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20 Years After Carson Quit Late-Night TV, Heeeeere’s Johnny! – On PBS
May 13, 2012  | By David Bianculli  | 3 comments

Later this month, on May 22, it’ll be 20 years since Johnny Carson said farewell as the longest and greatest host of NBC’s Tonight Show. As an early salute, Monday’s American Masters on PBS presents a two-hour profile, and appreciation, of the Great Carsoni…

"The Great Carsoni" was the young Nebraskan’s stage name when he first began performing magic tricks as a youngster, channeling his urge to entertain through an on-stage persona that helped him overcome his shyness. In Johnny Carson: King of Late Night (9 p.m. ET; check local listings), filmmaker Peter Jones approaches his subject like the biographer in Citizen Kane, searching for the equivalent, and meaning, of Carson’s “Rosebud.”

It’s an interesting trick – and “trick” turns out to be the key, since Jones suggests, at the end, that Carson’s lifelong love of magic was what enabled him to be so accessible for decades on TV, as the perfect “Everyman” host, yet so mysterious and distant off camera. Just one more successful illusion from a master of misdirection.

That may be a little too pat, but one thing’s for sure. In King of Late Night, Jones has assembled a long, impressively thorough roster of interviewees, who all take a shot at explaining Carson’s appeal, talents and personality, and/or revealing how important Carson was to them and their careers.

You have to supply your own context for some of these remarks, but it’s easy to do. When David Letterman talks about owing Carson everything, you believe it. When Conan O’Brien talks about admiring Carson’s fights with network management, you understand it. But when Joan Rivers and Jay Leno offer their perspectives, Carson’s eventual distance from them speaks loudest of all.

Insights and memorable moments, though, come often, and often from surprising interview subjects. Drew Carey, in recalling his first time on the Tonight Show, is so moved by the memory he fights back tears. David Steinberg puts Carson’s clout and appeal in context by marveling that there were virtually no guests or topics that were unavailable to him: “He had the entire culture at his doorstep.”

Old show-biz pros such as Bob Newhart, Don Rickles, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner weigh in, and so do younger entertainers, from Jerry Seinfeld and Steve Martin to Garry Shandling and Jimmy Fallon. Some ex-wives offer perspective, as do some Carson biographers – and long-time Carson producer and friend Peter Lassally, normally camera-shy, is here, too, offering some of the most credible and revealing remarks of all.

This program doesn’t mention it, but Lassally is the guy who, on Carson’s penultimate Tonight Show appearance, instructed the director to place an additional camera on the set, to be able to catch a shot of Carson as he watched Bette Midler serenade him goodbye.

It’s one of the most powerful, poignant and indelible moments from Carson’s 30-year reign on Tonight, and, appropriately, closes this fine study.

King of Late Night is more impressive as a biography – especially regarding his early years in radio and TV, prior to getting the Tonight gig – than as a career overview. This isn’t a “Greatest Hits” compendium, by any means, but each clip selected is there for a reason – usually to explore another facet of Carson’s complex personal or professional life.

In the end, though, Carson remains somewhat mysterious. Like any really great magician, what he does can be seen from many different angles and perspectives – yet the central trick remains a secret.

Johnny Carson, the King of Late Night, is dead. Long live the King, because there never will be another like him.


[UPDATE: Monday on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross, I review this special, and conclude with a snippet of Midler's serenade of Carson. After about 5 p.m. Monday, you can see and hear the review HERE. - DB]

And for a limited time, you can see the entire film right here on TV Worth Watching:

Watch Johnny Carson: King of Late Night on PBS. See more from American Masters.

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David, you wrote some beautiful things about my film and I appreciate it very much. I loved your piece on Fresh Air, too. There is no way to capture fully the essence of someone as elusive as Johnny Carson but the attempt was the most rewarding experience of my career. Over and over, I've been hearing the same thing: we really miss him. How he touched so many lives yet remained maddeningly inscrutable still baffles me. I guess he really was a magician - we're not supposed to know how he did it, right?
May 18, 2012   |  Reply
Noel Holston
Sweet essay, Dave. And the program was as good as you indicated. We were only going to watch a few minutes. And then a few more. And then a few more. Just like old times. Deja view.
May 15, 2012   |  Reply
David Bianculli
Thanks, Noel! Good to see our tastes are back in alignment...
May 15, 2012
Bette Midler serenading Johnny Carson (I saw it that night), is one of the most touching tv moments ever. For a man who cherished his privacy, it was so surprising to see. Bette, as well as a legion of others, never forgot their "big break" of being on The Tonight Show, so it was very appropriate for her to render such a beautiful sendoff.
May 13, 2012   |  Reply
David Bianculli
To my mind, one of the most honest and unguarded TV moments ever.
May 15, 2012
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