This year marks the 50th anniversary of Johnny Carson’s reign as host of The Tonight Show, and the 20th since his retirement. His tenure as the King of Late Night was one which will likely never be approached by any of his would-be successors, and it is a little hard to believe that so much time has passed since he graced the airwaves. The excellent PBS series American Masters is premiering the two-hour Johnny Carson: King of Late Night on Monday, May 14, 2012. It is a show which should not be missed.
One of the most insightful comments comes early on from Jerry
Seinfeld. He recalls that among his fellow up-and-coming comic friends,
the subject of who would eventually replace Carson often came up.
Various names would be bandied around, but as Seinfeld puts it, “Nobody
realized that Carson was taking it with him.”
Indeed, as much as we may like Jay Leno, David Letterman, or even
Conan O’Brien, nobody comes close to the magic Johnny Carson delivered
night after night. What one notices again and again in the various clips
is just how effortlessly Carson made it all look. Of course, it was
anything but - yet somehow Johnny Carson pulled it off.
While Johnny Carson: King of Late Night is quite naturally a
celebration of his career, the show is balanced. The man had his share
of troubles, most notably in his personal relationships. There is a
heart-breaking story of a Time magazine writer who was working
on a Carson feature, and watched a show with Johnny’s mother. She
watched his monologue, then dismissed it as “Not very good,” and walked
out of the room. This type of behavior very likely contributed to his
own estrangement with his children.
Carson also had trouble staying married, as his three divorces
attest. Bob Newhart tells a story of being invited over to Johnny’s
house to visit just after his third divorce, as Johnny was feeling
particularly blue. The most devastating event of Carson’s life was the
death of his son Richard in 1991. As may be expected, and is confirmed
through various interviews, Johnny Carson was never really the same
The main focus of the program though is positive. With the stellar reputation American Masters
enjoys, they were able to interview nearly 50 people for the show.
There are a great number of funny anecdotes, and vintage footage of
first appearances from Seinfeld, Drew Carey, and others.
What I found especially illuminating is how Johnny Carson spent the
years after his retirement. He was never in the news, and turned down
all requests for appearances. Rather, he seemed to enjoy his retirement
thoroughly, and spent a great deal of time reading in the yard of his
This American Masters biography of Johnny Carson is the
best, and most informative one I have seen, and there have been a number
of them over the years. This one is well worth tuning into, and does an
outstanding job of presenting all sides of the television legend.