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TV Review: Johnny Carson: King of Late Night

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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 afterwards.

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 Malibu home.

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.

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About Greg Barbrick

  • http://cinemasentries.com/ El Bicho

    I caught a glimpse of this when they previewed it at the Winter TCA Upfronts. Glad to hear it’s as good as advertised.

    P.S. Who likes Jay?

  • http://jetsgayheadlinenews-jet.blogspot.com/ Jet Gardner

    Every once in a while Johnny would have to do commercial intros before his first guest came out.

    One night he looked over to the little side table and started snickering. Ed grinned and asked “What?”

    Johnny stared laughing and said, “No; I don’t dare.”

    Ed replied, “Why?”

    “Well for one thing, they’re sponsors.”

    Ed cracked up and said, “We’ve never had trouble getting other sponsers; have we?”

    Johnny shrugged and held up a very large “Stic-up” air freshner intended to be placed on the underside of an outdoor trash container lid, then he struggled to keep from laughing, looked right into the camera and said off the top of his head,

    “Ladies and Gentlemen, Shell products has finally come up with the perfect American product… It goes straight from the store and into your garbage can!”

  • Greg Barbrick

    Yeah Bicho – your comment about Jay is true, no doubt. I never watch him, no matter who’s on.

    As for your anecdote Jet, that is the perfect example of Johnny’s greatness. He was the best!

  • ghostwriter

    Carson was a wife-beating d-bag