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Johnny Carson: The King of Late Night

(PBS; US DVD: 17 Jul 2012)

When I was a teenager, I preferred Letterman over Carson. At one point in high school, I set the VCR to record Letterman’s show every night and watched it after school. When I stayed up late, sometimes I watched a bit of Carson’s monologue and maybe a guest or two, but he didn’t connect with me the way Letterman did.


I was a senior in college when Carson did his final show. I don’t think I watched it, but I remember all the media buzz surrounding it, so I think seeing the highlights many times created a confused memory in my mind. Regardless, I recall not understanding all the fuss over him and not connecting with what he had accomplished.


Later in life, I came to appreciate Carson more, especially when I saw him as Letterman’s comedic forefather. I realized that liking Letterman without understanding Carson’s career was akin to enjoying Led Zeppelin’s music without experiencing John Lee Hooker, or watching the Star Wars movies without ever taking in a Kurosawa film. I then came to regret that I didn’t watch more of Carson’s show when I had the chance, especially when it was a prominent part of American culture.


That’s why I jumped at the opportunity to review this Blu-ray when it was offered. I didn’t want to miss out again. I wanted a chance to pay homage to Johnny’s career in my own way, by watching PBS’ Johnny Carson: King of Late Night and composing these thoughts.


Before watching this documentary, I knew enough about Carson’s life story to realize that much of what would be said about him would come from others, not him. I knew that he was a very private man who only revealed his inner workings through his TV show. As Steve Martin says in one of the interview outtakes, Carson joked one night that when publishers got wind of him possibly writing an autobiography, they rushed out to grab the rights to the title Cold and Aloof. (According to an article I read, director Peter Jones wrote to Carson every year for more than a decade, seeking his participation, before Carson finally called him and declined, explaining, “I don’t give a shit.”)


That reluctance to speak publicly about private affairs also seems to extend to his family, since only his second wife, Joanne, was interviewed for this documentary. It’s never mentioned if his surviving children (one of them died in 1991) and other ex-spouses were approached for interviews.


However, enough other folks agreed to interviews that a picture of the talk show host has emerged by the time the two-hour documentary concludes. It’s not a complete picture, of course, since such a thing is probably impossible with him; Carson likely took many secrets to the grave. Interviewees include: band leader Doc Severinsen and others involved with The Tonight Show; fellow talk show hosts Jay Leno, David Letterman, Jimmy Fallon, Joan Rivers, Dock Cavett, and Conan O’Brien; and comedians Jerry Seinfeld, Ray Romano, Mel Brooks, Drew Carey, Garry Shandling, Ellen DeGeneres, Steve Martin, and others. A Carson biographer also lends his thoughts.


King of Late Night takes us from Carson’s upbringing in Nebraska, during which he fell in love with magic and endured indifference from his cold mother, through his early successes and failures in TV and radio, before Jack Paar’s departure from The Tonight Show offered an opening that Carson actually turned down at first. NBC was then turned down by several others before returning to Carson, who said “Yes” the second time. After the usual growing pains, Carson soon made the show his own, and during the ‘70s and ‘80s, he became a TV icon.


Several interviewees mention the fact the Carson phenomenon was a unique one that will likely never be repeated again, thanks to our increasingly fragmented culture. At one time, “Did you see Carson last night?” was a common conversation question. Today, even someone as popular as Jon Stewart only attracts a fraction of the audience Carson commanded on a nightly basis. I forget who says this during the documentary, but one person notes that no matter how bad your day might have been, no matter what might be going on in your life at the moment, Carson would make you feel better about your situation and give you the strength to face the next day.


One of the things I’ve come to appreciate about Carson later in life is his ability to remain in complete control of every situation. A wild animal might pee on his head, a joke might bomb, a female guest might say something risqué—no matter what happened, Carson knew exactly the right way to respond: pause a few seconds to let the audience realize what was happening and then say “This isn’t water dripping down my head, is it?”; grab the microphone dangling overhead and say “Attention, Kmart shoppers”; reply with a sly double entendre of his own. He was always the consummate professional.


Carson was also a smart guy who understood the trends that had helped him rise to prominence, as well as the new trends that threatened to sweep him into irrelevance. One interviewee notes that Carson once warned about “the tabloidization of TV”, a dumbing-down that would spell doom for people like him. While that prediction has sadly come to pass, I can only hope that smart folks like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert can salvage some dignity for us when future generations look back at the early 21st century.


My only complaint about King of Late Night is a lack of information about his sons, except the one who passed away in a tragic accident. The documentary touches on Carson being a cold father, much like his mother was to him, but we don’t learn what his sons went on to do in life. Severinsen mentions that having a child die changed Carson forever, but he doesn’t say in what ways he changed.


That’s a minor quibble, however. Overall, this is an excellent documentary that gets as close to its subject as is possible, given Carson’s refusal to say much about his personal life to anyone, even his friends.


Unfortunately, this Blu-ray only contains a pair of bonus features: a behind-the-scenes look at narrator Kevin Spacey at work and several minutes of interview outtakes. The Spacey segment starts off slow, with some footage of him recording his lines, but then it delves into a nice reminiscence of his Tonight Show. The interview outtakes offer some interesting stories about Carson, along with Mel Brooks kvetching about being constantly approached to appear in documentaries about comedy, but it’s easy to see why they were clipped. I’m sure there was more interview material than what’s shown, and it’s a shame none of that was included too, given the copious amount of space that was left unused on this disc.


It’s also a shame that no other bonus features were included. There must have been something that could have been dug up and placed on this disc, unless rights issues prevented usage. For example, how about a complete episode or two from Carson’s early TV work, or a best-of collection of Tonight Show sketches and interviews?

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