“By the simple law of survival, Carson is the best. He is the Valium and the Nembutal of a nation. No matter what kind of dead-asses are on the show, he has to make them funny and exciting. He has no conceit. He does his work and he comes prepared. If he’s talking to an author, he has read the book. Even his rehearsed routines sound improvised.
He’s the cream of middle-class elegance, yet he’s not a mannequin. He has captivated the American bourgeoisie without ever offending the highbrows, and he has never said anything that wasn’t liberal or progressive. Every night, in front of millions of people, he has to do the ‘salto mortale’ (somersault). What’s more, he does it without a net. No rewrites. No retakes. The jokes must work tonight!”
- Billy Wilder
When Johnny Carson bid farewell to The Tonight Show on May 22, 1992 it wasn’t simply the marked retirement of a beloved pop icon, but the real end of an era; a spectacular run as the 20th century’s most revered, admired, and undeniably, treasured figures in the history of television. Certainly, nothing before or since has come to rival Carson’s legacy. As enjoyable as Jay Leno was, he pales to Carson; as do Letterman, Ferguson, Conan O’Brien and even Arsenio Hall; once viewed by NBC’s executive brain trust as a genuine threat to Carson’s supremacy. Carson quipped that to be hailed “the king of late night” was a bit much. “Prince” would have suited him better.
Indeed, Carson came to the microphone third best after both, Steve Allen (The Tonight Show’s original host from 1954–57) and Jack Paar (1957–62) decamped for other projects. NBC, however, was unwilling to retire the show. And so, Johnny – with his many failed attempts to break into television prior to striking it rich herein, and reigning supreme from 1962 to 1992 – finally found his niche on The Tonight Show. He hit his stride with a departure from the formula Jack Paar had helped to establish and cultivate. Where Paar conducted his hosting duties, often with severity and reverence for the movers and shakers appearing as his guests, Carson took the approach to finding the lighter side in everything. For Carson The Tonight Show wasn’t so much a mood piece or even his own political soap box as a way for his audience to simply relax and unwind from the ills of the world after a long, hard day.
Johnny once said that “at the heart of any joke there is sincerity and cruelness.” And yet, in reexamining the myriad of guests who appeared on The Tonight Show, one is hard pressed to find moments when Carson jibes became uncomfortable for a laugh. Instead, Carson is self-deprecating while poking holes in the balloons of hypocrisy. Considered something of a sex symbol in the late 1970’s, perhaps because most who partook of his good nature and pithy retorts during the show’s monologue did so from the comfort of their own bedrooms after the lights had already been turned out, Carson in life was far more circumspect than flirtatious – and occasionally frank – about his three failed marriages, though faithful as a birddog during each. In retrospect, it’s the contradictions in Johnny’s private life that continue to make him so fascinatingly complex.
By his own admission, Johnny really couldn’t handle his liquor. In fact, his Jekyll into Hyde transformations remain legendary. Asked by celebrated 60 Minutes co-host, Mike Wallace to explain the aegis for Carson’s humor about alcoholism, Johnny explained the difference between good humor – or rather, jokes done in the spirit of fun – as opposed to those made out of vitriol and spite – using the example of Wilbur Mills; a Democratic representative from Arkansas who had long been the brunt of many a Carson monologue, until Johnny discovered Mills was a serious alcoholic with emotional problems. When Wallace responded with “Takes one to know one”, Carson effectively withdrew into a charming chuckle, followed by an explanation – rather than a defense – of his own battles with the bottle. “I don’t handle it well…rather than a lot of people who become fun-loving and gregarious and love everybody, I would go the opposite. I like to keep certain things private. I probably put up a barrier until I get to know people.”
Debatably, recovering from his own habitual drinking made Johnny Carson a better host; one more accepting and mindful of other people’s foibles and personality quirks. It’s really no secret Carson’s monologues were all scripted. We’ve seen the cue cards, the pre-show prep; Carson – the consummate professional, cherry-picking one liners from a litany of writers, cribbing from the day’s events and twisting them to suit Johnny’s inimitable style. Sure, Johnny knew his way around a good gag. What remains unique about Carson is his ability to recover from a bad joke: also, his adlibs. Many a time a scripted gag laid an egg on The Tonight Show…but never Johnny. No one (and I mean no one) could think faster - or better - on their feet than Johnny Carson. When told by the reigning Mr. Universe his body was the ‘only home’ he’d ever have, Carson’s pithy retort “Yes…my home is pretty messy. But I have a woman who comes in twice a week” brought down the house.
Johnny’s humor greatly benefited from his impishly playful delivery; also, his unassumingly bookish good looks. When Dolly Parton, for example, chose to confide that her breasts were real, Johnny preempted the audience’s laughter by suggesting he’d give a year’s pay to take a peak under her dress. When Zsa Zsa Gabor arrived with a preening white feline across her lap, asking Carson if he’d like to ‘pet her pussy’, Johnny’s rebuttal, ‘Gladly – if you remove that damn cat’ sent NBC into a frenzy. It also caused one of the network’s top executives, Fred Silverman, to publicly chastise Carson for, among other things, being too risqué; also, for refusing to work Mondays and for taking ‘too much’ time off in between.
