Johnny Carson: 'King Of Late Night,' A Man Unknown This year marks the 50th anniversary of when Johnny Carson took over The Tonight Show. For 30 years, Carson reached a nightly audience 15 million people, but he was also intensely private. Guy Raz talks with Peter Jones, director of a documentary looking at the Carson's public and personal lives.
NPR logo

Johnny Carson: 'King Of Late Night,' A Man Unknown

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Johnny Carson: 'King Of Late Night,' A Man Unknown

Johnny Carson: 'King Of Late Night,' A Man Unknown

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


And if you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.


ED MCMAHON: And now, ladies and gentlemen, here's Johnny.

RAZ: Fifty years ago, Johnny Carson became the host of "The Tonight Show." And during his 30 years as host, he reached a nightly audience of 15 million people. He became one of the most trusted and famous men in America. But Carson was intensely private offscreen, and very few people, including members of his own family, really knew him.

Documentary filmmaker Peter Jones wanted to try and change that. And so once a year, for 15 years, Jones sent Johnny Carson a letter, begging him for permission to make a documentary on his life.

PETER JONES: (Reading) Dear Mr. Carson. My diary tells me it's been another year since my last attempt.

That's Peter Jones reading an excerpt from a letter dated January 10, 2003. Eight weeks after that letter was sent, Jones finally received a phone call from the man himself.

And he said: Peter, I admire your persistence and your style, but I'm not going to do anything because I don't give a S-H - fill in the blanks.

RAZ: Ah. Got you. Right. He did not want to cooperate with your desire to make a documentary about his life.

JONES: I think he had deep regrets, especially his personal life. He loved all the wives he was married to - there were four of them - and they genuinely loved him too. But he had deep regrets that that, you know, did not work out because he had this problem with philandering. And also, he deeply regretted his relationship to his three sons, or frankly, lack of relationship with his three sons.

RAZ: In the documentary you talk to, many, many people who worked with him - Doc Severinsen and his writers and people like Dick Cavett - and everyone, including, to some extent, one of his wives that you interviewed, his second wife, Joanne, they said you never really knew Johnny. You never got to really know him.

JONES: I think there was Johnny Carson that America saw, and then there was John William Carson that he kept to himself. Johnny Carson, he was most content playing in the autumn leaves, you know, in Nebraska or playing solitaire or playing the drums. He was really, you know, content to just be with himself. Johnny Carson did not really exist anywhere else but in front of the camera. Privately, he was John William Carson.

RAZ: Early on, a Time magazine reporter goes to Nebraska, interviews Johnny Carson's mom, watches the opening monologue with her, and she says: That wasn't very funny. Jack Paar was edgier when he did the show. And that really hurt Johnny Carson.

JONES: And it is not insignificant to note this was a cover story article in 1967. Johnny Carson had been on the show for five years as the host. He was on top of the world. And for his mother to make that comment, it devastated him. And after he read that, he broke down and cried.

RAZ: Peter, you interviewed many, many people who worked with Johnny Carson - writers and colleagues. You spoke to his second wife, Joanne, but you did not talk to any of his other wives or either of his surviving children. Why not?

JONES: I did talk off the record to two other wives, Joanna and Alex Carson. I did not talk to the boys. There was, and remains, a veil of secrecy surrounding Johnny Carson. They chose not to talk to me on the record because they felt they were honoring posthumously his wishes.

RAZ: I'm speaking with documentary filmmaker Peter Jones. His new film is called "Johnny Carson: King of Late Night." One of the things that he was able to do was to sort of be political and funny but not partisan.


JOHNNY CARSON: Tonight's monologue is dedicated to President Nixon. I've got a monologue that just won't quit.

RAZ: He really went after Nixon during the Watergate period. He went after Bill Clinton, too, but some of it was for winking and nod.


CARSON: Finally, some good political news. Bill Clinton has laryngitis, lost his voice.

RAZ: And yet nobody knew what his politics were.

JONES: That is true. He struck a remarkable balance. He made fun of Democrats, as well as Republicans. My hunch is that he would be a Democrat. But I know I can't, you know, confirm that. I know he was very close to the Reagans, to Ronald and Nancy Reagan, who admired him. She did not like the jokes.


