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.