Johnny Carson hosted The Tonight Show for 30 years. During that time, he received six Emmy Awards, a Peabody Award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He died in 2005.
Johnny Carson walked away from The Tonight Show, after 30 years at the top of the late-night ratings, of his own volition. And except for a few fleeting TV appearances after he retired, he never looked back — and never went back. When filmmaker Peter Jones would send an annual letter to Carson, asking for his cooperation in a TV biography of him, the answer was always no. One year, Carson went so far as to explain why: Let the work, he said, speak for itself.
Fifty years ago, Johnny Carson became the host of The Tonight Show.
Fifty years ago, Johnny Carson became the host of The Tonight Show. NBC/Photofest/PBS
Well, after Carson's death, Jones contacted Carson's relatives — the ones entrusted with his video legacy — and eventually got their cooperation instead. He also interviewed just about everyone he could get, from comics and biographers to Carson's former producers and spouses, to paint as complete a portrait as he could.
The result, airing on American Masters on PBS, is called Johnny Carson: King of Late Night. It's impressively thorough in its research, and contains more than enough rare family photos and early TV clips to make it a valuable addition to the Carson canon.
But the funny thing is — funny, here, being a relative term — is that Carson, after all these years, comes out the victor. Even after two hours of everyone else talking about him, we don't really know the real Johnny Carson that well. And that, he made clear, was just the way he wanted it.
About the closest he comes to explaining himself is in a vintage Tonight Show clip, in which he's talking to celebrity interviewer Rona Barrett. She takes the opportunity to ask him questions — which, for a while, he answers with surprising honesty. But then, when she asks one too many questions and gets too close, he reaches for a punch line to change the subject and deflect the spotlight. Humor was his biggest gift — but also the most reliable weapon in his arsenal.
Filmmaker Peter Jones tries to get around the evasive nature of his subject by coming at him from another direction. Specifically, he borrows the structure of the classic Orson Welles movie Citizen Kane, hunting around for Johnny Carson's equivalent of "Rosebud" — the childhood secret that explains the man. Jones finds his Rosebud, too, and it's a pretty good one. But it doesn't quite carry the same force. In the movie, "Rosebud" was the famous media baron's very last word. Carson didn't provide even that tiny a clue, leaving those behind to attempt to do the explaining.
And it's quite a gathering of interviewees here, from Carson's peers, such as Don Rickles and Bob Newhart, to those whose Tonight Show exposure launched their careers, such as David Letterman and Jerry Seinfeld. Seinfeld, who ended his own show on his own terms years later, understands more than most what Carson really meant to late-night TV.
"For my entire career, I've heard comedians in bars debate, 'Who do you think is going to get the Tonight Show after Johnny leaves?' What nobody realized is that when [he] left, [he was] going to pack it up and take it with [him], which is what he did. Because that show never existed again," says Seinfeld. "There never was a Tonight Show. It was Carson."
Similarly significant insights are offered by Steve Martin and Carl Reiner, by David Steinberg and Mel Brooks, and by producer Peter Lassally, who knew Carson better than most — and who was responsible for capturing one of the best moments from Carson's 30-year reign. That was on the penultimate show, when Lassally ordered up an extra camera to capture Carson's reaction as Bette Midler sang him a special version of one of his favorite songs: "One for My Baby, and One More for the Road."
It wasn't the end of The Tonight Show — there was one more program to go — but it could have been. And maybe should have been. It's certainly the best way for me to end — after saying, for the record, that Johnny Carson was the last king of late night.