By virtue of his birth, Carson was a quiet Nebraskan who fairly craved parental acceptance – readily denied as much by his mother, who remained a remote figure, fairly critical of his life’s work. After Ruth Carson’s death it was discovered she had kept a memory box in her closet of virtually every story about her son’s many accomplishments. Clearly, Johnny was a source of pride. With regards to his four marriages, there is little to defend the fact Carson really never lived up to the illusion of his public persona; apparently more disarming when the cameras were on than he ever was behind closed doors. And Johnny’s aloofness equally put a genuine damper on his already strained relationship with three sons from his first marriage; Christopher, Cory and Richard. And yet, Carson was utterly destroyed upon learning middle child, Richard had died in a terrible car accident near Cayucos, California in 1991, even paying homage to Richard’s photographic work as part of the show. There is, of course, that certain generation of men who found it difficult – nee, impossible – to express and share their emotions. And Johnny was, to be sure, a very private man. But Carson doted on his boys in other ways; most notably, financially; affording each of them a comfortable – if, decidedly not lavish – lifestyle at his own expense.
At the height of his fame and popularity, Carson also established the John W. Carson Foundation, dedicated to supporting children, education and health services. He was immensely philanthropic in other ways too; a $5.3 million endowment to the University of Nebraska’s fine arts program, with $5 million more paid out upon the reading of his will, and another $1 million used to create the Johnny Carson Opportunity Scholarship Fund. Johnny’s hometown of Norfolk also benefited from the Carson Cancer Center, the Elkhorn Valley Museum and the Johnny Carson Theater. Finally, in 2010, it was revealed Carson had been quietly squirrelling away $156 million from personal investments to augment his foundation’s charitable works; making the Carson Foundation the largest Hollywood charity of its kind.
By now, Carson had become a media institution, responding to his detractors with the threat of quitting at the height of his popularity; a move, David Brinkley equated to George Washington asking to be removed from the American one dollar bill. Mercifully, it never happened, although Carson would remain critical of NBC for the rest of their contentious alliance, often with subtle jabs made during his monologue – as when telling the audience in honor of his birthday NBC gave him the day ‘on’; or more directly, when asked by Ed McMahon what his life’s goal was, Johnny responded with “…to be a good person, a worthy citizen, and to rip NBC off for everything they’ve got!”
While the mood on The Tonight Show always seemed convivial to downright boisterous – even the embarrassing moments (as in the one and only time sidekick, Ed McMahon infamously turned up drunk and emotional, forcing Carson to play tender nursemaid to his bruised feelings while the audience gasped and roared in tandem) the reality was perhaps far more telling of Carson’s own private uncomfortableness in his own skin. On occasion this insecurity would overwhelm his public persona. But it also created something of an invisible wall of defense between Johnny and his guests. The New Yorker’s Kenneth Tynan put it thus: “The other talk shows in which I have taken part were all saunas by comparison with Carson’s. Merv Griffin is the most disarming of ego strokers; Mike Douglas runs him a close second in the ingratiation stakes; and Dick Cavett creates the illusion that he is your guest, enjoying a slightly subversive private chat. Carson, on the other hand, operates on a level of high, freewheeling, centrifugal banter that is well above the snow line. Which is not to say that he is hostile. Carson treats you with deference and genuine curiosity. But the air is chill; you are definitely on probation.”
Carson was, of course, working with the most extraordinary talents of our time; borrowing from a nearly inexhaustible pool of Hollywood alumni that included such favorites as Bette Davis, James Stewart and Doris Day, while also bringing out contemporary favorites like Michael Landon, Bette Midler, Rodney Dangerfield, Don Rickles and Robin Williams. Carson also introduced more up and comers on The Tonight Show than perhaps even Ed Sullivan; his legacy as a star maker witnessed in the meteoric rise of such beloved comedians as Brett Butler, Ellen DeGeneres, Leno and Letterman. But, like the hand of God, Carson’s own benevolence could also swing the other way; as when frequent Tonight Show sub-in, Joan Rivers elected not to tell Johnny until the eleventh hour that her option had been picked up by CBS for a show of her own. The wound inflicted by what Carson regarded as a complete betrayal, ultimately ended their lifelong friendship. The pair never spoke again.
All of this fertile history – and much, much more – is readily on display in American Masters tribute to the man and his legacy: Johnny Carson – The King of Late Night (2012). At just under 2 hours, produced by Emmy-winning filmmaker Peter Jones and narrated with great sincerity by Kevin Spacey, this affecting and informative biography is as intriguing as the man of the hour. Chocked full of snippets from The Tonight Show, and a myriad of reflections from Johnny’s friends (including Steve Martin, Dick Cavett, Letterman, Joan Rivers, Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, Bob Newhart and many others), Johnny Carson – The King of Late Night is required viewing for anyone who wants to remember Carson in his prime and bask in the afterglow of one of the greatest all-around entertainers of his – or any other – generation. Clearly, the project was a labor of love for Jones, who had engaged Carson for fifteen years with an annual letter extoling his passion to do a biography. While cordial (Carson presumably told Jones “You write a damn fine letter…but I don’t have anything more to say”), Johnny remained disinterested in the project. Following Carson’s death in 2005, Jones pursued the matter through Carson’s nephew, Jeff Sotzing; the president of Carson Entertainment Group.
