NEW YORK—Johnny Carson didn’t invent late night, whose all-encompassing darkness, according to Genesis, even predates TV by many millennia.
Nor did Carson invent late-night talk shows. He didn’t invent their desk-and-couch format or the monologue with which they typically begin, or the game of golf, which inspired the golf swing he stylishly mimed to finish his own monologue each night.
Carson didn’t invent the talk-show host’s sidekick, or the obligatory house band. Even many of his most popular comic characters were lifted brazenly from other performers, such as Jackie Gleason and Jonathan Winters.
So what set Carson apart? Why is he unrivaled by any other TV comedian or late-night star? What made him a trusted, enduring, influential and altogether likable presence unmatched by anyone in the history of the medium except, arguably, Walter Cronkite and Oprah Winfrey?
Finding out is the mission of “Johnny Carson: King of Late Night,” a two-hour “American Masters” portrait premiering Monday at 9 p.m. EDT on PBS (check local listings).
A few stats gathered for the film begin to tell the tale: With his debut as host of NBC’s “The Tonight Show” 50 years ago this October, until his exit on May 22, 1992, he was seen by more people on more occasions than anyone else in American history.
Carson reigned for nearly 30 years, hosting 4,531 episodes and receiving 23,000 guests. For most of his run, he had no competition, or none that mattered. His nightly viewership, averaging as much as 15 million, was more than the current audience of “Tonight” successor Jay Leno and CBS rival David Letterman combined.
But who was he? “King of Late Night” does a fine job of penetrating the familiar veneer of Carson, a preternaturally private man in spite of his vast, decades-spanning exposure.
He grew up in small-town Nebraska, the son of a father who worked at the local power company and an emotionally withholding mother whose approval he seems to have sought, fruitlessly, his entire life.
But as a boy, he discovered the way to win approval—at least from others—was by performing magic: “You can be the center of attention without being yourself,” he explains as an adult.
This led to showbiz as his chosen profession. And after college, he landed a job at an Omaha radio station, where, with the advent of TV soon after, he hosted a program on the infant medium. A 1950 film clip captures him at work, blinking and breathless behind his desk—much in contrast to the cool, unflappable on-air manner he would grow into, but with the boyish looks and robust, man’s voice he kept for a lifetime.
Soon he went to Los Angeles, where he hosted a sketch-comedy show on a local station. He scored a prime-time network show on CBS, but it flopped. Then, his career flaring out, he retreated to New York in 1957 to host a daytime quiz show for also-ran ABC.
During his five years on “Who Do You Trust?” he was able to establish himself as an attractive, quick-witted personality, while building bonds with his chosen sidekick, Ed McMahon, who, of course, would remain at his side for the rest of his career.
Hired to replace the departing Jack Paar on “The Tonight Show,” Carson made his first appearance on Oct. 1, 1962. No video exists of his debut, just an audio tape that finds him sounding cool and confident even as he jokes about his jitters.
“King of Late Night” follows Carson from there all the way to his retirement from the show (and, as it turned out, his total withdrawal from the public scene) in 1992, and his death, at age 79, in 2005.
Narrated by Kevin Spacey, “King of Late Night” is written, directed and produced by Emmy- and Peabody-winning filmmaker Peter Jones, who for years penned an annual letter to Carson seeking his cooperation in the creation of a documentary about him. Carson always declined, but after his death, Jones successfully approached Carson’s nephew, Jeff Sotzing, who controls his uncle’s archives.
From that vast trove comes many clips from “Tonight,” including classic moments such as Ed Ames’ misdirected hatchet throw and novelty singer Tiny Tim’s 1969 marriage to Miss Vickie, which drew 45 million viewers -- 85 percent of all television viewers. There are also home movies and personal photos.
The film hears from dozens of performers and colleagues, as well as from the second of Carson’s four wives, Joanne. All of them labor to explain him and his appeal.
“This is a guy who was as familiar as a bedtime story,” says Arsenio Hall in a pithy description of the man who put so many viewers to bed every night. Hall, whose syndicated show arrived in 1989 to become Carson’s only real threat, is lavish in his praise of Carson as an interviewer: “He had the perfect barometer in his head for when to go and when to stay out. He could save you if the show needed it, or he could let you do your thing.”
In addition, he was a superb stand-up comic, as the clips demonstrate.
He could dine out on silly, formulaic jokes: “It was hot today,” he would begin, to which the audience chorused, How hot was it? “So hot I saw a sparrow pick up his worm with a potholder.”
There were also jokes that zeroed in on current events, including this mid-1970s gem that, four decades later, seems as topical as ever: “President Ford is considering an income-tax cut for people in lower tax brackets. The bad news is, he still hasn’t figured how they can get an income.”
Meanwhile, he displayed a knack for miraculous recovery, somehow milking a misfired joke for its unfunniness and getting more laughs than if it had worked in the first place.
But ultimately, Carson’s popularity wasn’t based on his interview skills. Or his jokes.
“I don’t think anybody was watching Johnny Carson to rate how his material was,” says Conan O’Brien, himself briefly a “Tonight Show” host. “You liked him. You liked that man so much, and you went with him.”
America went with him for 30 years. Carson was the nation’s common touchstone, from the things he chose to joke about to the guests he received, validated and vaulted into prominence. Carson’s show ceased to be simply a matter of entertainment. It became the nation’s shared reality. The closest anyone has come to filling his role in the culture was Oprah Winfrey for the quarter-century she hosted her weekday talk show. Now, there is no one.
In the film, Carson emerges as a womanizer, a boozer and a distant father to his three sons. None of this will surprise those who recall him from his “Tonight Show” prime, but, however much those human frailties clashed with his broadcast persona, they never tripped him up in the eyes of his public. In Carson, viewers saw themselves and approved.
When Ed McMahon introduced him with “Heeere’s Johnny!” Carson strode through the curtain with his chest thrust out and his head reared back in a posture (or so the film suggests) of standoffishness. And yet his springy, on-the-ball, beaming mien always told the world otherwise.
Then he was gone (“I bid you a very heartfelt good night” were his last words). And now, for the audience too young to have seen him on “Tonight,” he exists only as the absent TV star whom the current crop of talk-show hosts can never replace (a deficiency they, above all, routinely acknowledge).
The void Carson left has resulted in fascination, to this day, with the subsequent players and upheaval on the late-night scene, even as its audience shrinks and the flurry of competing shows shaves that audience into fragments.
Meanwhile, a misconception persists that “Tonight” remains a sturdy institution, like the presidency, that is somehow larger than anyone who serves as its host.
Jerry Seinfeld begs to differ. When Carson left “The Tonight Show” behind, Seinfeld says, “that show never existed again. There never was a ‘Tonight Show.’ It was Carson.”
However one might wish otherwise, this is hard to dispute—which makes this “American Masters” not only a valuable portrait of Johnny Carson, but also a splendid eulogy for “Tonight.”