Heeere's as Close as You'll Get to Johnny! 'Johnny Carson: King of Late Night'

King of Late Night offers a comprehensive look at the late-night talk show host's career, or at least as comprehensive as you'll get, given Johnny Carson's famous reluctance to speak about his private life.

Johnny Carson: The King of Late Night

Distributor: PBS
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Dick Cavett, Doc Severinsen, David Letterman, Jay Leno, Mel Brooks, Jerry Seinfeld, Ray Romano, Drew Carey, Garry Shandling, Steve Martin, Angie Dickinson, Ellen DeGeneres, Carl Reiner, Don Rickles, Bob Newhart,Joan Rivers, David Steinberg, Jimmy Fallon, Conan O’Brien
Network: PBS
Release date: 2012-07-17

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?


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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