Watching Johnny Carson – The King of Late Night is like visiting an old friend not seen in far too many years, catching up on the past, living vicariously through the ‘good ole days’ and coming away from the experience with that warm – yet strangely sad – and far-away tear caught in the eye; perhaps in the realization the times have moved on; that what once was, can never be again. Jones’ documentary has done more than pay homage to Johnny Carson, the man, the entertainer and the legend. It has resurrected a sumptuous memoir (a valentine, actually) to the golden age of Johnny Carson’s America. Here is a potpourri of moments sure to make us smile; Sotzing’s complicity in the endeavor allowing Jones (and by extension, the rest of us) an unprecedented backstage pass into Johnny’s world. Perhaps, Carson would have hated this; his penchant for privacy superseding any perceived entertainment value from the exercise. And yet, entertainment is exactly what’s to be had herein; with a capital ‘E’ and not just for ‘effort’ either.
Owing to a bitter and ongoing feud Carson had with NBC for most of their tempestuous alliance (Johnny even threatened to walk off The Tonight Show, buying back the rights to all his archived episodes after NBC admittedly ‘lost’ several early seasons) The Tonight Show: starring Johnny Carson remains diligently mothballed in an underground vault in Kansas – roughly 3,500 hours, since digitized and made available as an online pay-per-view. What remains fairly perplexing is just how little of The Tonight Show has been released to home video in all these many years since Johnny’s passing. Only a few heavily truncated offerings, featuring little more than selected sound bytes from Johnny’s tenure, many poorly mastered at that, have surfaced on DVD, with ‘Tonight’: Four Decades of The Tonight Show – starring Johnny Carson being the biggest transgressor. Will we ever see The Tonight Show justly anthologized as complete and unedited whole seasons on Blu-ray? Hmmmm.
Debatable, since Carson Entertainment Group seems wholly disinterested in the prospect. The various DVDs currently in print are but wan ghost flowers of The Tonight Show in its prime; excising virtually all of Doc Severinsen’s orchestral performances. We also have yet to see any of Bette Davis’ memorable appearances on ANY of these DVD sets. The Vault Series presently being circulated as ‘complete’ episodes are actually slightly altered from their original broadcast length. Hence, the first real competent assessment of Johnny Carson’s legacy remains this American Masters bio. It too may not be comprehensive – but it is by far the most heartfelt and legitimate attempt to critique, understand, and ultimately celebrate Johnny Carson as the national treasure he so obviously was, is and will always be.
Prepare to be royally entertained. PBS’s Blu-ray is presented in 1.78:1 with most of the vintage Carson clips retaining their 1.33:1 framing. The home movie footage, as well as stills are all reframed and the newly instated interview footage is, of course, formatted for widescreen presentation. Arguably, you’re not watching reruns of The Tonight Show for their video quality, and yet there is some remarkable effort put forth herein to bring these vintage materials into line with modern expectations for audio/video clarity. Bottom line: you won’t be disappointed by this disc. While some inevitable image ‘banding’ remains the overall BD retains a brightly graphic quality; the older footage looking remarkably clean and free of distracting age-related artifacts. Wow and thank you!
The image is both colorful and detailed, revealing – at times – a startling amount of information in clothing, hair, etc. with video noise kept to a bare minimum. Hence, this is Johnny Carson as we’d like to remember him: the undisputed king of late night in a princely presentation on home video. The 2.0 Dolby Digital sound mix is, of course, largely at the mercy of vintage materials. The newly recorded interviews, as well as Kevin Spacey’s narration are all frontally placed, presumably to keep their fidelity in check with the vintage clips; no jarring jumps from the show’s original mono to stereo surround.
Parting thoughts are rather obvious but worth mentioning. While Carson Entertainment continues to sit on a goldmine, the legacy of Johnny Carson comes across loud and clear in Peter Jones’ exquisite biography. Johnny Carson was more than a late night talk show host. He was a legend in his own time – one that continues to ripen with age and is still primed for the podium. In reflecting on his career, Carson remained perfectly balanced on that tightrope between introspective humility and glib repartee, beginning with “The first week after I leave the show, could you all line up in front of my house for a couple of hours? Then come in, I'll sit at a desk, and we can talk” before concluding his formidable reign with a faintly sad epitaph, “If I could magically do it all over again, I would. I bid you all a very heartfelt goodnight.”
One fact is irrefutable: there will never be another Johnny Carson. As good as Leno and presently, Jimmy Fallon are, either from a lack of good material or even more astutely observed – the absence of those truly inimitable Hollywood icons who once shared the stage with Johnny - they’ve paled by comparison. It isn’t entirely their fault. For Johnny Carson gave aspiring late night television talk show hosts an act virtually impossible to follow. Heeeeeeeere’s (to) Johnny!
Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)