For 30 years, Johnny Carson ruled as the undisputed leader in late night television. At his peak, he had four times the audience of what many of todayâ€™s late night talk show hosts draw on a given night.
Yet, 50 years after he began hosting “The Tonight Show” and 20 years since he vanished into retirement, little is known about one of the most watched personalities ever on television.
“Carson is the great American sphinx,” says Bill Zehme, nearing completion on a long-awaited biography. “He was on view like a monument, daily, nightly, there he was, Carson, right there before us. And what did we really know?”
Well, as announcer Ed McMahon would say: “Heeeere’s Johnny.”
Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Peter Jones attempts to put Carson the man and legend into perspective in his compelling and surprisingly moving American Masters special “Johnny Carson: King of Late Night” (Monday night at 9 p.m. ET on most PBS affiliates; check local listings).
The two hour documentary explores Carson’s early days learning magic tricks in rural Nebraska right up until his death from emphysema at 79 in 2005. In between are interviews from 45 colleagues, family members and performers, including current late night hosts David Letterman, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Fallon as well as comedians such as Jerry Seinfeld, Drew Carey and Garry Shandling. Carson bandleader Doc Severinsen shares some of the most penetrating insights. Only one of Carson’s four wives, and none of his children, appear on camera.
Along the way there is insight into Carson’s difficult relationships with women, beginning with his hard-to-please mother Ruth.
Jones also puts into perspective the enormous impact Carson had on North American audiences in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. As Letterman, the TV host who worshipped Carson and hoped to be his “Tonight” successor says: Carson and McMahon were role models for a generation.
“If you couldn’t figure out how to be an adult male in this country in those years, by watching those two guys,” says Letterman in the special, “you were hopeless.”
Yet, by the end of his remarkable run, Carson was being challenged by upstart late night rival Arsenio Hall and for the first time seemed a bit like your father’s talk show host. The point is made that timing was always one of Carson’s greatest gifts, including knowing when to quit.
Still, an entire generation has come of age that knows nothing of the Great Carnac, Aunt Blabby, or any Carson’s signature bits. Doc and Ed might as well be a reality show. My son, 19, only knows Carson as a reference on “The Simpsons.”
Yet Carson’s comedy style and influence is still being felt. Al Jean, “The Simpsons” longest-serving showrunner, got his showbiz start on Carsonâ€™s “Tonight.”
Jean was fresh out of Harvard when he spent one-and-a-half years in the “Tonight Show” writers room. Instead of the army of writers they have now on shows like Letterman and O’Brien, Carson’s staff usually only numbered about five.
Jean says he never really worked on the monologue, just on those “Might Carson Arts Players” sketches.
“In some ways it was a one-of-a-kind thrill â€” like meeting JFK or something,” he says.
There have always been reports that Carson was hard to read, a bit stand-offish. Carey says guests were asked after the show to wait behind a velvet rope. When Carson would leave for the day, he would pass by the roped off area, shake hands, grant a last minute “thanks” and be off.
Jean gives a similar view, suggesting he only met Carson three or four times over his tenure on the show.
“He was very polite but he was a very private guy,” says Jean. “I would meet other writers who worked for him in different eras and it was always the same story. There was a barrier there where you never really knew what the real him was like. People never even knew how he voted, for example. He was pretty good at not letting on.”
Where he was most giving and generous was right on the air. A wink and an “OK” sign from Carson was enough to make a career.
Carey, Letterman, Roseanne, Ellen DeGeneres, Jerry Seinfeld and Gary Shandling all talk about their first “Tonight Show” gigs as if they were a religious experience. Canadians such as Howie Mandel, Jim Carrey and especially impressionist Rich Little owe Carson for their careers.
Carey says he dreamt about his first shot the night before and it played out exactly that way, right down to the nod from Johnny at the end of his set.
“Drew Carey caught lightning in a bottle that night, he was fantastic,” remembers George Lopez, a former late night host who also aced his “Tonight” debut. “You felt like you were part of a brotherhood of the best comedians who ever worked.”
Leno, who followed Carson as NBC’s “Tonight Show” host, says appearing on other shows like “The Mike Douglas Show” or “Merv Griffin” was one thing, but “when Johnny gave you that thumbs up, that seal of approval, that was the deal.”
How Carson reacted to a comedian’s set was key, remembers Leno.
“There was a whole pecking order,” he says. “It was one of those deals where, ‘Did you do it with Johnny or a guest (host)? If you did it with Johnny, did he give you the thumb? Did he call you over? Did he shake your hand? Did he wave at you behind the curtain?’ There was all this minutia, this subculture, of where you would fit in on how your shot went.”
For the record, after his 1977 debut, Leno got waved over to the desk, shook Carson’s hand and also got The Wink. His career was made.
Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.