show took off, along with Carson’s career, along with a tumultuous relationships with an unimpressed mother and his neglected spouses.

The doc tries to balance those two aspects of Carson. A chorus line of performers recount what their Tonight Show appearances and Johnny meant to them. These young comedians getting the approval of Johnny was a turning point in their careers. Their stories are something I’ve heard before, but they’re always fun to listen to the admiration they have for that crucial moment in their lives when Johnny thought they delivered the goods.

I always wondered whatever happened to the comedians that bombed on the show and Johnny tried to get them off stage as fast as possible. Now that would have been something new to learn.

Carson’s personal life, which included his numerous marriages does get covered. The speculation of why they ended is left somewhat vague and there doesn’t seem to be one definitive reason. It seems Carson’s wives all suffered from either his adultery, his constant focus on the show or him just being emotionally removed – maybe a combination of all of them. His mothers rather frigid reaction to her sons success through the years is more revealing and heartbreaking.

Don Rickles, Frank Sinatra and Carson

But it’s his thirty year reign as the King of Late Night that I was most interested in. Carson’s cool relationship with network executives, the Joan Rivers fiasco and all the wannabe competitors that would try to dethrown the King towards the end. Then of course Carson’s final curtain call and his retreat into private life where he stayed until his death. Revisiting all of it brought back some memories.

Carson was a fascinating entertainer and I was always surprised that there hadn’t been such a comprehensive documentary about him before this. Or at least I hadn’t heard of it.

It’s a pretty comprehensive account of his life. He seems like an enigma now more than ever. And as its stated on the documentary narrated by Kevin Spacey the most we can really hope to learn about Carson himself is what he revealed to the country during those late night shows.

David Letterman and Carson

Watching all the old clips of The Tonight Show through the years with Carson chatting away with famous and non-famous figures made me really miss him.

 

Today there are countless copycat talk shows that appear to only be there to sell products and for the host to seize any opportunity to make tired jokes. There isn’t the excitement of seeing who would be Carson’s guests for the night. Gearing up for his monologue waiting to hear what he’d poke fun at.

Then there were his comedy sketches, with Carson playing a different range of characters, most famously Carnac the Magnificent. Some I liked better than others. But still there was that feeling that tuning into Carson was something special. And everyone was tuning into it to watch him!

In my mind there’s this artificial excitement of ‘Jimmy Fallon taking over the Tonight Show from Jay Leno’ and all that today. I honestly don’t know anyone who cares about that? Does anyone even watch late night network talk shows anymore? There’s these chorus line of talk shows that look like they’ve come off an assembly line, each one looking like the one that came before. I could care less about any of them.

Carson’s farewell

I don’t watch late night TV anymore, but when it sporadically happens I’ll watch some of Letterman. He’s another guy I grew up watching and even was able get tickets to some of his shows. That was a great late night programming of television – Carson followed by Letterman, and for awhile Bob Costas. NBC will never convince me that Leno was Carson’s true heir to the Tonight Show. Yeah right. Johnny’s Tonight Show is long, long gone, NBC is just using that name for this late night program today.

Don’t be fooled, it’s certainly not like the one from the old days.


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3 Responses

  1. Anonymous says:

    I stopped watching late night TV religiously after Carson retired. I confess that I sporadically watched Letterman for a few years but I haven't watched them since the 90's. Carson was a class act all the way and I miss him too. He never got into politics and always looked and acted inviting to his guests. Like he was a guest in their home. And ours.

  2. Capt Nemo says:

    Did they comment on Johnny's penchant for smoking?

    Actually, that sentence above is the understatement of Johnny's life. Johnny was so into smoking that he would keep a lit cigarette underneath the interview table (with a small fan to keep the embers hot). And he would take a few puff whenever the camera was not on him during the interview.

    People said that this habit of his is what led to his death.

    As for the man himself, he was one-of-a-kind. He became the stuff of TV legend and the world was a better place because of him.

    • Captain yes it definitely talks about his smoking, mostly during his final years. Some of the clips of the old shows it's interesting to see how he would keep his cigarette right out of the camera shot, but occasionally you'd catch a glimpse of the smoke wafting into the frame.

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