Johnny Carson: King of Late Night Television
The "American Masters" doc offers the requisite clips and anecdotes but is strongest when it explores the darker side of the man who defined late-night TV.
Filmmaker Peter Jones sent a letter to Johnny Carson every year for 15 years, seeking the late-night talk show host's cooperation in making a documentary of his life. Finally, Jones got a call out of the blue from Carson, who said, "You write a damn fine letter, Peter, but I don't have anything more to say."
That, as viewers will learn from the American Masters documentary Johnny Carson: King of Late Night, was typical of Carson. He wasn't exactly Garbo in his latter days, but he was damn close.
That might have something to do with the fact that Carson served as the gateway between audience and celebrity -- the ultimate host who threw the nightly party that every famous person wanted to attend and that 15 million people a night wanted to watch. In the process, he changed the role of late-night television and dominated it from beginning to end.
King of Late Night will air May 14, the 50th anniversary of Carson taking over The Tonight Show from Jack Paar and the 20th anniversary of Carson's retirement. The documentary is both enlightening and entertaining as it interviews scores of celebrities, friends, people who worked with him, an ex-wife, successors and NBC executives. It's a documentary that benefits greatly from the stories told by Carl Reiner, Bob Newhart, David Letterman, Mel Brooks, Steve Martin, Garry Shandling, Arsenio Hall, Joan Rivers, Conan O'Brien, Dick Cavett, Carl "Doc" Severinsen and Ed McMahon's daughter, among many others.
The parts that make up the portrait might not break any news -- people knew he was a loner, that he battled with alcohol, had four wives, was a philanderer, etc. -- but the whole packs a punch. It becomes clear that the fact that his mother, Ruth, gave her love and approval sparingly (some might say she didn't give it at all) drove him to become a magician -- The Great Carsoni -- then continued to fuel him as he dabbled in radio and then television, climbing with determination until he became so lovable to late-night audiences. It made him someone else, someone who didn't have to be John Carson, the kid from Nebraska who needed to be loved.
King of Late Night doesn't gloss over Carson's faults. He wasn't a happy drunk but a cantankerous one. He also had a difficult time getting close to people; the film suggests he often was unfaithful in his four marriages and estranged from his three sons because of his devotion to the job. One of his sons died in a 1991 auto accident, and the other two did not contribute to the film.
The documentary does just enough to cover Carson's bitter disappointment over Rivers accepting her own talk show on Fox (without telling him) and Jay Leno getting the Tonight Show hosting gig over Letterman -- who says of Carson, "He put me together as a person, honestly," with the emotion just palpable.
There are any number of funny moments in King of Late Night; the old clips alone are enough to get laughs. But its success rests in the darker side of Carson and the difficulties of the balancing act he tried to pull off: a powerful, humble star interviewing celebrities but not feeling comfortable as one of them. Almost unsaid in the two hours but clearly implied as nearly every current late-night host pays tribute to him: There won't be another one like Carson ever again.
Airdate 9 p.m. Monday, May 14 (PBS)