CARSON: World War III was just declared. I'm just kidding, of course. Not really. I just wanted to get Reagan out of bed to watch the monologue.

JONES: She, as everyone knows, was very protective of her husband, and she would call and say, you know, that wasn't funny. But he nevertheless persisted because he was an equal opportunity offender.

RAZ: He was somebody who made careers. I mean, he would bring comics on and that was it. He gave you the thumbs-up, and you were made. He did that for Jerry Seinfeld and Ray Romano, and of course, Joan Rivers, who became a very close friend and then betrayed him.

JONES: Joan Rivers broke Johnny's heart in a way I don't think even any of the failed marriages did because this was someone he genuinely appreciated as a funny person but also really liked.


JOAN RIVERS: No. Well, my wedding night was a disaster. You know that.


RIVERS: A lot of men smoke after they make love. Edgar smoked during. Now, that...



RIVERS: He asked me for a light. Do you think that's nice?



RIVERS: I said: Get it yourself on the dashboard. What's the matter with you?

JONES: He felt so betrayed and brokenhearted when she called to tell him about her show well after he had found out about it.

RAZ: Her show on Fox.

JONES: Her show on Fox.

RAZ: And he had already found out about it through media leaks.

JONES: Yes. He found out about it, and when she called him, he hung up on her and famously never spoke to her again. And in the film, for the first time, she acknowledges: Perhaps I should have called him sooner.

RAZ: Peter, throughout his time on "The Tonight Show," and even before when he - in his previous role as a game show host, he worked with Ed McMahon. He actually hired Ed McMahon, and they were very tight, these guys. They would go out drinking and - but somewhere around the middle of "The Tonight Show's" run, that ended. And there was quite a bit of tension between them, right?

JONES: There was tension always between Johnny and Ed on "The Tonight Show" because Johnny felt that Ed was intruding on him and his jokes at times.


CARSON: My next guest doesn't really need an introduction...

MCMAHON: Your first guest.

CARSON: My what?

MCMAHON: Your first guest.

CARSON: What did I say?

ED MCMAHON: My next guest.

CARSON: Well, he is my next guest.

MCMAHON: Oh. He comes on to be your first guest.

CARSON: That's right. It's - could be the one, first and next.

MCMAHON: Which is it?

CARSON: He's my - actually, he's my first and next guest.

JONES: Ed would anticipate what Johnny was going to say, and would sometimes say it, and that would upset Johnny tremendously. And there were a few occasions where the producer of "The Tonight Show" warned Ed that he could go if he didn't stop taking some of the laughs from Johnny.

RAZ: But of course, Johnny needed Ed. And, of course, Ed needed Johnny. I mean, that was part of the brand.

JONES: Absolutely. It was, as David Letterman says in the film, it was Laurel and Hardy. You can't have one without the other.

RAZ: What was it that you learned while making this film that surprised you that you didn't know about Johnny Carson?

JONES: What surprised me was frankly how little we could find about his interior life. I think we find as much as anybody has to date. But what was remarkable to me was still how protective he was of this impenetrable part of his persona. I hope we suggest clues, but I don't know if we really got him.


CARSON: You people watching, I can only tell you that it has been an honor and a privilege to come into your homes all these years and entertain you. And I hope when I find something that I want to do and I think you will like and come back, that you'll be as gracious inviting me into your homes as you have been. I bid you a very heartfelt good night.

RAZ: Johnny Carson's farewell 20 years ago this month. Peter Jones' documentary is called "Johnny Carson: King of Late Night." It premiers tomorrow night on PBS stations across the country.


BETTE MIDLER: (Singing) We're drinking, my friend, to the end of a sweet episode. Make it one for my baby, and one more for the road.

RAZ: And for Sunday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Don't forget to download our podcast, the best of. It's called WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Find it on iTunes or at We're back on the radio next weekend with more news, personal stories, books and music. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great week.


MIDLER: (Singing) dreamy and sad. You could tell me a lot...

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.